Tebow Talks God, Media Ignores Him

Many people who watched the Heisman Trophy ceremony earlier this month were bewildered when reading their newspapers the next morning. … Continued

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.

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  • Fred Evil

    Maybe they ignored it because God really doesn’t CARE about football, and anyone praising and thanking him for their own achievements on the gridiron sounds like an idiot.I’ve had enough of listening to Xtians gibbering on about how rewarding their spiritual life is to them. Great, I’m happy for you, now shut up about it. I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT.You want to be a preacher? Join a seminary. You want to play football? Shut up about your ‘god.’

  • jesuguru

    “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…”Why should it haunt YOU? Let the hypocritical athlete stand (or fall) on his/her own. Point is, report what they say, without anointing yourselves filters/censors. Do you stop reporting political statements because people don’t always practice the politics they preach?P.S. To Tebow and other believing athletes, keep exercising your right to express your beliefs because I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

  • Jenn

    While Jesus doesn’t love one team more than the other, He loves each player on the field — Tebow included. Tebow’s comments don’t suggest he thinks God likes him best. He just realizes that, for whatever reason, he has been able to experience things through football that most sports players/fans don’t. And when someone gives him the mike and wants to hear what the Heisman winner has to say, well, he can say whatever he wants.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I see plenty of godly and jesusry quotes in sports stories, whether they’re in print or on the tube.

  • Nelson R.

    In my years of working in and around the “Christian” faith, I have yet to see one person who is as good as they sound.

  • Greg in LA

    Well yeah, one of the biggest cliches in sports is the idea that God cares who wins and loses and thanking God for victories. Good grief, I am thankful the media does ignore it.

  • Mike

    Great. Another bigot who is uncomfortable with any more faithful than he. Another chorus from liberal bigots in response. Yawn.

  • thishowiseeit

    there a limit of how much a newspaper can report: if they report one full speech than they have to report all speeches, including that seen on TV of a film award recepient few year back that gave thanks for the support of his same sex lover.


    well, i dont think it is so much tat anyone is especially filtering his comments- hes a football player- hes not a speculative theologist i dont ask my plumber if he believes in a lord and saviour- i ask him his references and experience and knowledge unless im mistaken, he wasnt awarded the heissman trophy for his keen and inspring work i the field of evangelizing- no one is watching him to decide if his religion is right for them- athletes are always thanking their lord and savior first- maybe theyre trying to add dimension to their image perception that football players rely on only physical ability- but, who really cares? it would be like the pope giving his opinion on defense in football- bemusedly tolerated- but hardly advice anyone is taking too seriously.

  • Bill Harper

    Religious zealots always trot out like-minded sports figures and celebrities in a silly attempt to validate their own views. When I want to know about theology, I always check with the local quarterback, don’t you? Isn’t this just another form of idol worship?

  • John Stephens

    I think it’s no big deal. Some persons thank their parents or their coach. Some persons who believe in one god or another thanks him or her.As a Christian, I don’t get upset when a Muslim says “Inshallah” (God willing) or “In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.” Gandi had every right and reason to utter as his last words, “Oh, Ram!” appealing to his god. These expressions simply tell you what that individual values most, and we’re all entitled to believe what we wish.Also, no journalists had any problem with reporting President George W. Bush talking about his belief in Jesus Christ and his prayers to God before invading Iraq, even though it was hardly the Christian thing to do.It seems to me that the prevailing extreme antipathy that nonbelievers have towards religion of any kind is due to the recent meddling in politics of the so-called Christian right (which is neither Christian nor right). As a Christian, I bridle, too, when one sort of ersatz Christian or another tries to impose his or her beliefs on me or anyone else. I even get upset when I can’t buy alcohol on Sunday because some Bible-thumping nitwits got blue laws on the books. The first miracle of Jesus was making about 90 gallons of wine out of water at a party (cool dude), and he drank wine on holy days. Why can’t we? Because charlatans like Jerry Falwell condemn it as a sin, thus condemning Jesus himself of sinning.We need religious zealots with agendas to butt out of politics. They seemingly want to have their cake and eat it, too. Most churches are incorporated, which means they are corporations doing business as churches. They are subsidized by the federal government under the auspices of tax exempt status, which carries with it a ban on political expression or persuasion within the church. The justification for tax exempt status is the cliché, “separation of church and state.” Actually, Jesus paid his taxes specifically to keep himself unentangled from the government, but churches obviously don’t want to follow his example.My closest friend doesn’t believe in God. We have been friends for nearly thirty years, based on mutual respect and other common interests. We would all be better off with an atmosphere devoid of being judgmental, but because of recent American political events, I think the onus is on the so-called Christians who are both benighted and bellicose.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    The media sensibly don’t report what sports celebrities think or say about their religious thoughts, because their religious beliefs are irrelevant to their celebrity.If I were a hedge fund manager who’d just done a deal that made trillions for me and my fund, would it make sense for the business reporters to note that part of my announcement said that the Templars, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the North Wales Mormons were the only groups who had a true grasp of the nature of the universe?Think about it, Kathy.

  • Dave

    Is his the same Lord that broke a teammates leg or blew out an opponents knee? Please, enough. Take some pride in your own achievements. He is a star because he has good genes, great knowledge about the game, excellent coaching and most importantly, has probably worked harder than anyone else. I remember Karl Malone refusing to give a reporter details on his workout regime, knowing that if he let slip, someone would go out and work harder than him. This has nothing to do with faith or every person of faith would achieve their goals too; doesn’t always happen. This sort of talk is just way off the mark.

  • Johnny Ringo

    It’s probably inappropriate for athletes to make a big thing about their religious beliefs, considering all of the trouble that they usually get into. It would be better if they lived the idea. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-7 – And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

  • Mike D.

    Posted on December 28, 2007 15:20 Jesus died about two thousand years ago.

  • Pierre JC

    Why should we care about something as pointless and trivial as awards in collegiate and professional athletics in the first place? In the past century, hundreds of thousands of professional athletic events have occurred, but not one has had any important historical impact by virtue of the accomplishments on the field alone.

  • David Martin

    The link between sports (mainly football) and evangelical Christianity, at least in the South, has been pretty tight for many years, and it’s entirely typical for someone like Tebow to emulate Danny Wuerffel by seeing his football career as an expression of faith. So I’m surprised that Tebow’s been censored so vigorously.I’ve never understood why playing football should have anything to do with faith, but then again I grew up thinking football was “recreation”, not something that you should do to get into a selective college, to spread the faith, or sign onto the American Way.

  • Mr Mark

    Until the day that the evaluation process for awarding the Heisman Trophy includes ” “the ability the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ gave the awardee the ability to play football” as criteria for evaluating and awarding the same, then mentioning it is both immaterial to why the award was awarded to the person in question, and is bad manners on the part of the recipient of the award.If the Heisman winner got up and said, “I’d like to thank Trojan brand condoms for allowing me to stupf my girlfriend all season without her getting pregnant. If I can’t stupf, I can’t sleep, and if I can’t sleep, my ability to play suffers.”OK, bad example. We would want to hear that and it may well be a contributing factor. 🙂

  • Rich

    Of course Tebow’s comments are mostly ignored. He’s a football player being interviewed about football. His religious comments are irrelevant. If he was talking about global warming or the falling dollar, he would be equally ignored.I thinks it’s pretty cheesey to use a platform provided for one reason to promote something entirely different. Enjoy your award, but take your other campaign elsewhere. And I bet no one will be listening.

  • Eric Starkey

    ‘I’m glad you’re all here to talk about football. I’d like to thank the Republican Party…’*Of course* his non-football remarks were ignored. When Warren Buffett shows up on CNBC he doesn’t get to discuss the NFL or his favorite cookie recipe either.When you’re talking about sports, TALK SPORTS. If you want to talk religion, go to a religion writer. Sheesh.

  • Max

    If a Heisman winner tried to expound his views on abortion or race or the war in Iraq, he’d be cut off immediately, disciplined by his coach, and slammed by talk-radio hammerheads. By comparison, “witnessing” athletes are getting a pretty cozy deal. They get to talk about Jesus as much as they want, and a lot of what they say gets on the air. The worst that ever happens is that the producer cuts away from the interview. It would be grossly unfair for athletes to have an open mic for their religious views, but to be muzzled on every other topic.

  • khefera

    reporters believe in checking sources. just as soon as god puts in a personal appearance to verify he did indeed help this kid when a pointless award, i’m sure it will be thoroughly reported.

  • Jeebus

    As someone uninterested in both football and adult imaginary friends, this rates a big ‘meh’ from me, but it does remind me of a ‘journalist’ on Faux sNooz about a month ago. The story was about a man who’d been attacked by a shark while swimming. He manageds to free himself, and was pushed ashore to safety by a wave. The ‘journalist’s’ response was ‘It’s a miracle that gawd sent that wave’. I couldn’t help but wonder if gawd hadn’t sent the shark, as well…

  • Craig

    What exactly is the problem here? Christianity is obviously a big part of Tebow’s life, and he’s entitled to thank whoever he wants. This doesn’t mean that sports journalists need to report this to the masses. Many non-Christians live in the U.S. too, do they not? Mainstream journalists can’t afford to bore readers and viewers who just want the scores/standings/schedules. Tebow’s Christian beliefs are hopefully a powerful force in his personal life. On the sports page, they are irrelevant.It would be very interesting to see the U.S. reaction to a devout Muslim/Jewish/Hindu athlete professing his or her thanks to their “personal saviour” on the national stage…would all those people who find Tebow’s story “inspiring” still feel the same if the athlete’s faith did not match their own?

  • wallpass

    After the Redskins win over the Cowboys last night, I listened to Joe Gibbs live press conference and in answering the reporters various questions, he often cited his faith and beliefs and how they were an inextricable part of his work as a coach, esp. this season with all the hardships the Redskins experienced. In Tom Boswell’s column today about the game, he selectively quoted some of Joe’s answers in the press conference yet did not include any of Joe’s references to his faith given as part of his answers. Not sure why. Surely, there is no question about Joe’s sincerity.

  • Mr Mark

    If we were stipulate that it’s not only OK for athletes to give witness to their faith, and that it is proper for the media to report it without editing, then is it not also OK for the media to question said athlete on whether there is any realistic basis in fact for their holding their religious beliefs?After all, if bush gets up and avers that Saddam has WMD and that’s the reason we’re going to war, the media is correct to challenge him on the truth of those claims, especially when there is evidence of a contradictory nature available.So, let the athletes spout off about their faith, but let’s not hold that they get a free ride in so spouting their faith. It’s a two-way street, isn’t it? They say Jesus helped them, the evidence says he never existed.Let the games begin!

  • Pierre JC

    Of course, Tebow could have thanked his magical, invisible friend privately. After all, his magical, invisible friend can hear his thoughts! Yet Tebow felt compelled to use the news media to thank his magical, invisible friend.

  • Lou Holtz

    This whole idea that God helped Tebow win the Heisman is ludicrous. God doesn’t care who wins football games. God doesn’t even care if Notre Dame wins……

  • Luke

    U all are chuffin idiots leave the guy and his faith alone he is just trying to spread the good word of god throughout the world which is in such a dire state at the moment. You yanks are so hypocritical and demeaning of everything!!