Tim Tebow and the College Generation
One group of readers, viewers, and consumers of popular culture appears only rarely in the extensive media conversations about Tim Tebow: America's college students.
Commentaries in international publications -- from "Tim Tebow Infiltrates Sport's Secular Cathedral" in the Jerusalem Post (Jan. 10) to "Tebow's Testimony" in Time magazine (Jan. 16) -- contribute to an emerging social allegory and reenact the biblical story of David and Goliath.
There is no escaping "Tebow Mania," and it may be that if Tim Tebow didn't exist, we would create him. Weary with foreclosures; joblessness; and violence in Egypt, Iran, Yemen, and elsewhere, America needs to celebrate the new year. In "Why Tebow? Why Now?," Alicia Colon argues persuasively that the nation is overdue for a miracle -- or two.
The former University of Florida quarterback represents many things to many people. Evangelical Christians are drawn to Tebow's public celebration of his faith. On blogs and websites, Catholics and Jews debate his impact on religious expression broadly defined. Football commentators bask in "Tebow Magic" or argue that discussions about Jesus do not belong in stadiums and locker rooms.
Even when a faux Jesus appeared on the set of an imaginary Denver Broncos locker room on Saturday Night Live (Dec. 17, 2011), media focus was on several Christian leaders who cried foul and on free speech advocates who argued that parody and satire succeed only if they unsettle the audience.
However, the target market for sports and late-night television programming often includes the same young men and women who attend American colleges and universities, and the Tebow phenomenon has captivated them. It also has created rich opportunities for discussion in interdisciplinary classroom settings.
Students at church-related schools, major research institutions, and private colleges and universities across the United States know the Tebow story. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, students discuss Tebow when they analyze religious allusions in news and feature articles, images of the hero and the athlete in popular culture, and masculinity and the allure of sports heroes in women's and gender studies.
In Tim Tebow, young people find a man who loves children, who respects women, who comforts the afflicted, and who weeps without shame. They admire the contributions the Tim Tebow Foundation makes. "Tebow for president!" shouted an enthusiastic student as he crossed the snow-blanketed campus during finals week. His friend laughed loudly, dropping to one knee in a parody of Tebow.
In America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag (HarperCollins, 2010), Sarah Palin accuses the "academic elite" (210) of stifling free and open discussion by ignoring conservative principles and says American media and the professoriate often do not "share the religious faith of their fellow Americans" (215). There is truth in her concerns. However, the Tebow movement creates comfortable opportunities for faculty members to analyze an emerging contemporary narrative -- no matter what their philosophical or political leanings might be.
Students do not need to be football fans to recognize the differences between Tebow and other sports figures, some of whom have carried loaded guns into New York nightclubs, harassed women, engaged in extramarital affairs, or abused and killed animals. Given events at Penn State, Syracuse, and other universities, students are hungry for an opportunity to reclaim the histories and reputations of the institutions they value. Perhaps most importantly, Tebow inspires 20-somethings because he is one of them.
Polarizing conversations about class, ethnicity, media, politics, race, and religion permeate society and spill into academia at precisely the time when students are supposed to discover their opinions and experiment with effective ways to articulate their beliefs. When college and university classroom discussions reflect the discord and hostility in the nation itself, faculty members and students find it difficult if not impossible to celebrate their differences and explore their shared experiences.
Like Palin, students want to talk about family, faith, the flag -- and myriad other topics. Through safe and supportive classroom interactions, they learn what they think, and they test their ideas on their peers. Conversations about the political, religious, and social significance of "Tebow Time" are organic, emerging naturally from course syllabi that deal with everything from the First Amendment to media coverage of social movements to visual imagery.
Some of the students in these classes are devout Christians who may or may not believe that life begins at conception and may not yet know what they think about evolution. Some are meeting international students for the first time. Some identify themselves as "patriots" and want to understand what the Tea Party signifies. Some are atheists who want to talk about Nativity scenes in public spaces and about whether it is appropriate for a quarterback to invoke divine intervention as he sings hymns on the sideline. Some respect everything for which Tebow appears to stand; others remind the class that he will stumble because he's human and is expected to be perfect.
College-age students in particular appreciate and employ humor, parody, and satire. In a Dec. 1, 2011, column -- "What Tebow Can't Do" -- Jason Gay satirizes the quarterback and underscores Tebow's atypical ways of dealing with defeat and disappointment. "When Tim Tebow is bummed, he doesn't pull down the blinds, blast the Fleetwood Mac and drink red wine out of a Mason jar, like everybody else does. He's a total weirdo," Gay writes. The excerpt provides an opportunity to discuss the power of specifics and tone in creative nonfiction and journalism.
In another satirical essay, Patton Dodd states in "Tim Tebow: God's Quarterback" that Tebow is a "litmus test of political and social identity." "If you think he's destined to be a winner, you must be a naïve evangelical," writes Dodd. "If you question his long-term chances as an NFL quarterback, you must hate people who love Jesus." Dodd is, of course, highlighting polarities for dramatic effect. Whether or not students appreciate the role Tebow plays in American life, they participate in their own litmus test and engage in animated debate about his beliefs and his priorities.
Few know quite what to make of Tebow or the phenomenon called "Tebowing." The tone that journalists employ to describe him reflects this discomfort: "Can God take credit for the victories of a thick-set NFL quarterback who scrambles in a weirdly jittery fashion, throws one of the ugliest balls in the game, completes fewer than half of his passes and has somehow won six of his team's last seven games?" asks Frank Bruni in "Tim Tebow's Gospel of Optimism." He answers his own question by suggesting that Tebow is "powered by conviction and operating on faith." Bruni finds himself "transfixed and enlightened by his example." He writes:
It's easy to be pessimistic about optimism. When peddled generically by unctuous politicians, it can seem the ultimate opiate, a cop-out and fallback when there's nothing more substantive to sustain you. But optimism can have an impact. It's what radiates from Tebow and fires up the Broncos. And therein lies a lesson about leadership with a resonance beyond football.
These excerpts and others like them are invaluable in the classroom, where students debate the meaning of religious discourse, address the history and function of prayer in American life, and weigh in on the definitions of "leadership" and "optimism." Paradoxical expressions such as "it's easy to be pessimistic about optimism" allow students to identify and perhaps employ effective rhetorical tools. Furthermore, college and university students deserve to feel optimistic about the world they are inheriting, and they want to share both anxiety and excitement about the future with others who understand.
Young people are often the ones who seek to explain Tebow to themselves and others. For example, Patton Dodd recounts the story of Jared Kleinstein, 24, of New York, who launched Tebowing.com in October 2011. Interviewed by numerous media outlets, Kleinstein posted on his site that people have "found hope" through Tebow's expression of faith. "It has made prayer in public something not to be ashamed of," said Kleinstein, who is Jewish. "I think that crosses all religious boundaries." Dodd writes:
Mr. Tebow may indeed turn out to be a hypocrite, like other high-profile Christians in recent memory. Some of us might even want that to happen, because moral failure is something we understand. We know how to deal with disappointed expectations, to turn our songs of praise into condemnation.
What we are far less sure how to do is to take seriously a public figure's seemingly admirable character and professions of higher purpose. We don't know how to trust goodness.
Stories in the mainstream media provide a catalyst for conversations about faith. A Dec. 19, 2011 Time magazine teaser -- "NFL Football: Does Jesus belong in the huddle?" -- drew readers to a story with the headline: "Football's Leap of Faith: Does Tim Tebow win with skill, luck-or a 'miracle'?" Alluding to Søren Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" during a class discussion about the news story is both appropriate and natural.
Without addressing the intangible -- Tebow's faith -- and the tangible -- Tebow's public demonstrations -- it is impossible to understand fully the emerging narrative about a young man who wanted to be a quarterback from the time he was 6 years old. If the university classroom allows nothing more than an opportunity to discuss individual achievement or to address the implications of being an evangelical in a secular world, then the Tim Tebow fairy tale has served us well.
A professor of media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Jan Whitt is the author of "Going (More Than) Rogue: Sarah Palin and the Pink Elephant in the Room."