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The Worldwide Leader in Tebow

Tim Tebow’s lack of self-awareness and ESPN’s lack of shame

Intelligent people like Herm Edwards and Marcellus Wiley have been reduced to party hats and fake gifts for Tim Tebow, just to fill air time.


Two things happened on Tuesday, August 14th, 2012.

Both of them will probably be swept into the bottomless bin of pop culture laundry or slow sports day reporting. Both of them were expected and familiar… yet foreign and unsettling at the same time.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012, was Tim Tebow’s 25th birthday. Also:

1)      GQ Magazine released a photo spread featuring the New York Jets backup quarterback, along with a bizarre article that Tebow’s P.R. people must not have gotten an advance copy of. (Found here: http://www.gq.com/sports/profiles/201209/tim-tebow-gq-september-2012-cover-story?currentPage=1#commentAnchor_gq_2000000001917849)

2)      ESPN held an all-day birthday party on Sportscenter (their number one show) to mark the occasion. Deadspin has a terrific compilation of the day’s events here: http://deadspin.com/5934761/sportscenter-spends-the-day-celebrating-tim-tebows-birthday?comment=51855086

Many of you probably missed them. You were (hopefully) blissfully ignorant of their existence. If you did catch sight of either one, you probably greeted it with a simple shrug, or an eye-roll, or a soft sigh before going on with the rest of your day.

For me, it was the day that two intertwined, yet semi-independent narratives in my head collided and came to cumulative fruition. Months (years?) of building led to two realizations – two days ago, these truths became self-evident, unavoidable, and unmistakably clear:

1)      Tim Tebow at least lacks self-awareness, and is, at worst, a complete fraud.

2)      ESPN has completely lost its mind.

It’s time to dissect the mess and learn what we can from this. What does the GQ photo spread tell us about Tim Tebow that we didn’t know before? And why, after all of ESPN’s well-documented faults and shortcomings, should a birthday party for a backup quarterback signal the tipping point between “out-of-touch” and “totally insane”?  What do the two events (in tandem) signal to us about how people in high places in the media think about our tastes, our interests and our priorities?

The GQ Magazine Spread

Two qualifying remarks:

1)      In college, my major was “Religious Studies”. (No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that degree, career-wise. No, it’s not because I wanted to be a pastor, preacher, rabbi, imam or cult leader. Yes, I realize there is little-to-nothing I can “do” with that educational background as it pertains to a “career”. Let’s drop it, already.) I learned two important things about religion during the four years I spent all my money to listen to lectures about it:

a)      It is an intensely personal, private, individualized experience…

b)      … While at the same time being communal, public, and packaged for the masses (for the most part). They sound like incompatible statements at first, but think about them; both are indisputably true.

2)      I consider myself to be a Christian. That word (“Christian”) means many different things, to many different people, and I won’t get into all the nuances, subtleties, unfair stereotypes and generalizations that accompany calling oneself a follower of Jesus. I thought it was important to bring it up, so what I am about to say doesn’t turn into an “anti-Christianity versus Christianity” debacle.

I bring that up because I want you, the reader, to know that I wouldn’t disparage another person’s beliefs lightly. It’s not malice or ignorance that drives me to say what I’m about to say about the guy.

It’s obvious to me that Tim Tebow is a man whose handlers, P.R. clerks and advisers have so much influence that he made the decision to pose for the photograph below without thinking about its implications.  Or, he willfully manipulates religion (and religious people) to build his own unique “brand”, exploiting something sacred for monetary gain.

“This is not a photo a humble man poses for.” – Jeff Pearlman

Call me crazy if you want to. But it seems as though Tebow is mimicking religious imagery… which is slightly disturbing.

Looking at the two pictures, the intent seems clear enough to me. The Tebow photograph invokes the crucifixion – why is Tebow shirtless? Why are his arms held out that way? Why are his knees bent, one foot over the other, as they often are in depictions of Jesus on the cross? Why isn’t the quarterback having his picture taken of him, oh, throwing a football?

We’ve long flirted with the line between celebrating and venerating athletics in America. At a time when unbelief and non-traditional belief systems are on the rise, celebrities and athletes have become more omnipresent, filling the void, providing for people who don’t believe in an unseen God with flesh-and-blood heroes to follow.

I’m not saying a person should choose definitively between religion and sports – but if the line between the two is going to get blurry, I do expect America’s Most Popular Christian to refrain from participating in obscuring it further. Either Tebow doesn’t know what he did with this photograph, or he knows and doesn’t expect it to bother anybody.

Frankly, I don’t care what the truth is. The photograph didn’t offend me, per se, but it does make me uneasy. The messenger outshines his message. His public persona seems superficial and easy – the opposite of what Christianity is meant to be. Not to mention, it seems to fly in the face of other important (and widely held) Christian values… like humility, for instance.

If Tebow’s the most recognizable Christian in popular culture (and I defy you to claim he isn’t), and he’s somewhat of a hypocrite, that is bad for all Christians. Period.

ESPN’s Teb-orgy of Festivities

If the GQ spread got me riled up on a personal level, the events of ESPN got me hot and bothered as a consumer. Specifically, as a member of the collective subgroup of human beings who call themselves “sports fans.”  Our network – the one all sports fans instinctively, reflexively turn the station to as soon as the television gets fired up – must be committed to an insane asylum.

As corporate shill Colin Cowherd is fond of saying on his radio broadcasts, it is ESPN’s right as a company (and duty to its employees, management team and owners) to maximize revenues the way it sees fit. In other words, they’re supposed to hunt for ratings, quality be damned. The network hasn’t exactly been free from criticism over the years; the list of grievances against them is long and well-documented.[i]

Part of the trouble with the company is an identity crisis. They attempt to straddle the fence between entertainment and journalism (as most news outlets do) and the results are no less haphazard and awkward than their counterparts in the “real” world are. They want the license to “entertain”, yet they want to be respected newsmen and women at the same time. Or so I thought.

By now, ESPN is so big that it is able to manufacture stories, cooking and poking and prodding and insisting that what they are covering is important. The decision-makers at the worldwide leader have hitched their wagons to Tebow, who is as much a product of their efforts as he is an athlete they just happen to cover.

A few days before his birthday, Bristol, CT nearly shut down when Tebow ran past reporters, shirtless, in the rain.

That’s what I realized during Tebow’s all-day birthday party, held on Sportscenter for all the world to see: they have no shame any more. We might be mired in the latter stages of summer’s dog days, but even that doesn’t adequately explain we saw on Tuesday. Instead of being at the forefront of the sports conversation, leading viewers and readers and listeners to new, challenging, and thought-provoking places, ESPN insists on jumping after the elusive carrot that is “high ratings.”

Rather than lead the considerably large demographic of people (especially males 18-49 years of age) to a more nuanced discussion of sports, they’re intent to deliver us fluff pieces, sound bites, highlights and cheap thrills. As someone who grew up thinking ESPN was the coolest thing in the world, it’s sad to see it in such a sorry state, a decrepit shadow of its former self.

Maybe my standards are too high. Maybe I just need to continue doing what I usually do, nowadays – avoid the televised side of the ESPN empire and cling to the website and radio broadcasts, where I can pick and choose what I want to consume.

The decline of ESPN, which reached the deepest part of the cesspool on Tuesday, is tough to watch. Fortunately, we can turn away.

What Decision-makers Think of Us

More disturbing than Tebow’s lack of self-awareness and ESPN’s lack of shame is the cold reality that the people who decided to create and promote the GQ article and the Tebow Birthday Party have their finger on the pulse of sports fans and popular culture. They must – they wouldn’t have such power if they didn’t – and the fact that they manufacture this stuff because they know we will buy it is disturbing to me.

What, exactly, do they take us for? Don’t they know some of us see through all this? That celebrating a backup quarterback this way is theatre of the absurd? That photographing said quarterback in a manner reminiscent of a religious figure is bizarre, unsettling, and just plain wrong?

I’m probably evaluating all the evidence a bit too heavily. Tebow is a fad, and fads pass – but could the factors that led to his ubiquitous presence in sports media and popular culture reflect a lack of appreciation for what is sacred? Do they signify modern-day obsession with superficiality, of style over substance?

If that’s the kind of stuff we buy, what are we made of, exactly?

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_ESPN – A lengthy rundown of the problems that have plagued ESPN over the years

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