To a sizable percentage of football fans, the fun-but-flawed incurious quarterback Tim Tebow comes about as close to a Warrior Prophet as the game has ever seen.
Of course it doesn't matter that there’s a scatter-armed, frankly thumbheaded quarterback employed by one of the lesser teams in one of the NFL's punchbowl-turdiest division. And of course that quarterback leading his terrible team to a chock full o' flubs win over an even worse NFL team doesn't matter. It's important to remember all this when considering the thumbhead in question. His name is Tim Tebow, and he is an fun-but-flawed quarterback, a beefily incurious vacancy of a human even by 24-year-old white evangelical standards, and—to a shockingly sizable percentage of America's football fans—about as close to a Warrior Prophet as the game has ever seen.
The guy at the center of this doof-maelstrom, like most elite athletes, barely seems like a person at all. Tebow was home-schooled in a casually and unstintingly batshit (that is, prototypically Floridian) environment of ultra-evangelical Christianity; he lived with his minister father and minister's-wife mother through his years at the University of Florida, spending his summers circumcising poor Filipinos with his father's ministry. At Florida, as the quarterback for some great Gators teams, Tebow broke a bunch of records, was taken way too seriously by mis-oriented adults in the classic college football fashion, and generally redefined the concept of the athlete as empty vessel.
The things that made Tebow an icon to the religious right—wearing famous bible quotes on his person during games; answering honestly when creeps asked him if he was a virgin; eschewing the Sunshine State's signature rampant meth-toothed lawlessness in favor of tall-glass-of-milk flavorlessness—were all, tellingly, the sort of things that were stuck onto or coaxed out of or refracted off his non-stop glossy dullness. Much has been inferred from or projected upon Tebow, but he himself has never offered much more than an entertainingly Hulk-smash approach on the football field and less-than-illuminating Hulk-smash react-quotes off of it. Throughout his ascent to secular sainthood, Tebow has generally seemed less like a muscled-up Jesus Christ than a thick-necked Chauncey Gardiner, retaining a general, genial dimness
That the din around Tebow has gotten louder and dumber since he joined the NFL shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the NFL, which breaks its own louder/dumber records every week. Tebow himself has remained pretty much the same—fun to watch, if an infinitely more effective runner than passer; an ultra-anodyne postgame quote; someone regularly praised by sports columnists as a Competitor With The Heart Of A Lion, as if the same thing couldn't be said of every other pathologically competitive ex-deity stuck toting a clipboard on an NFL sideline.
Even before he led the Broncos to a win against the winless, hapless Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Tebow was occupying 25 minutes of every programming hour on ESPN and the cover of ESPN The Magazine. The cover story is headlined “Tebow 10:23” and contains more teasingly mis-contextualized nu-Christian semaphore than a dozen Rick Perry speeches. “All of it is enough to make you believe there's something larger at work here, something otherworldly and ethereal, something you can't name but still know,” Tim Keown writes at the conclusion. He’s writing about Tebow leading an unsuccessful comeback against the San Diego Chargers. Womp womp.
So, yeah: all this is pretty dumb, and has little to do with Tim Tebow the entertaining but quite possibly sub-average quarterback. Tebow is a proxy in another argument entirely, one that's bigger and sillier even than the debate over who should quarterback a last-place team in a lousy division. When football people critique Tebow, it's for football things; when his fans defend him, it's from something else entirely.
Football people sound like smug pseudo-scientists when they criticize him, but they always sound like that. When Tebow's legion of teary, touchy fans rush to his defense, however, they are rebutting something that seems more or less imaginary—the “outrageous attacks” of hate-filled seculars who hate what Tebow “stands for.” For football conservatives who criticize Tebow and his hideous throwing motion, he's an aesthetic outlier in a dumb, grunty sport ruled by a cookie-cutter; for social conservatives, he's another excuse to lash out against the distant hordes of urban sodomites who dare to call them on their under-reasoned parochialisms and proud small-mindedness. Both sides are ridiculous. Which just leaves Tebow in the middle, grinning with what's either saintly agape or dim-jock bafflement. It's impossible to tell which. If there's a point to all this, that's probably it.
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