Tuesday, December 29, 2009

College Football's Favorite Son

It’s no secret that religion and sports are inextricably intertwined. God has received more thanks for athletic achievement than mothers, fathers, coaches and teammates combined. Such declarations are rarely admonished—perhaps due to myriad stories of athletes turning their life around after finding salvation in faith. Some people raise valid questions about how God could possibly think, as Heinz Ward once said, “God [is] on our side” (and not the other side). However, on the whole, religion taking a prominent role in sports is widely accepted and even revered in many circumstances; and never has it been more revered as with the infallible Tim Tebow.

Tim Tebow has taken on a larger than life status because “he does everything right.” He is praised by mothers and grandmothers because of the way he conducts himself off the field and the leadership he shows on the field. These are fine qualities in an athlete and a young man. However, the Heisman award show has morphed into an annual tribute to Tim Tebow’s ministry off the field. There is a sense that Tebow embodies what it means to be a student athlete because his strong faith allows him to lead a truly righteous path and forego the sins and temptations that plague the faithless and less disciplined.

His faith has allowed him to become America’s idealized version of a student athlete. Moreover, America’s love affair with Tebow has gone into hyper drive while “As the Tiger Turns” has gone into syndication on every network. Tim Tebow’s faith is his choice, and his dedication to it—coupled with the ministry he provides for the less fortunate—should be respected. However, not only is his faith publicly respected it has cast him as college football’s super Jesus and anointed him as the model to which every student athlete should conform.

I am not so sure Tim Tebow should be the idealized version of the student athlete. Shouldn’t the idealized version of the student athlete be the student that excels in the classroom and on the field? I’m not suggesting that Tim Tebow doesn’t excel at his family studies major—he probably does. The problem I have, is that Tim Tebow is college football’s favorite son because he wears John 3:16 on his eye black and tells inmates that finding Christ will set them free.

Meanwhile Toby Gerhart, another Heisman candidate, is majoring in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford while starting for the Cardinal baseball team. Moreover, he is currently hauling in a 3.25 GPA and taking 21 credits this quarter--the average is 15 and you must petition to take more than 20 units. Here is a kid who is busting his tail at one of the most competitive institutions in the country--in one of the institution's most rigorous majors--and no one had heard of him until Jim Harbaugh’s national “Gerhart is Great Campaign.” Toby Gerhart embodies the definition of student athlete. It is a shame that an athlete of such skill and stature did not receive notoriety enough to remind us what collegiate athletics are really about: there are thousands of students who pursue success in the classroom and represent their schools on fields and courts without the slightest aspiration for grand accollades or riches.

Tim Tebow is a great leader and so is Toby Gerhart. I don’t want to diminish Tebow’s accomplishments but I do want to step back and ask what Tebow’s story would be without the religious subtext. Has anyone asked if it is strange that a 22 year old is writing bible verses on his body during game day and congregations are praying for him? Do you think Florida, ESPN, and CBS make money of Tebow’s religious odyssey? Is exceptional athletic and academic success anything other than the only model to which every student athlete should aspire? Or are they only worth something when they are also faithful, chaste, ministering saints? Maybe it’s best to ask Charlie Wise and the 96% graduation rate he maintained at his former job.

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