Don’t hate the player, hate the fans

coachKI suppose if there’s a dark underside to being a sports fan it’s that it allows us to indulge our capacity for irrational hatred. It’s a really disconcerting thing when you stop to think about it.

I’m a pretty easygoing guy and I dislike very few people. But I loathe Magic Johnson. Growing up rabid Blazers fan in Oregon, the anguish of this was so soul-crushing I’m not sure a part of me has ever recovered. As a basketball fan, I should be able to step back and appreciate what Johnson did to beat the Blazers in game six of the Western Conference Finals is one of the smartest plays in the history of the game. But all I care about is that Johnson ended a very promising season for my beloved team, who I owe my allegiance to by nothing more than geographic accident.

And yet, such feelings of hate are for the most part seen as normal. A while back, Esquire editor and died-in-the-wool UNC fan Will Blythe wrote a book on the UNC-Duke rivalry. Among the many reasons it was a good book was that the title was perfect — To Hate Like This is to Be Happy Forever. On the cover of the book, legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is photoshopped into looking like a rat-faced demon. The sentiment may not be pretty, but it’s definitely something we can all sports fans can relate to. We like seeing our rivals lose as much as when our teams win, and we let even the most impressionistic opinions become urgent and compelling reasons to hate a player or team.

Which brings us to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, a good many college football fans despise Tebow with the fire of a thousand suns. Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples devotes an entire column to Tebow hatred. Naturally, a significant component of that Tebow hatred is in reaction to the Heisman trophy winner’s very public Christianity and the supposed sincerity thereof. This leads to some deeply theological brow-furrowing for a sports columnist:

All the anti-Tebow sentiment is reminiscent of a 2004 profile of U2 singer Bono that Chuck Klosterman wrote for Spin. Klosterman couldn’t wrap his brain around whether Bono’s saintly aura was just a facade created for and by the media or the inner glow of a genuinely excellent human being. That led to Klosterman asking an interesting question, the gist of which was this: Whether it’s genuine or a performance, does it matter as long as the saintly act was committed?

I died a little bit inside realizing that this particular insight is being attributed to Chuck Klosterman, but that’s neither here nor there. Staples’ heart is mostly in the right place, regarding how he approaches Tebow’s crtics:

Sure, he raises money for his dad’s orphanage in the Philippines, but he does it only to make himself look better. Even if that were true, how many orphanages have you raised money for this year?

Whether you consider him genuine or fake, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a Heisman Trophy-, SEC- and BCS-title winning quarterback who goes to class, goes to church and circumcises people less fortunate than him. More people should be so intolerable.

No, that bit about circumcision is not a typo. Bizarrely, Staples doesn’t explain it, but it turns out that Tebow has been known to assist with surgical procedures doing mission work in the Phillippines. And Staples ventures far afield for a sportswriter, even quoting scripture to put the Tebow hatred in perspective:

Some Florida fans suggested this week that fans wear eye black Saturday to pay tribute to Tebow. Thousands complied, including Florida’s First Lady, Shelley Meyer. The wife of Gators’ coach Urban Meyer set her eye blacks squarely on the Tebow haters when she chose 1st Timothy 4:12 as her verse:

Let no man despise your youth, but be thou an example of the believers in word, in conversation, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

It’s worth noting Staples isn’t even a Tebow fan per se. He spends the latter half of his column making the stat-based case for why Tebow’s onfield performance wasn’t enough to deserve the Heisman. But it certainly says something profound that that you can’t discuss Tebow the quarterback without discussing Tebow the Christian.

Staples’ column is particularly interesting in light of “Generosity of spirit separates Tebow” from ESPN senior writer Pat Forde, who was there covering the emotional scene at Tebow’s last Florida home game. Unlike Staples’ column, Forde has written fairly straightforward report. Yet, it’s basically an attempt to cannonize Tebow. Forde describes his “traditional postgame lap to commune with the fans turned into an eight-minute lovefest of startling intensity.” Interesting choice of verb there.

And while Staples presented a nuanced perspective on why Tebow’s faith makes him an object of hatred, Forde just comes right out and says some people don’t like Tebow specifically because of his public professions of faith:

Tebow long ago entered another dimension of stardom, as his impact went viral. He is the most polarizing college athlete ever, by a wide margin, engendering the deepest of feelings across the culture.

The cynical and envious rip him — and rip the media for saying nice things about him, claiming that he is overhyped. (They’ll say that very thing about this column, I’m quite sure.) Some roll their eyes at his unapologetically public Christianity — worn on his sleeve and under his eyes — despite the authenticity that underlies it in word and deed.

It has become an unfortunate aspect of our Hater Nation mentality that many of us cannot stand too much of a good thing.

Florida Atlantic Florida FootballThat last paragraph contains multitudes. Forde seems resigned to the fact that we’re a “hater nation.” But this isn’t just a story about whether Tebow can be said to be a good person, we’re good people for judging him. That’s a profound question, and I wish it wasn’t only touched on in passing.

And this may be a nitpick, but it needs to be said. As a professional journalist, I don’t know when sportswriters collectively decided that the rules don’t apply to them. How on earth does one write “He is the most polarizing college athlete ever, by a wide margin, engendering the deepest of feelings across the culture” with a straight face? It’s not as if Tebow has topped the Associated Press’ “Most Polarizing College Athlete” poll for four years straight. There’s just no way to quantify that, so don’t present it as a fact.

Anyway, I’m generally pleased to see sportswriters discussing the negative public reaction to Tebow’s faith in a generally intelligent and forthright fashion, I’m kind of blown away that neither of these articles saw fit to mention that perhaps the most public example of Tebow hostility to date came from… sportswriters. Here’s the relevant bit from last year’s Heisman voting:

Bradford got 300 first-place votes, McCoy 266 and Tebow 309. Not since 1956 had a player drawn the most first-place votes and finished third.

Some a 154 sportswriters left Tebow off their ballots altogether last year — at the time, many people noted that this smacked of some sort of coordinated campaign against him.

It seems like this should have been mentioned while sportswriters are busy trying to get in the final word on Tebow’s college career and it’s purported divisiveness. I suppose that the unwillingness to ask tough questions about the “Hater Nation” of sports fans raises some uncomfortable questions for sports journalists who have grown increasingly shrill and opinionated over the last few decades.

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  • http://tfhgodtalk.blogspot.com Jeff H

    Can’t say whether Tebow is the most polarizing athlete ever. Though a columnist (as opposed to a reporter on assignment) might assert such. What I can say is that more than once I’ve read the observation that the labels “best ever,” “most ever,” etc., in sports, are disproportionately applied to those athletes who played contemporarily with those doing the observing and labeling, be it sportswriter or fan. That is, while I might call Jeter the greatest Yankee, my dad would lean toward Berra or Mantle, while my granddad would have claimed it to be Ruth or Gehrig.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    As a diehard LSU fan and Florida hater I have never seen anyone like Tebow. That is a player that seems to be liked and respected by other fans in the SEC. So I really wonder if he is one of the most hated players among the fans.

    As to Sportwriters I am not sure there is that much hostility. Unlike some FLorida fans they don’t believe he was to suppose to get the Heisman for three yearsz straight.

    Is the most polarizing college athlete ever? I have to think about that one. Maybe I am just in the deep Jesus soaked South but I don’t feel it.

    I do agree his Faith gets some people upset. Of course it might be because they have to hear about it all the time. More to the point that he is the only Christian in College Sports it seems. The fact that Tebows Christianity is talked about and his two other close Heisman competitors Bradford and McCoy deep Christian faith is often ignored I suspect gets some people mad. At some point it seems all part of the Florida Hype machine.

    But Tebow is different. I think what was significant about him was he the first Home Schooled product on the field of a major program. That marriage between homeschooling and High School Atheletics is a interesting story.

  • Julia

    Mark Warner was a similarly polarizing figure in St Louis when he was playing for the Rams.

  • Peggy

    A nitpicky language issue not related to Tebow:

    “Thousands complied, including Florida’s First Lady, Shelley Meyer.”

    The next sentence indicates she’s the wife of the UFL’s coach. But “Florida’s First Lady” would normally mean the wife of the governor, who is Charlie Crist. Now is Shelley Meyer married to the coach AND the governor? One could conceivably see a state governor’s wife supporting the flagship state school’s star.

    Julia’s right about Kurt Warner. His big-mouth wife didn’t help much either. He had to leave to flourish again. The STL fans miss him, however. The team has fallen apart w/o Warner or Martz, crazy as the latter guy was at times.

  • http://tfhgodtalk.blogspot.com Jeff H

    Those who have seen The Express might nominate Ernie Davis as the most polarizing NCAA athlete ever, though in a less media-heavy day, especially devoid of web site potshots (aka, comments), Davis’ story was not so known as Tebow’s perhaps–leaving the door open for this tribute film.

  • Greg

    Are you sure it’s wise to “cannonize” Tebow? (If nothing else, I’m not sure he’s the right caliber!)

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I live in Kentucky (same as Forde) but I don’t recall hearing any fans expressing hate for Tebow. Sportswriters, yes, but not average fans. I can think of lots of college athletes far more polarizing without even trying that hard.


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