Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why The Tebow-Virginity Story Matters:
Making Sense of Tebow's SEC Media Day

Tim Tebow's virginity matters.

On its face, whether Tebow has been some sort of Greek god of studliness or saving himself for marriage seems like a ludicrous issue to be talking about at a football conference, even in the SEC.

But Tebow has always been about more than football -- necessarily been about more than football.

Tebow's career -- on and off the field -- has been about mythology. Not in the "Clash of the Titans" fictional way, but about myth-making. So as not to confuse people, I try to use the word "mythic," because it means "as if a myth...," the implication being "...but very much real."

The Tebow myth -- "mythic Tebow" -- is based on an ever-increasing number of mythic moments:

Football-related: The first "Jump-Pass"... the 5-TD game on national TV against South Carolina en route to "20/20" en route to becoming the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman... the 4th quarter against Alabama in the 2008 SEC title game... the clip of him "firing up" the College GameDay crew... the unsportsmanlike-conduct "Gator Chomp" against Oklahoma... the "Who didn't vote for Tebow" thing... and, of course, "The Promise" speech.

Off the field: The "miracle birth" story... the ESPN TV documentary as a high school senior... the ministering to prisoners... the medical procedures abroad, including the circumcisions... the singing with country-music stars... the eye-black, especially the John 3:16 moment during the national-title game that became the No. 1 most-searched term on Google (and helped convince him to return to Florida)... the "I'm Coming Back" speech... even this week's Sports Illustrated cover.

Everyone agrees Tebow is a great football player, maybe the greatest. Everyone agrees Tebow is a remarkable human being, even verging on the Messianic in tone. The point is that the Tebow myth is only truly created -- or fulfilled -- when these two things converge.

Tebow is unafraid to discuss his spirituality -- his religious beliefs and values -- in public. In fact, he relishes it, because it is precisely that "testimony" -- subtle and otherwise -- that allows him to live out what he feels is his mission. (But, to be clear, for all the outward displays of religious discussion, he is not someone who generally forces it on people -- just trust me on that.)

It is Tebow's clarity of living -- god, family, school/community, that order -- that appears to provide him with the seemingly superhuman ability to at once be relentless on the football field (or even in the weight room or film room or practice sessions) and supremely confident off the football field, whether flying to the Phillippines to work with orphans or driving to the local prison to minister to convicts or handle the media like few in sports have ever handled the media (especially, as Forde pointed out today, for a college student).

Mythic Tebow puts his religious values first, and if that is how he finds success in life, more power to him. We should all be so fortunate to have something -- religion, secular humanism, family, fan allegiance, I-don't-care-what -- that provides a framework for a life well-lived, however you might define that.

It is those religious values that fuel his football success, that are on display in the cover story of Sports Illustrated this week -- and that made Clay Travis' extremely personal question to Tebow of whether or not he was a virgin something relevant.

In fact, his answer shouldn't have surprised anyone. It is entirely consistent with his core values and -- in line with supporting "mythic Tebow" -- the rest of the episodes, events and moments that have come to define him publicly.

When the rest of us get finished tittering (and Twittering) about the virgin question, what is left is -- as usual -- profound (or perhaps begrudging) respect, which couldn't be a more rare commodity among sports fans, let alone for a star as prominent (even over-exposed) as Tebow.

I think Tebow will ultimately feel glad for having been able to share that piece of personal information -- he certainly didn't seem particularly thrown by the question when it was asked. But I can see him understanding that there are evangelical Christians out there who will find their strength in his values. Those who don't share those values? Live and let live.

When it first happened, I -- as a would-be expert in Tebow mythology -- was quick to put it at the top of the list of mythic Tebow moments. It doesn't have anything to do with football, but that it came up at a football conference... those two things intertwined seem to make sense to me, given the on-field/off-field duality of Tebow's mythic mix.

Talking about his virginity doesn't faze Tebow. And it shouldn't faze the rest of us. We should all have the kind of equanimity that comes with the clarity of living Tebow enjoys.

Click here for various must-read reactions.


  1. An interesting take, but I think you setup--only to ignore--the clear counter argument. If Tebow's faith is what allows him to become "mythic" on a level above that of other college atheletes (perhaps more accurately, on a greater scale than most college atheletes, who generally become regional legends), then how can his actions and expressions of faith be anything but self-serving? I.e., just as you can't separate Tebow on the field from Tebow off the field, you can't separate either of those Tebows from Tebow the self-promoter.

    Of course, this brings up lots of other questions about whether public figures can ever truly act benevolently. I'm not going to claim to be able to answer those questions, but I would maintain that the questions exist.

  2. The Tebow admission to being a virgin, honestly can be a good thing for college football, and is a sample of an individual that has good moral values and beliefs, and a great role model. Considering the athletes that play football continuously have to face the stigma of being overly aggressive, power hungry and no moral valued monsters. Hearing something about a person's sexual experience has nothing to do with what happens on the playing field, and will not alter his performance on the field. He is just another one of the great examples that isn't a baby factory or law breaking athlete that are given undeserved media attention, Tebow gathers media attention for the right reasons.

  3. In response to Sammy,

    Just because someone is rewarded for their obedience doesn't mean that that is their reason for being obedient.

    If you live your life in obedience to Christ because that's what you believe you should do and want to do, then it's not self-serving.

    If you happen to make a purchase at a store and then win a prize because you are their 1 millionth customer or something, is that self-serving? No, you were just going in to buy something. And because of just doing what you did, you were rewarded. That's out of your control. Same with Tebow. He's doing his best to be the best example of Christ he can be. He's not doing it to become mythic. If he is truly authentic in his faith (which I think he is), he's just trying to show the rest of the world what it's like to be a true follower of Christ. Something a majority of us Christians have failed at doing for so long. If God so chooses to reward him for that, well, that's great and a bonus.

    A true Christian knows his reward is not here, but in heaven. In the story of Joseph in the bible, Joseph honors God in everything he does and is rewarded all the way to the point of being placed in control of Egypt second only to pharaoh. He didn't work hard to impress his bosses and be rewarded by them or to have stories written about him. He worked hard for God and to show others his love for God.

  4. Tebow has obviously established a college career that ranks among the all time greats, and he deserves whatever praise he gets in that regard.

    But I think there's a disconnect between saying he has no qualms about talking about his faith, going to prisons to preach to convicts about accepting Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior, and stating that he doesn't push it on people, and that we should "just trust you" on that. Is that from personal experience that we should trust you, or just because of the mythic Tebow.

    I'm not saying he is, but I don't think he's stupid, and he knows full well the platform he is given due to his popularity. So maybe he's not pushing it on individuals he comes across (prisoners aside), but I think its naive to suggest that he's not utilizing his platform to push his particular Christian beliefs. If he isn't, then he wouldn't be consistent with the beliefs he supposedly professes.

    Tebow seems to be a great kid. But we, as a society, tend to rush towards anyone we can put up on a pedestal. And while I hope he never falls, because I don't ever want to see that with anyone, its important to remember that he's still human, and we should be weary of the current deification that seems to be taking place.

  5. Dusty,

    I think you're missing my point. We can't know Tebow's intentions. So long as Christian morality is privledged in our society, acting publically as a great christian--and existing as a public figure--will necessarily be self-serving both in a spiritual sense and in a practical sense. There is no way to distinguish between the two or to know whether Tebow performs his faith genuinely or in the interest of myth making.

    Of course, his insistance on performing his faith publically (and striking the heisman pose for photographers while holding infants) suggests that he's certainly not exactly lacking an understanding of the PR implications of his actions.