Once upon a time, there was this controversial quarterback.
Even his strongest defenders admitted that he was a fiery field general, not a conventional pinpoint passer. He made lots of big plays with his legs, dodging tacklers and creating havoc until he could unload the ball.
His throwing motion wasn’t much to look at, either. Purists said he brought the ball way too low while winding up to fire it deep.
On top of all that, he was devoutly religious and very conservative.
He was especially vocal about social issues, such as his belief that sex should be reserved for marriage — period.
Talent scouts were divided. Many were sure he would never succeed in professional football, even though he was a Heisman Trophy winner.
Besides, Roger Staubach had to serve as a navy officer before he could start his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.
Wait a minute.
You thought this was some other quarterback?
Week after week, the experts who dissect events in the National Football League have been struggling with the whole question of whether or not Tim Tebow — an even more outspoken version of Staubach — has a future with the Denver Broncos, other than as a third-string quarterback carrying a clipboard on the sideline.
The problem at the local level, of course, is the choir of Tebow supporters chanting his name in the stands.
The problem at the national level is that it’s rare for a backup quarterback to be so popular that his NFL jersey was last year’s third-highest-selling — which is up in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady territory.
The big problem is that it’s hard for fans to separate Tebow the inexperienced professional quarterback from Tebow the experienced missionary and evangelical superstar. Journalists are struggling with the Tebow culture wars, as well.
“Tebow had to be himself, which means letting everyone know exactly where he stands, consequences be damned,” noted columnist Deron Snyder of the Washington Times.
“Essentially he drew a line that separated him from everyone else — not in a better-than-thou sort of way, but a marked distinction nonetheless — and we’ve been picking sides ever since.
“Along the way, we’ve had difficulty in keeping our opinions unencumbered. Thoughts on Tebow the Christian get mixed with Tebow the Quarterback. Tebow the Hyped is entangled with Tebow the Great Guy.”
Over at the sports Vatican called ESPN, veteran scribe Rick Reilly has had enough of what he called a “stained-glass window” quarterback controversy.
In particular, Reilly is tired of getting waves of emails that sound like this one from West Virginia: “You only bash Tebow because he is a Christian and he does not fit into your pop-culture mould of great athletes.”
Actually, noted Riley, Tebow is not the first muscular Christian to take the field.
“Whose god Tim Tebow worships has zero to do with my criticism of him. It’s his business,” he wrote.
“Like I care. Tebow is about the 1,297th-most outwardly Christian athlete I’ve covered. He doesn’t stick his god down my throat. Doesn’t genuflect after touchdowns. Doesn’t answer every question with, ‘Well, first, let me thank my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ and, yes, I think I did pull my groin in the third quarter.’
“And even if he did, it wouldn’t affect what I write about him. I’ve covered openly devout athletes for 33 years. Lord knows I’m used to it.”
Yes, there have been plenty of other traditional believers in professional sports and most of them managed to avoid controversy. However, they were safe precisely to the degree that they remained silent on issues that linked their faith to hot-button moral, cultural and, in this age, political questions.
Snyder, for example, stressed that quarterback Kurt Warner was a strong believer who avoided controversy. That’s true — sort of.
The only problem is that Warner did get caught in a media firestorm during the 2006 World Series, when he appeared in an advertisement opposing a Missouri bill supporting embryonic stem-cell research.
The bottom line: Athletes who speak out can expect media fallout.
“The accelerant in this debate is religion, which along with race and politics forms our trinity of third-rail topics,” concluded Snyder.
“Tebow isn’t a litmus test for faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ, but that won’t stop the saints and the aints from issuing grades.”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Centre at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at email@example.com or www.tmatt.net.