Many people who watched the Heisman Trophy ceremony earlier this month were bewildered when reading their newspapers the next morning. In the countless articles that were printed about Florida quarterback Tim Tebow winning the award, few cited his religious beliefs even though he clearly made several references to God in his three-minute acceptance speech. His opening remarks – “I’d just like to first start off by thanking my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who gave me the ability to play football” – didn’t appear in any mainstream news stories.
Sportswriters seemed to go out of their way to avoid any mention by Tebow to God or religion. T
hat irked readers who wanted to know why they are keen to chronicle athletes’ misdeeds but shy away from reporting on their religious faith. In a letter to the editor printed in the Dec. 16 Memphis Commercial Appeal, Sharon Lincoln wrote: “The Commercial Appeal has failed to do accurate reporting with this omission. Tim Tebow’s heartfelt declaration of the power of God in his life was inspiring.” In another letter to the editor, this one printed in the Dec. 14 Dayton Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, Dalen Mills wrote: “I was impressed when [Tebow] gave thanks, first and foremost, to his Lord for the blessing he has. In fact, he has been very up-front with his Christian beliefs and how important Christ is in his life . . . and sports columnist Ken Willis made no mention of his faith . . . . Here was a wonderful opportunity for Willis to just report on an incredibly wonderful young role model, and I am afraid Willis came up very short in reporting on what really happened. . . . Was he trying to be politically correct? Well, he might have been politically correct, but he missed the big picture and one heck of a story.”
Even Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon was asked why Tebow’s religious remarks were not included in newspapers and TV stories during his Dec. 10 online chat on washingtonpost.com. Wilbon’s response was: “People are entitled to express their religious beliefs whenever and wherever. But a newspaper (or network) has an obligation to serve a community of people that have all kinds of religious beliefs. It’s a fine line we walk. . . . There are times when we explore the relationship of competition and spirituality . . . but I know I’m not going to be hijacked by those feelings, to let someone preach their beliefs when they’re not important to what’s going on.”
I’ve always wondered why athletes felt compelled to mention their faith during an athletic event. It didn’t seem to me to be the time or the place for such declarations. Yet as William J. Baker explains in his recent book Playing With God, this aggressive proselytizing grew out of a religious revival that came in the wake of World War II, when evangelicals and fundamentalists reversed their attitudes toward sports and began to embrace athletics as a means for witnessing for Christ. Baker refers to it as “Sportianity,” a term coined by Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford.
Baker, a former quarterback at Furman who is professor emeritus of history at the University of Maine, was once a youth evangelist much like Tebow. I asked him if he thought Tebow really believed he was winning souls for Jesus when he stood up there and proclaimed his faith.
“Having lived that experience, I think [Tebow] thinks that, whether he convinces anybody to believe or not, that he is planting the seed and that’s all God wants,” Baker said. “His church and/or family teachings tell him that to be a good Christian means that he needs to witness every chance he gets.”
But with the media filtering his message, Tebow can’t be spreading the word as he would like. While it is obviously not the media’s role to push someone else’s religious beliefs, it should not ignore essential elements of the story. Tebow is the son of missionary parents. His faith is clearly a large part of who he is. Yet, the media is reluctant to touch on this aspect of his story. Terry Mattingly, a longtime religion writer for Scripps Howard news service who also blogs on Getreligion.org, has watched the media struggle with this topic.
Covering religion is “awkward. It’s divisive,” Mattingly said. “We live in a culture right now that pretty much whatever you put up on a moral and social issue is going to be decided on a 51-49 vote. . . . This has been my academic field and professional field of study for a quarter of a century, and you just have to say there is something about religion that makes people’s palms sweat.”
I’ll admit that I tune out a lot of athletes when they mention God because I often wonder whether they are expressing their true beliefs or just using religion as a crutch. Perhaps I’m a bit cynical, but crediting God for a touchdown/home run/basket can be a lot easier than giving a thoughtful answer to a question. Tebow was clearly nervous when he won the Heisman, and it was only natural for him to lapse into his default language during his speech. That’s not to say I doubt his beliefs. I want to believe his faith is genuine. But I’ve also seen plenty of athletes who say one thing and do another, and it’s hard for me to be anything but skeptical. Maybe that is why so many sportswriters shy away from writing about religion. Because the moment we do, it comes back to haunt us when that athlete is discovered to be less than a man (or woman) of God.