As Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos get set to play the Pittsburgh Steelers later today, I’m cited in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing why Tebow has gotten so much attention:
The faith of most players and coaches doesn’t get the attention that Mr. Tebow’s has, however. What is it about him that has drawn so much attention and controversy?
One thing may be how visible Mr. Tebow is, said Brian Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical school in Illinois. His practice of singing gospel songs while on the sidelines, taking a knee in prayer at the conclusion of the game, thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews and telling reporters “God bless,” before leaving all are hard to ignore.
“I think that ties to his outspokenness,” Mr. Miller said. “Any time someone talks about religion that strongly, people will react strongly.”
By contrast, players like Mr. Polamalu are quieter in the way they signal their faith or discuss it.
“When he crosses himself, he isn’t really talking to anybody, he’s not necessarily on camera,” said Mr. Miller.
The concept of “civil religion” helps explain the reaction to Mr. Tebow, Mr. Miller said. Civil religion is a term used in the sociology of religion field, he said, in which “you can invoke God sort of vaguely in American life” without spurring many objections. Examples would be a politician saying “God bless America” at the end of the speech or the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But “when you get to specifics, like mentioning Jesus,” you have crossed a boundary from the socially acceptable “generic Christian culture” and into the realm where people become uncomfortable, or angry, Mr. Miller said.
Here are several additional thoughts about why Tebow has gotten so much attention:
1. Tebow is a young player and no one quite knows what to make of him: is he legit NFL quarterback? Can he win consistently? Can he replicate or even come close to the success he had in college at Florida? Do the Denver Broncos even want him to start next year or two years down the road? I would guess that since he is young and unproven, other players and some fans might take offense at his outspokenness because he hasn’t earned the right to do this yet. The social norms in professional sports are that younger players have to earn respect. He is not the first to be outspoken about his faith: Kurt Warner said some similar things and yet, while people did complain about him as well, Warner was a Super Bowl MVP and Super Bowl winner.
2. He is the star of the moment. Sports today are driven by stars and in particularly by quarterbacks in the NFL. Since Tebow was winning at one point, he got a lot of attention just as any new quarterback might. The fact that ESPN wanted to dedicate an entire Sportscenter to him says something about Tebow but also indicative of how sports journalism works these days.
Put it all together and it is a perfect storm of sports celebrity. And depending on the outcome of today’s game, the Tebow craze will either intensify (meaning the Broncos win) or slowly fade away (as other teams get more attention moving forward in the playoffs).