Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saturday Night Lights

He's a Quarterback, A Winner, A TV Draw, and a Verb:

When the Patriots meet the Denver Broncos in a divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, Brady will not be the most riveting athlete on the field; he won’t even be the most riveting quarterback. That honor will belong to a young Bronco named Tim Tebow. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

Tebow, 24, is the quarterback question mark; he’d rather run than throw another wobbly pass that wouldn’t make a Pop Warner football highlight reel. He is an unmarried, self-declared virgin with no supermodel on his arm. He is a devout Christian who thanks his Lord and Savior so often that a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit had Jesus telling him: enough already.

Yet, somehow, this N.F.L. sophomore — who has been Denver’s starting quarterback for all of 12 games — has upended cynical assumptions about professional athletics to become more than an unlikely playoff contender and the country’s favorite active athlete, as declared by a recent poll by ESPN. Tim Tebow is now a cultural touchstone.

Probably the best part of the Tebow story, for me, has been the complete and utter humiliation of the so-called "experts" on television and elsewhere who predicted nothing more than disaster for the quarterback. What qualifies one to be an "expert," beyond merely re-stating the obvious in a way that doesn't sound familiar? I'd be really good at it.

Chris Berman: Let's go to Todd Krohn on the field in Foxborough this chilly night. Todd, what do the Patriots have to do to beat Denver tonight?

Todd Krohn: Chris, there are three essential things New England must do to accomplish a victory tonight. One, move the ball down the field without a lot turnovers. Two, keep your defense in the game long enough to prevent Denver and Tebow from being able to move the ball. And three, put points on the board. If New England moves, the ball, plays great D, and puts points on the board, they're going to win this game tonight. Chris, back to you.

Duh. There is nothing more mind-numbingly grating than listening to sports "experts" on television.

But back to Tebow, slowly, this story has been creeping into my classes. Yesterday I mentioned to my Intro students that it's a great intersection of religion, athletics, media and conflict in society. Why conflict? Because of exactly how polarizing Tebow has become (I've read a lot about the Tebow phenomenon, but Dan Barry of the NYT nails it).

What, exactly, is it about Tim Tebow that so fascinates and provokes us? Why do some people project onto him the best of this country (humility, tenacity, plain old decency) — and the worst (sanctimoniousness, overexposure, political intolerance)?

Part of the answer may lie in the way he seems oblivious to the throaty roars that envelop him on and off the field, as though Tebow is always tebowing, whether kneeling or standing up. It seems a stretch to interpret his calm indifference as a particularly arrogant strain of piety. More likely, it is his way of saying that none of this — the rah-rah football Sunday, followed by the weeklong football Kremlinology — is what truly matters.

Tebow may not think that Tebow is what matters, but much of the country apparently does.

Listening to ESPN's Colin Cowherd last week, he summed it up thusly: Tebow has short-term amnesia. The adulation, the vitriol, the wins, and yes, even the losses, roll off this guy's back with an amazing alacrity. We've watched him triumphantly pull off the improbable over and over, and we've watched him stagger from humiliating defeats (bloodied even a few times), and the following week, the following game? Tebow brings it. Despite the goody-goody virgin image, the guy is 100% warrior.

And while most are framing this story in very black and white terms (the evangelicals v. the atheists; the believers v. the skeptics; the fans v. the "experts"), I think there's a third take, summed up by something my father said to me earlier in the season: "Who the hell cares? He wins!" Meaning, Tebow goes out and accomplishes that quintessential American value: he wins.

Legions of pundits, writers and insomniac callers to late-night radio have analyzed the subject. But maybe no investigation or deep sociological inquiry is required. Maybe the key to the Tebow phenomenon is just this: He wins games.

What’s more, Tebow tends to win in the closing minutes, against considerable odds and amid the persistent doubts about his ability by the football establishment. He often can seem like a regular guy suddenly thrust into the middle of a professional football game, only to win by summoning a superhuman will that we all wish we had.

Another crack about the "experts": I can't tell you how many times this season I've heard "if you take away the last five minutes of each game, Tebow's actually 1-8" or some such. Really? So we should discredit the guy for playing 60 minutes of football instead of just 55 minutes? Again, it's that warrior mentality.

But let's face it, those last five minutes make for fantastic television...must see t.v.

Last Sunday, 53.3 million people witnessed the touchdown pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas that gave the Denver Broncos a 29-23 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the full broadcast, an average of 42.4 million viewers were tuned in — the most for a wild-card game in at least 24 years.

It was also the most-watched program of any sort since the Super Bowl last year.

“Whenever you have somebody like Tim Tebow leap from the sports pages to the front pages, people tune in who wouldn’t normally watch a football game,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Friday. “The same thing with Tiger. People heard he was leading a tournament and wanted to learn more.”

He added: “Tebow is a polarizing figure, on and off the field, which adds to the attractiveness of an athlete. Not only does he win in spectacular fashion, but he loses in spectacular fashion.”

Hence, great television. He's basically portrayed as a "regular" guy who, despite his prior athletic accomplishments, is completely out of his league (so to speak) as an NFL quarterback, and yet has somehow figured out a way to take his team to the second round of the playoffs, against all the odds. Does it get any more Hollywood than that?

And then there is religion. It seems almost ironic in a country as religious as the U.S. that overt expressions of faith would come to be viewed as polarizing. Especially in the world of sports, which has long been an acceptable stage for athletes to express their faith (how many chest thumps and pointing to the sky do we see after a touchdown, or home run, or three pointer, or goal?). Politicians usually pay lip service to religion, but athletes traditionally flaunt it in your face.

And while Tebow's expressions of such faith can be over the top at times (the rage of "tebowing", etc.), it may be the case that Tebow seems almost "Biblical" in the sense that people can read into him whatever they want.

His extraordinary athleticism and proven heroics — including two college championships and a Heisman Trophy — are routinely forgotten in favor of a more mystical possibility.

According to a survey of 756 registered voters by Poll Position, 43.3 percent who said they were up-to-date about Tebow believed that divine intervention was partly responsible for his success.

To date, there’s no hard evidence of any divine intervention. Instead, the Tebow effect conforms to a more familiar narrative: that of fans seeing what they want to see — hero or villain, the genuine article or another fraud — in a person who plays sports for a living.

It's like a huge episode of "Friday Night Lights" every Sunday, with each game being like a new, dramatic episode: what will happen today? Will he win or lose? Will Twitter explode with evangelical tweets, praising God, etc., or will the secular analysts and critics note the mere role of luck, injuries, etc., in all these improbable victories? Stay tuned.

Tonight's game promises to deliver huge ratings again (as long as it's close) The last time these two teams played each other, the game was over, in favor of a New England romp, by the end of the first quarter. But should Denver advance (and let's not forget there's an entire team of Broncos other than Tebow who are making spectacular plays, including the best corner in the NFL, former Georgia Bulldog Champ Bailey) watch out: the evangelicals will cite another miracle, the hand-wringing "experts" will be further bent, and the ratings will go up even more the next game.

And if the Broncos lose? I'm not sure anything will be different. The faithful will still see divine intervention in Tebow's success, the critics further proof of the hocus pocus of religion, and to the fans, on to next week's drama.

Normally I'd say such intense interest in sports, religion, etc. is just another form of social control, designed to keep us focused on the inane rather than on real, pressing social problems. But after four years of relentlessly bad economic news (in itself another form of social control), I'm ready for a good football game and an adult beverage.

And the weight of the world will have to wait until tomorrow.

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