Tim Tebow broke Southeastern Conference (SEC) football records held by the greatest players in the greatest conference. Names like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, who live among football royalty. Tebow won SEC and national championships with the Florida Gators, along with garnering accolades for himself in the form of the Heisman Trophy. However, the loud clapping, the ‘Gator Bait’ chants performed at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and the thousands of fans rising to cheer on the Gators become irrelevant simply by mentioning religion or Christianity when discussing Tim Tebow.
As seen in the Super Bowl ad featuring his mother and the story of Tim’s near abortion, Tebow was deeply molded by religion and based his identity in his faith. For a nation whose Pledge of Allegiance uses religious rhetoric, why is it so bad that Tebow kneels to give thanks via prayer or writes biblical scriptures on his eye black which is seen on national television? When and why did religion become a bad thing for athletes to promote?
One possible answer to explain this phenomenon is the shift in religious culture in the United States, particularly from the 1960s to present day. In their book Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Nick Watson and Andrew Parker analyze the role of religion in sport. The combination of religion and sport “force us to confront and then eventually embrace and reconcile opposites. They give us an experiential vantage point from which to see that opposites are, well, not really opposites.” (Watson and Parker, 283). Contextually, this provides a framework for analyzing the role of religion in football.
Beginning his Dallas Cowboys coaching career in the 1960s, coach Tom Landry became a focal point of the NFL due to his calm demeanor, but also for his religious stances when questioned by the media. Prior to 1958, Tom Landry was so focused on football that he claimed to “confuse it with life itself.” (People, 1977). However, after some convincing from a friend in 1958, he realized that there was a life beyond football. Landry criticized other coaches about football being their “life and death” whereas he found contentment even in times of defeat because he saw the bigger picture.
Next in the saga is coach Bill McCartney, of Colorado University. A coach known for having recruited players who had criminal records and made mistakes while in college, McCartney’s transition and departure from college football was viewed in a very religious light. His retirement was based on wanting more time with his family and his role as a preacher that he felt football was taking time away from. In his final press conference before stepping away from the game, McCartney said, “Has Bill McCartney done everything right? No, just a sinner saved by grace?” (Vault 1995).
Given the anecdotes of Tim Tebow and the two coaches, I posit that the religious culture greatly shifted from the times of Tom Landry to Tim Tebow, with McCartney being caught in the transition period. Tom Landry was very open in his faith after the events of 1958, yet he was never criticized in the media for it. Social media and the technological world of today may have influenced the frequency with which we see player’s and coach’s actions, but media coverage of NFL coaches was still prevalent enough to claim that Landry’s beliefs were widely known. Also, it is worthy to note that the distinction between coach and player in terms of impact and focus in the media and by fans could be a possible explanation, but given the brevity of Tebow’s career this is unlikely.
The implications of Tim Tebow’s actions can be seen in the jokes made about his kneeling celebration after touchdowns, or the college football rule change regarding the disallowance of words to be written on eyeblack or tape in college football games. Watson and Parker sought to focus on the goal of sport as a “pedagogy for a healthy version of pride~humility or not.” (Watson and Parker, 283). Their conclusion was that it was not a healthy version of this dichotomy. Contextually, the religious climate in the United States has greatly shifted since the times of Tom Landry from a point of pride in religious beliefs to a setting where humility is required in the expression of ideas. The polarity that religious expression creates in our country seems not to cooperate with sporting culture and their fans in ways that it used to. There is more research to be done and further developments in this argument, but through the stories of the two coaches and the highly polarizing player that Tim Tebow was, we can see that religious culture and its relation to sport has not maintained a static dynamic through time.
Question for a broader setting: Why did the idea of ‘Muscular Christianity’ not retain its popularity and what role do coaches have in its alleged decline?
Nick Watson and Andrew Parker, Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.
Richard Hoffer, “Putting His House in Order”, Vault Magazine.
Kent Demaret, “Tom Landry is a Believer: in Himself, His Printouts, His Cowboys, and His Lord. People Magazine.