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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