Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sports Illustrated's Cover Story About Tim Tebow's Ministering: An Analysis

Couple of highlights from Austin Murphy's Sports Illustrated cover story on Tim Tebow's faith, headlined: "You Gotta Love Tim Tebow."

*Because the piece didn't have much to do with Tebow's on-field ability, the headline seems to connect Tebow's expression on behalf of his faith with the reason why fans should love him. We'll get to that at the end of the post.

*The story covers a couple of key pieces of what I label "mythic Tebow" -- most notably, his ministering at prisons (the focus of the piece, obviously) and leading with his "miracle" birth.

*Money quote 1, from Tebow: Inmates "respect the way I play the game, so they'll keep an open mind, give me a chance."

*Money quote 2, from Murphy: "But while Tebow will happily discuss his religion, he has no use for the hard sell. That's not his style."

This observation gibes with my longtime impression that Tebow is not -- contrary to the superficial images, like his eyeblack or media coverage of his ministering -- particularly pushy in his proseletyzing:

Tebow doesn't put God in fans' faces on the football field. More often than not after touchdowns, you'll see Tebow do the Gator Chomp or jump into his teammates arms, not clasp his palms together and look up, Wuerrfel-style. In fact, the heavy religious undertones of his 2007 Heisman speech felt odd coming from him in a strictly football moment, even though we all understand how devout he is.

*For Tebow fans well-versed in his ministering, the most remarkble detail in the story is an anecdote from just before the BCS title game, when coaches were concerned that 15 players were missing. The players were, in fact, freaking out a little bit about the game. But they were in Tebow's room, and he picked up a Bible and read a bit.

Murphy: "The verses had the desired effect, relaxing the assembled Gators so much that a kind of impromptu revival meeting broke out. Soon, the entire group had broken into song."

That's the first I had ever heard of that story, and it instantly is filed away under the Tebow myth. (By "myth," I don't mean to suggest that these things -- that story, the "miracle" birth, the circumcision stuff, the "jump-pass" are not real. I mean that they combine to help the player reach literally mythic status -- having the NATURE of myth, but in fact, very real.)

*To Murphy's credit, he points out the apparent contradiction between Tebow's God-fearing faith and his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Oklahoma in the BCS national title game (which is, actually, my favorite moment of Tebow's career, because it presented this incredibly likeable and relatable humanity).

Instead of the Spirit, Tebow told Murphy: "I let the Gator speak for me." (I'm sorry, that is an awesome quote. BTW: You can see the moment captured on an SI cover, found at the top right of this site.)

*In the end, Tebow's trip to Lawtey Correctional Institution is measured in numbers: 14 salvations. (Take that, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy.)

*Murphy's piece includes a phrase that feels like the epicenter of Tebow's standard speech to prisoners -- perhaps every group: "Finish Strong."

It is hard to tell if, by finish, Tebow means coming back from a stumbling 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarter to reclaim your life -- more Tony Robbins than Joel Osteen -- or whether "finish" implies that when they finish their lives, they'd be better off having accepted Tebow's faith.

I actually think that "Finish Strong" -- originally a Florida coaches' mantra -- is a pretty good catch-all for Tebow's life: The football or the ministering. The competitiveness -- whether he is saving the game against Alabama or doing what he thinks is best to save souls.

Most fans already knew about Tebow's ministering -- I mean, his eye-black is pretty obvious (remember, his "John 3:16" eye-black in the title game -- switched from "Phil 4:13" that he sported the rest of the season -- was so intriguing that it sent the phrase to No. 1 on Google Trends the day after the game) -- so I'm not sure that this will make fans love Tebow more.

In fact, I'm sure more than a few fans may be turned off by his evangelical efforts. But my takeaway is that the details about his NOT being particularly pushy make him that much more likable.

If I had any criticism, it would be that the piece was missing putting athletes' evangelical ministering efforts into some larger context; and there was no critical analysis of Tebow's own ministering (is it ALL positive?), beyond the very brief aside about his unsportsmanlike penalty (which itself was explained away endearingly).

And for a piece about Tebow's off-field ministering, a cover image of him in uniform seemed gratuitous (ed: this, from a guy who writes a blog entirely about Tim Tebow!) -- I think there was room for a dramatic photo of him ministering to convicts as the cover image, a photo you wouldn't normally see. (I understand why they went with the in-uniform pic -- although editors made sure the eye-black Bible verse "popped," which I think oversimplifies the important point about his NOT-pushiness made in the piece.)

Obviously, for Florida fans -- and for Tebow fans -- the story might not be entirely new, but it is a must-read, with the hallmark of a great SI piece: Unusually good access and details not reported anywhere else.

Haven't seen the piece posted online, but I'll be sure to drop in a link as soon as it's available.


  1. You can read the whole article on Sports illustrated.com

  2. I wanted to read the whole article before i commented, as I mentioned above i found it on the sports illustrated web site, i think your right when you said "its not an entirely new story but it is a must read" I think the article first gives you a more human view of Tebow, he is cracking jokes with his teammates, and talking to the prison guards. Also i think it paints a great picture of Tebow's ministry. Tim does not push his beliefs on others, instead the article does a great job of showing how Tim does the complete opposite, he shares with those who want to hear the good news the prisoners, his teammate ( truthfully i would not be surprised if many come to him before a game looking for some spiritual support). I know Tim gets criticized for painting bible verses under his eyes before a game but I think Tim is a Christian who happens to be a Football player he never hides that or apologizes for that he just lives his life. And I think that although the Gators have a Great Coach, and team I personally believe one reason they are so successful is because God is backing them up....it's a recurring theme through out the whole bible when you give to God he returns to you ten fold! Anyway finally... i work as a nanny part time while going to school and the little boy i watch is 10, every morning he watches ESPN and like the rest of the nation he loves Tim Tebow and after the national championship he asked what John 3:16 said ....and I thank Tim Tebow for that!

  3. Read this article. It's another great example of why it's so hard to dislike this kid. The writing in SI is always good but this is a must read for anyone that claims to be a Gator fan.