Can Tim Tebow do no wrong?
Michael Butterworth of Bowling Green State University has turned his attention to sports media coverage of Tebow, an evangelical Christian and New York Jets quarterback. The author of a forthcoming article in the journal of the National Communication Association, Butterworth talked about how Tebow coverage seldom treads beyond a “nice guy” image to delve into his faith.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It’s an understatement to say a lot has been written about Tim Tebow and his merging of sports and religion. What else is there for you to add?
A: Although Tebow isn’t the first athlete to be featured for being very publicly religious, the volume has been unprecedented and there’s a quality to the coverage that has granted him a different status than anybody who has come before him.
Q: What did you think of his debut with the Jets on Sept. 9, which included some boos for one of his plays?
A: I think the boos are indicative that there is very little middle ground to be found on Tim Tebow. There are those who obviously love him and who will follow him at every turn. Then, especially for those who see it in football terms, the degree of attention he’s received appears to not match his talent and ability on the field, and there are those who kind of resent that.
Q: You argue that sportswriters are, in a sense, giving him a pass, talking about how “nice” and “sincere” he is and not examining his faith in any depth.
A: There’s little doubt that he comes across at least as being every bit as nice as he’s portrayed to be. But there’s a clear evangelical mission that goes along with that. So we should be asking, “OK, well, what is it that Tim Tebow wants us to believe? Why is he so invested in these messages?” I don’t think there’s very much scrutiny of that in sports media coverage.
Q: What would help get beyond what you call the “Tebow-as-Messiah narrative”?
A: Sports media really do need to think about the world in more humble terms. Not everything is the game of the century, and not everything is life or death.
If you use something like the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State as an example, it diminishes our ability to make sense of what is a genuine tragedy because our language has already positioned us to think of Penn State losing on the football field as the end of the world.
Q: Why do you think the humorous portrayals like the “Saturday Night Live” skit with Jesus and Tebow in the locker room and Jimmy Fallon’s “Tebowie” parody are helpful?
A: I know that folks like Pat Robertson, for example, thought that this was another example of another mockery of Christians. But I didn’t find either of those to be particularly cruel. They were so ridiculous but they were so spot-on that they necessarily functioned to give us a little bit of perspective about it.
Q: Have you had any discussions with sportswriters about your views?
A. I haven’t and I have tried. I don’t think it is an intentional conspiracy by sportswriters to say, “Let’s put our heads together and celebrate this white guy who’s a religious guy and we’ll write about him in these particular ways.” I think that’s the reason why a critical study of this is important.
There has been a concern that we don’t have anybody to believe in anymore. Our athletes, our great baseball players and quarterbacks, used to be our heroes. That’s so few and far between now. Tebow fills a kind of void, and I think sportswriters are eager to jump on that.
Q: Do you think interest in him will die down, or will he continue to draw interest and debate?
A: Eventually it will taper off as his career, and he, moves out of the spotlight or changes roles. In the short term, I don’t see any indication that it will die down, especially having now been traded to New York. He’s in the world’s biggest media market now.