[27 January 2009]
“Superman”. It’s a moniker that gets thrown around with reckless abandon in sports. Shaquille O’Neal used the title (along with “Man of Steel”) as one of his early nicknames, advertising his prowess with a Super S tattoo on his left bicep. Following Shaq, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard picked up the title after donning a Superman outfit during last year’s NBA slam dunk contest. In football, the most recent incarnation of “Superman” comes in the form of University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Captaining his team to their second national championship in three years, Tebow has been dubbed college football’s version of this American superhero by fans and commentators alike.
As it happens, though, Tebow’s well-travelled accolade has been bestowed thanks as much to his extra-curricular persona as his on-field success. In addition to winning two national championships and a Heisman Trophy, Tebow, it’s been widely reported, has lived in a leper colony and spends his summers doing volunteer work at an orphanage in the Philippines. It’s the kind of exceptionalism that causes the cynical majority of us to roll our eyes, and the kind of human interest angle that fills most commentators’ dreams.
Not surprisingly, Tebow’s praises have been shouted from the rooftops. During this year’s championship game, for example, Fox announcer Thom Brennaman could barely contain his admiration: “If you’re fortunate enough to spend five minutes or twenty minutes around Tim Tebow, your life is better for it.” “Superman”, it seems, may not be praise enough.
For, in every regard, Tebow fulfills our unwritten expectations of what the perfect athlete should be, not the least of which in his public espousal of his Christian faith. The son of missionaries (it’s his father’s evangelical association that runs the Philippine orphanage), Tebow has been consistent in crediting his faith for his football success. With references to Biblical verses emblazoned onto his customized eye-black, Tebow literally embodies an ideal that has always excited the approval of mainstream America: the God-fearing grid iron warrior.
Certainly Tebow’s not alone in his overtly Christian approach to college football. The University of Texas is led by quarterback Colt McCoy, who is quick to credit Jesus for his team’s victories. The University of Oklahoma’s own quarterback, Sam Bradford, is similarly public about his devotion. And these players are merely younger versions of evangelical professional football players like quarterback Kurt Warner, whose Arizona Cardinals play in the NFC championship game this year. Beyond quarterbacks, and beyond football, of course, there are a plethora of athletes at the ready to profess their faith in Christianity—to the extent that thanking God has become nearly as clichéd a response as “one game at a time”.
Still, football remains the sport that is most suited to the public expression of Christian faith. Ironically, this could be due to its brutality. Compared with basketball and baseball, football showcases the most violent physical conflict, but is also the most likely to feature a post-game prayer circle of players. Is this a coincidence? Or is there something endemic to the violence of football that lends itself so readily to Christian display?
The epic reverberations of football violence may yield a clue. Though a game, it nevertheless remains closely linked with popular ideas about nationalistic struggle. It is, in short, America’s most war-like sport. [Nobody has sketched out the evidence of football’s military ethos (with its shotguns, bombs, and blitzes) so well as the late George Carlin.]
Though tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. was ridiculed when he claimed to be a “soldier” and that football was “war”, he was merely recapitulating much of the metaphorical language that surrounds the sport. Fans and commentators may make distinctions between sport and armed conflict (particularly when the Country is involved in two actual wars), but football undeniably uses militarism as an organizing conceit.
Such associations, then, inevitably lead us to God, and to the likes of Tim Tebow. As the final Authority to any kind of organized violence on a national scale, God and war have been situated in lockstep by the world’s rhetoricians since time immemorial. It should come as no surprise then, to see our most war-like game being played by some of the most avowedly godly. This is not to suggest any kind of causal relationship, however. Though winning football players do indeed have a lot to thank God for (avoiding injury, raising their social profile and chances for a million-dollar salary), their religiosity is not due specifically to football. It is, instead, enthusiastically applauded by football—its media and its fans.
What makes Tebow “Superman” in the eyes of so many, ultimately, is not that he’s a successful quarterback, but that he’s able to embody a particular kind of heroic ideal: the religious warrior. The public appreciation for Tebow, and all godly football players is, in this way, a kind of culturally subconscious reverence for the stereotypical medieval knight—a figure whose exploits at once satisfied our craving for violence-as-entertainment, fervent nationalism, and Christian unity.
Why else would players, who are routinely penalized for excessive celebration, be allowed to kneel in prayer after scoring a touchdown? Why else would a sport, in which player uniforms are strictly regimented, allow players to wear Biblical verses on their face? (One wonders what kind of reception a player sporting a verse from the Koran might encounter.) The answer to these questions fixes football at a unique crossroads of cultural militarism and Christian devotion. In light of that position, we may consider a new fight song for our favorite team, one that spurs our favorite players “Onward…marching as to war.”