Concerning that strange, lost Sports Illustrated Tebow epic

Concerning that strange, lost Sports Illustrated Tebow epic January 12, 2014

We are running out of football Sundays in this National Football League season, so I had better dig deep into my tmatt file of GetReligion guilt and write as short a post as possible about that amazing Tim Tebow feature that Sports Illustrated ran back before Christmas.

Are there any GetReligion readers out there who subscribe to Sports Illustrated these days?

If so, then you surely saw that massive piece entitled “The Book of Tebow.” I mean, this was a long-reader deluxe — a full 12,600-plus words with tons of photos and graphics.

And the thesis statement — focusing on Tebow’s future after being cut by the New England Patriots — was oh, so, newsworthy and screamed out for attention:

There is no real precedent for his situation. Tebow is America’s most influential athlete, according to a poll of 1,100 adults published by Forbes in May, and he is also unemployed. In 23 months he became a starting NFL quarterback, won seven of eight games in exhilarating fashion, led the Broncos to an astonishing playoff win over the Steelers and was cast aside by the Broncos, Jets and Patriots. Every other team had a chance to pick him up, and none did. Now, at 26, in his early prime as an athlete, he is trying to become what he already was.

So, SI subscribers, you didn’t see this remarkable mini-book on one of the most controversial sports figures of our era? Really?

Actually there is a good reason for that: The editors at the nation’s most prestigious sports magazine did not run this article in the magazine and, instead, slipped all 12,600-plus words of it into the online world with little or no fanfare (at least, little fanfare that I saw and I AM an SI subscriber).

This piece must have required weeks of work and quite a budget, which is another reason why the online-only decision is so interesting. In terms of potential readership, especially out there in the American heartland, this is kind of like doing a Will Smith movie and then releasing it straight to DVD.

So what happened with this piece?

Several people wrote me about this article, including a former GetReligionista who wanted to know if I thought it was — despite its length — rather incomplete. In particular, this scribe wanted to know if I thought this story was too soft and too positive.

You know what? I think this piece is too positive, if the goal was to tell the real Tebow story. It contains a massive hole in its journalistic foundation. This paragraph will help me illustrate the point:

As time went on, Tebow’s NFL career became a sort of national Rorschach test. What you saw there said as much about you as it did about Tebow. There were enough conflicting facts to build any number of arguments. What he had done on the field that year got so mixed up with religion and politics that it became dangerous to mention his name in public. Dozens of former teammates declined to comment for this story. Just as anything you said about Tebow was right, anything you said was wrong. And probably offensive to someone. To many Christians he was a hero, a paragon of virtue in an age of great sin, and this feeling complicated any rational measurement of his quarterbacking talent. Those in the mainstream media knew this, and thus began prefacing their opinions by saying Just a great kid, but. … Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but. … Phenomenal athlete, but. … but those prefaces only made it worse. Then you had the people who made a job of offending others, and for a while Tebow paid their mortgages. He was white, male, straight and Christian, so in 21st-century Western civilization you could assail him at no risk to your own standing among the politically correct. The British comedian John Oliver told an audience that if he were in a room with Tebow and Osama bin Laden and he had a gun with two bullets, he would shoot Tebow first. Did Oliver get in trouble for that? No. He was chosen as substitute host of The Daily Show.

So what is the crucial gap in this feature?

This massive piece makes it clear that Tebow is who he is and, in terms of blowing a hole in his image, it appears that this is impossible. Once again, it is clear that people are trying to bring him down, especially when it comes to marring his clean, clean, image as the world’s most famous True Love Waits hero.

But in digital page after page, the SI team shows Tebow praising God, win or lose. He helps little kids and gives his time to the needy and hurting. He is a missionary kid, whether he is in Southeast Asia or on South Beach.

So, again, what is missing?

I think that this otherwise fine article did not devote nearly enough time to the beliefs and motivations of the Tebow haters, the haters who are now — especially with him striving to get back into the NFL, while also working for ESPN — an even bigger part of the Tebow story than ever.

There are plenty of mysteries linked to Tebow, such as why he plays better at the end of close games that in practice and early in ordinary games. But it’s clear why Tebow does what he does, why he believes that he believes.

But what about the Tebow haters, by which I mean people who live to hate and mock Tebow THE MAN, as opposed to Tebow the football player with the slow passing delivery and the learning-disability-linked struggle to master modern playbooks? What’s their story? Why devote so little attention and research to them, when they are clearly half of the equation in this epic tale?

Yes, many Tebow fans are totally over the top and their existence is one of the reasons NFL executives see Tebow as an ongoing media storm sure to destroy their teams. This SI piece deals with that, quite a bit. But aren’t the haters half of that equation, as well?

In one of the most remarkable passages of this piece — when the SI team lands the ONLY Tebow interview during his short Patriots stay — you can feel the haters hovering nearby, ready to pounce. This is long, but essential:

The interview was supervised by Stacey James, vice president of media relations for the Patriots. A flood of requests for Tebow had put James in an awkward position. He knew Tebow made the Patriots sound good every time he opened his mouth, but he also knew that coach Bill Belichick didn’t want undue attention paid to a new third-string quarterback who hadn’t even made the 53-man roster. After weeks of internal discussion, James granted SI the only one-on-one interview of Tebow’s brief career with the Patriots. He had spent some political capital arranging it, and had said it would last no more than 15 minutes. Now it was pushing 20. “And with that,” James said, “I’ve gotta give you the hook.”

Tebow wanted to keep going. He spoke loudly above the drone of heavy equipment.

“I was told by a really wealthy man one time — he said, ‘Timmy, do you know how you make a lot of money?’ I said, ‘How do you make a lot of money?’ He said, ‘You make money while you sleep. You make money while you eat. You make money when you’re just going off, hangin’ with your family.’ I said, ‘All right.’ And then he said, ‘But money isn’t important.’

“I started to think about that, and that’s when I kinda came up with my overall philosophy of what I want out of my foundation. How can you help a lot of people? Well, I can go and I can talk and I can share and I can go to hospitals and orphanages and prisons and, you know. But I can only do — I only have so many hours. I can only do so many things. Well, how can we impact a lot of people? It’s by bringing people together. So even when I’m sleeping, when I’m eating, when I’m with my family, when I’m playin’ football, we’re still makin’ a difference in people’s lives. We’re still putting smiles on kids’ faces. We’re still bringing faith, hope and love. And so, like, you wanna look at a big picture of what my heart is about? That’s what my heart is about. Impacting lives, even when I don’t have to be there, and so when I’m dead and gone, we’re still impacting lives, and we’re still making a difference, and we’re still encouraging people. And, big-picture way of how I look at life and my goal, that’s how I look at it. And that’s what I want. And, y’know, it’s, ’cause, I can take the same philosophy that people have in money, but I do it for lives.”

Now James gave the hook, and Tebow made for the locker room.

“Kinda gets you all fired up,” the reporter said on the way down the tunnel.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t get me fired,” James said.

Fired? Why would allowing Tebow to talk get a publicist fired?

This story only ran online, folks. Is it too soft, too positive? Yes, it is. It needed lots more hate in it, so that the total Tebow picture would make more sense.

IMAGE: An earlier SI cover on Tebow.

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18 responses to “Concerning that strange, lost Sports Illustrated Tebow epic”

  1. Please get an editor especially given the fact that others journalism skills were criticized and yet, there were several grammatical errors included in this piece which would have otherwise been a good read.

    • Maybe you should fix up your understanding of punctuation before starting to go to work on the errors of others. What was it Jesus said about removing the log out of your own eye…?

      • Actually, I will put the contents of GetReligion up against a wide variety of weblogs that discuss complex subjects without the safety net of an independent copy desk.

        • Great stuff! It was a great read. I would love to see Tebow get another chance. If nothing else, he’ll make #1 and/or #2 work harder to keep there job. That will be a simple byproduct of the guy behind you outworking you. You KNOW Tebow would outwork anyone!

    • Please get an editor [comma] especially given the fact that others [apostrophe] journalism skills were criticized and yet [remove comma] there were several grammatical errors included in this piece [comma] which would have otherwise been a good read.

    • Honestly, I find it amazing that this comment would be posted here. Grammatical errors may be far more prevalent than we’d like, but such comments would be of greater value if mentioned in a post on the Department of Education’s website, not here.

  2. I don’t normally comment on sports stuff and I’m sorry this is long, but this SI story was really interesting. Looks like this statement by the writer helps to answer your question about why people hate Tebow:

    “When John Oliver said he would shoot Tim Tebow before shooting Osama bin Laden, it was easy to understand why. You know you’re better than a terrorist. With Tebow you can’t be sure.”

    Kind of weird, but put it together with 1) the writer’s observations that the American zeitgeist has moved past having people tell you what to do or not to do, it kind of makes sense in a strange way. 2) Couple that together with Tebow’s paraphrasing of St Francis’ saying of preaching the gospel always and sometimes even use words – meaning you act out your faith and hope it influences others. 3) You end up with Tebow’s behavior seen as offensive even if he goes out of his way to not criticize anybody.

    [I’ve notice the same thing with how even the press seemed to view Sarah Palin’s having her Down’s Syndrome child with her in public along with her other children. It’s seen as a rebuke to people who have aborted such babies – even though she has never castigated people who have done that. It’s called “flaunting” – similar to waving red flags in people’s faces.]

    It’s there between the lines and the writer assumes that most of his readers get that and agree with not liking red flags waved in their faces. It’s not spelled out because it might offend the big football fans in the Bible Belt. I live in the St Louis region and this is the reaction that many also had toward Kurt Warner and even more-so towards his wife. I don’t recall them ever castigating people’s behavior, but they were definitely publicly witnessing their faith while here.

    I’m Catholic so Kurt’s witnessing kind of felt strange to me, but I was not offended by it. Jeez – we have a Pope now who is witnessing and not wagging his finger. Funny how the press likes him so much – I guess it’s OK if it’s a bona fide minister/priest/Pope/rabbi, but not a civilian, particularly not a macho manly sportsman.

    Final observation: there is a very common notion these days that unless somebody is perfect, they have no right to “flaunt” their religious/moral beliefs. The writer’s comment about shooting Tebow instead of bin Lauden surely flows from that attitude. It’s OK to shoot somebody because you are better than them or even if you aren’t sure? Our culture of cynicism and irony has taken a giant leap into Nietzsche land.

    • I don’t think the press actually likes the pope. This response, seeming approval, is more because he made comments that they feel attacks capitalism.

  3. Honestly…I think the sports world is just over-saturated by now with Tebow coverage. There were media outlets last year actually limiting the amount of time they spent covering Tebow, simply cause people were getting tired of hearing about him cause it was the same thing over and over.

    Also I might point out the reason the New England staffer may have made the comment about being fired is due to Belicheck’s own philosophy with media. Everything that goes out into the media from the Patriots locker room is pretty much run by Belicheck, whether it’s the game coming up, a play from last week, a controversial call, anything…Belicheck controls the message coming out of that locker room, and like it or not, it helps reduce the number of distractions created. He even went so far as to bench his star receiver in a playoff game cause he made comments about the opposing coach. So it could have just been that the staffer was worried that Tebow would be going outside of that.

    And as to why he’s un-employed? It has nothing to do with his football ability, there are a truck load of teams that sign and pick up guys at QB far worse than Tebow and give them the #2 or #3 spot. The reason Tebow doesn’t get signed is because no coach out there wants to bring the “Circus” to town. Because any other #2 or #3 QB probably won’t get a single interview request, he just goes out there and does his job quiietly. Tebow could be the Ball Boy and he’d have more interview requests than anyone on the team. And it’s not his fault, he’s not doing it intentionally, but that’s the noise that follows Tebow and there are A LOT of coaches who want nothing to do with that media circus.

  4. they cant be all carpenters, and i pray ppl dont miss/destroy “him”… again, but it seems untrue history make things/us better….i got your back tebow!!!

  5. I am encouraged and pleased to read anything positive about this fine young man America has grown to love named Tim Tebow. I cannot think of a finer example of a positive role model and someone who not only talks the talk but walks the walk then Tim Tebow. What the NFL and others have done to this young man is one of the saddest things I’ve witnessed in the sports world in my lifetime. I pray every day that Tim Tebow will get that second chance and that he will once again ride high in the NFL, defying his many critics and haters and silencing them for good. Millions of Tim’s fans are rooting for this wonderful young man and praying for him to succeed in spite of all odds against him. Go Tim!!! Your success will be the best revenge for the utter disrespect you have had to endure. The fact that you have held your head high throughout it all, not uttering a single negative word toward anything or anyone speaks volumes as to a fine character that is all too rare.

    • I’m fascinated by the haters, and under no circumstances do I use the term to describe individuals that engage in legitimate criticism of Tebow’s game. I’m referring instead to those that suffer from an apparent inability to cope with the fact that he generates an enormous amount of interest and seem to make it their mission to diminish the guy, either by dismissal or mockery or both. Instead of ignoring the press that he gets, they actively engage in the dialogue and rage against it and just about anything that has to do with him. Why, unless one is consumed with anger and resentment, would anyone take the time to click on a link to an article and read it only to complain in the comments section about the subject getting too much press? Why respond in similar fashion to a reporter that has tweeted about him? I suspect that a considerable number of us can’t really fathom why Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian get so much attention, either, but would we make a point to seek out articles and tweets about them just to complain that the press is covering them? To complain that they’re successful? Good grief, what an absolute waste of time and emotional investment.

      If they do go beyond complaining about media coverage, they’ll typically offer a version of one of these endlessly recycled certitudes: “his demonstration of faith is either naive or an act of cynicism”; “he’s a beneficiary of white privilege who isn’t intelligent enough to be a quarterback”; “absolutely *all* of his success in the NFL was an utter fluke (some are now trying to apply a derivative of this narrative to his college career)”; and “his fans are a circus of cultists who know nothing about football”. I won’t attempt to answer any of those assertions other than to observe that it takes an astonishing amount of arrogance to endorse any one of them.

      I’m not sure if I’ve hit upon the journalism point, other than to acknowledge that the haters are not only intriguing, but may possibly consume more Tebow press than his fans do so that they can nurse whatever personal hurt his existence is causing.

      Re the SI longform: knowing nothing about the business, is it possible that they decided not to publish the article in the magazine since Peyton took the cover as Sportsman of the Year? I recall both coming out at roughly the same time.

      Don’t correct my grammar. I don’t give a sh*t.

  6. I think the journalism question here, tmatt, is did the “haters” WANT to talk about Tebow? Maybe the author looked for them, but maybe none of them wanted to talk. Or maybe those “haters” whose opinions count thought enough of Tebow’s character that they didn’t want to badmouth him. (The tebowhaters site hasn’t had an update since 2011 and their “hatred” towards him seems to be general animosity toward anyone who holds himself out to be a Christian, so it seems they wouldn’t be worth talking to.)

    I think there’s enough in the story about his inconsistent play to make it clear that he’s not football’s messiah. But it’s also clear that, when the author looked for bad stuff from Tebow’s former Florida teammates, he couldn’t find it. When someone like Tony Joiner can’t say anything bad about him, then you know that it’s going to be hard to find someone who can — i.e. someone who knows what they’re talking about.

    The author also cited all of those, “He’s a great guy, but…” quotes which means a lot of people think a lot of him but have criticisms they don’t want to air — and good for them. So I’m not concerned about the lack of “haters,” because their hatred isn’t rational and wasn’t worth talking about in this story.

    • I agree with Thomas. Probably nobody in football wants to be on the record saying anything negative about Tebow. And the negative is mostly just how the “circus” is distracting for a team. The real “haters” are just anonymous jerks among football fans and maybe a few players. Like I said earlier, they perceive him as waving a “red flag” of Christian behavior in their faces and they don’t like it.