Tim Tebow's gridiron faith sparks praise, comedic bits and criticism

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He writes Scripture under his eyes. He quotes Proverbs in pregame pep talks. He thanks God at every opportunity.

Tim Tebow is a Christian first. A quarterback somewhere after that.

But in the course of leading the Denver Broncos from a losing record to a home playoff game today, Mr. Tebow became a polarizing figure to some football fans, in part because of his outspoken religious beliefs and profession of his evangelical faith. He's been admired and praised as an exemplary role model, but also mocked and pilloried for his words and actions.

His last name became a verb: To "Tebow" means to take a knee in prayer regardless of what is going on around you.

"Saturday Night Live" recently aired a sketch with the premise that Mr. Tebow cares more about Jesus Christ than Christ cares for him.

He's been criticized for bringing his religious views into the sporting arena. But he has been cheered for the same reason.

His was the second best-selling NFL jersey of 2011, according to CNBC, outselling everyone but Packers quarterback and MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers. He was the third highest vote-getting AFC quarterback for the Pro Bowl, though his statistics suggest he should not have been that close.

And God is not confined to Mr. Tebow's gridiron. The Almighty is prevalent in the locker rooms and playing fields of many teams, including the Steelers.

Safety Troy Polamalu, a devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church, crosses himself numerous times throughout games and keeps select religious texts in his locker. Safety Ryan Clark said he prayed to God whether he should play in Denver, where the high altitude could cause serious injury because of his sickle cell trait. Wide receiver Antonio Brown begins each day with a similar tweet, "Chest Up, Eyes Up, Prayed Up."

Some in the Steelers' locker room are encouraged by Mr. Tebow's public displays of faith.

"There are things that are more important than football," said punter Daniel Sepulveda, who is on injured reserve. "And you hear Coach [Mike] Tomlin say the same kind of things when he says, 'This is what we do, this is not who we are.' That's an acknowledgement that there are things far more important in this life and in this world than winning football games.

"Tim clearly has his priorities aligned in that way. I certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for him."

Many pro and college players speak of their faith, pray or cross themselves during games, and pursue charitable or mission work off the field.

Public and private high school teams alike share a pregame prayer before leaving the locker room for the field. The Constitution protects student-led prayer at public schools, though coaches often lead prayers, too.

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.

Others see Mr. Tebow as courageous and a representative of what faithful Christians should do.

"If you believe in God, if you believe in Christ, and you want to show it, that's what you're supposed to do," Mr. Clark said. "I think sometimes people criticize what they don't understand. I think he takes a little bit of negative criticism that's unwarranted. Also, I think sometimes they make it like he's the only Christian in the NFL. And that's not right, either."

A University of Pittsburgh religion professor said that it's what Mr. Tebow says, as well as his style, that attracts criticism.

"I would first point out that if God exists, it seems unlikely that she spends her time worrying about the results of football games," said Paula M. Kane, Marous Chair of Catholic Studies at Pitt, in an email response to questions.

She said that Mr. Tebow "represents a certain tendency among American Christians to adopt or opt for that kind of evangelical model of being highly (some would say obsessively) focused upon Jesus and imagining that only those who embrace his style of Christianity are true members of the faith" and who "see others as prospective converts because they are somehow defective."

Mr. Tebow said he is not trying to make a grand statement with his words and actions; he simply wants to be a good Christian.

"I'm just somebody that has a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if they view that in me, then that would be a huge honor," Mr. Tebow said. "Hopefully they just see someone that loves other people, loves what he does, tries to get better every day and tries to be someone that goes out there and makes other peoples' lives a little better."

Often, he said, his religious expressions are as much for him as they are other people, to "humble myself and continually tell myself who I'm putting as No. 1 in my life."

But his religious expressions are often directed at others, and he has been criticized for injecting religion into a game by those who say that's inappropriate.

Mr. Tebow said he views his position as a platform to share his faith.

"It's an opportunity to share my faith, and it's an opportunity to let people know that I'm a follower of Christ and that my relationship with him is the most important thing in my life," he said. "When I can take that opportunity, I always try to."

The Heisman Trophy winner was just as emphatic about his beliefs while playing college at the University of Florida, and it was never an issue on the team, said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, Mr. Tebow's college teammate.

"I don't see why it's an issue now," Mr. Pouncey said. "It's a good thing that he has that religion."

Much of the controversy over Mr. Tebow comes from the media attention he receives. But Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who said he drew closer to his faith in the wake of two sexual assault allegations, said his counterpart is not responsible for the actions of the media.

"I don't think Tim calls up ESPN and says, 'Hey, put me on every day and make it the Steelers vs. Tebow,' " Mr. Roethlisberger said. "It's probably tough for him to deal with all of that."

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1722 or on Twitter @msanserino. First Published January 8, 2012 5:00 AM


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