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On a brisk Thursday evening in mid-November, I sat high in the stands at a Denver Broncos home game, covering the ears of my 4-year-old son as the fans around us launched f-bombs at Tim Tebow, the Broncos’ struggling second-year quarterback. Mr. Tebow was ineffective and off-target for most of the game, and one of his more voluble and obnoxious critics was standing right in front of us.
And so it was. In the waning moments against the New York Jets, Mr. Tebow manufactured a 95-yard game-winning drive, punctuated by his own 20-yard touchdown dash. He brought the Broncos back from imminent defeat, just as he had done in previous weeks against the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.
And when the shouting was over, Mr. Tebow did what he always does—he pointed skyward and took a knee in prayer. In postgame interviews, the young quarterback often starts by saying, “First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and ends with “God bless.” He stresses that football is just a game and that God doesn’t care who wins or loses.
This combination of candid piety and improbable success on the field has made Mr. Tebow the most-discussed phenomenon of the National Football League season. Most expert analysts still consider him poor material for a pro quarterback. An inexperienced passer with awkward throwing mechanics and the build of a fullback, he likes to run over defensive players, which is a no-no in the NFL, whose starting quarterbacks are expensive and hard to come by.
But onward he and the Broncos have marched, winning six of their last seven games and now tied for the lead in their division as they face the Chicago Bears this Sunday. Mr. Tebow continues to defy his critics—and to embody the anxieties over religion that are dividing today’s sports world and embroiling players and fans alike.
Sports culture is among the most fervently religious sectors of American life. If you turn on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” almost any night, you will see baseball players who point to heaven after a clutch hit and basketball players like the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard, who once intimated that a playoff series victory against the Boston Celtics was proof of God’s presence with his team.
These claims by athletes—”God helped me do that” or “I thank God that I was able to do that”—are so commonplace that they usually draw little notice. Most sports fans seem to think that such religious talk doesn’t really affect how the games are played or credit it with a powerful placebo effect. So what if Adrian Gonzalez of the Boston Red Sox has a Bible verse inscribed on his bat? Fine—whatever helps him to hit the long ball.
But Mr. Tebow has never been content to leave his evangelical faith on the field. Well before he became the starting quarterback for Denver, he was a lightning rod in America’s intermittent culture war of believers vs. secularists.
In 2010, while still at the University of Florida (where he won the Heisman Trophy and helped the Gators to win two national championships), Mr. Tebow filmed a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, the mega-ministry known for its conservative political advocacy. The ad is about how Mr. Tebow’s mother was advised to abort her son following a placental abruption, but she refused and, well, now we have Tim Tebow.
The ad takes the softest possible approach to the subject and never uses the terms “abortion” or “pro-life,” but its intent was clear, and it generated controversy. Since then, feelings about Mr. Tebow have been a litmus test of political and social identity. If you think he’s destined to be a winner, you must be a naive evangelical. If you question his long-term chances as an NFL quarterback, you must hate people who love Jesus.
The intertwining of religion and sports is nothing new in American culture. Both basketball and volleyball were invented by men involved with chapters of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Massachusetts. Or consider the pioneering college coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), who created the batting cage in baseball, five-man teams for basketball and several of the standard aspects of football, from the man in motion, lateral pass and Statue of Liberty play to helmets, tackling dummies and names on uniforms. source – WSJ
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