[Op Ed] The Tim Tebow Affect or Celebrating Whiteness?
The hype behind the NFL rookie runs deeper than touchdowns
The views expressed in this Op-Ed do not reflect that of Loop 21.
Tim Tebow is ubiquitous. Everywhere we look, Tim Tebow is there. Whether celebrating his “accomplishments,” attributing the Broncos season to his comeback heroics, reflecting on his now famous on-field genuflections, or debating his treatment by media and fans alike, Tim Tebow has captured the national imagination.
In many ways, the national fascination with Tebow reflects the power of whiteness. Historically the quarterback has been a positioned reserved for white men. Seen as a position that requires intelligence, leadership qualities, and proper mechanics, the NFL has historically engaged in, position segregation, and more than a little bit of Jim Crow on the field. That said, Tebow doesn’t follow in this tradition; he plays the position in a gritty running style that has long been associated with blackness.
In Am I Black Enough for You, Todd Boyd identifies a dialectical relationship between racialization and styles of play where whiteness represents a “textbook or formal” style, which operates in opposition to “street or vernacular” styles that are connected to blackness within the collective consciousness. As such, he describes a hegemonic narrative where “white” players adhere to “ . . . a specific set of rules [that] determines one’s ability to play successfully and ‘correctly’” (1997, p. 115). In both styles of play, notions of intelligence, mental toughness, and mental agility are all at work.
Tebow embodies a vernacular or extemporaneous style that has (historically) been associated with blackness and as a result of this association that same style has been devalued. Yet, for Tebow it has been embraced, celebrated as both innovative and as an example of athletic heroism. The celebration of Tebow, like the praise for some receivers, or safeties, comes from the shock and awe of white success in areas that are generally (assumed to be) dominated by black bodies.
Writing about Jordy Nelson, a white receiver with the Green Bay Packers, Ron Demovsky attributes his success to racial stereotypes: “There’s a joke in the receivers meeting room that Nelson benefits by being the only white receiver on the team because perhaps opposing defensive backs don’t take him seriously.” So while Tebow may only complete a few passes per game, the power in his athletic narrative rests with his ability to play quarterback in a style not associated with whiteness; the beauty for many commentators is in the spectacle and in his ability to convert this style of play into victories.
The commentary surrounding Tim Tebow is equally emblematic of the hegemony of white masculine discourses. Notwithstanding the fact that he has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice during the 2011 NFL season, pundits and fans alike imagine Tebow as a player who is denied respect and appreciation. Notwithstanding the fact that ESPN might as well be renamed ETSN – Everyday Tebow Sport Network – the discourse has continually represented Tebow as a victim of unfair media criticism.
For example, in “Tim Tebow Unfairly Bashed by Media Following Denver Broncos Loss,” West O’Connell writes that “Tebow deserves plenty of blame for the Week 8 loss, but it's not all on him. Saying he's the ‘worst quarterback in the NFL’ is not only absurd, but unjust as well.” Others have been less diplomatic, ostensibly denouncing sports media for unfairly demonizing Tebow. While the level of criticism has been limited, to deny some of the on-the-field questions is disengenuous. Questions about his mechanics, his skills as a quarterback, and his overall readiness are legitimate sports questions. Yet, the Tebow defenders have dismissed the sports-basis of these criticisms, instead arguing that the purported unfair criticism stems from Tebow’s religion and politics. For example, Jen Floyd Engel describes the vitriol directed at Tebow as being about politics and religion rather than football:
His religious fervor is an easy target for the vitriol spewed from those who dislike him, but the reasons are much deeper than that. From his advocacy of abstinence to his infamous “You will never see another team play this hard” speech at Florida, it is like he is too good to be true. He is too nice, and thereby we want him to trip up so we can feel better. We want him to be revealed as a hypocrite, and when that fails to happen, we settle for gleefully celebrating his failures on the football field. And why? Because he dares to say thanks?
Overstated and connected to anti-Christian/anti-conservative politics, much of the Tebow discourse replicates the hegemonic claims about anti-white male politics in the post-civil rights era. As noted by Kyle Kusz, “this new, new cultural racism involves the production and dissemination of a number of affectively appealing stories of white people who authentically come from, and/or exist within, the social margins; or whites portrayed as victims (of affirmative action, black athletic superiority, etc.); or white groups or individuals who appear to be disaffiliated from white privilege. “ Tim Tebow fills this role as athletic, religious and racial signifiers. According to his defenders, the purported criticism of him reflects an anti-Christian bias and a general contempt for his support of conservative causes. Equally important, the discourse seems to imagine Tebow as a victim of a multiracial media, particularly former black players, who are intent on tearing Tebow down. With “Dogtown and Z-Boys, white particularity, and the new, new cultural racism,” Kusz writes,
These particular cultural narratives of whites (particularly white men) who appear as socially and/or economically unprivileged and distanced from white privilege work on an affective level for whites to deny the contemporary existence of systemic racial privileges of any sort. These stories operate on a simplistic logic that if any authentically economically unprivileged or socially marginalized white people can be found and their stories told, then their very existence negates the notion of systemic white privilege.
The conservative, underdog narratives that underpin public perceptions (and discussions) of Tim Tebow’s recent ascension – he is the most popular player in the NFL – also work to obscure the religious and racial privilege inherent in that ascension. Imagine if Tebow practiced Islam and if his trademark genuflection was, instead, a traditional Muslim prayer. As some have suggested, this could not be tolerated in America’s game. Moreover, what if Tim Tebow were Michael Vick – even now one of the least popular players in the NFL. We don’t want to rain on Tebow’s parade here. His college career is legendary. He is a great professional football player with non-traditional skills. But his overwhelming popularity and some of the defensive coverage of his rise to prominence suggests the traditional biases and cultural preferences of the NFL and the broader public that enjoys professional American football.
To say that the NFL is conservative is nearly a redundant statement. But what other players in recent memory have been able to outwardly avow their religious beliefs or take decisive stances on socio-political issues (e.g. Tebow’s public support for the pro-life agenda) without instant and absolute backlash? Professional sports leagues, especially the NFL and NBA, seem to be desperate for great white hopes – players that can help these leagues remind their fans that black athletes do not utterly dominate professional sports. Tebow is a perfect candidate for this ongoing project. Before we all start tebowing in honor of his unlikely athletic achievements, we should pause to consider the racial and religious blind spots that his emergence necessarily, if subtly reveal for us.
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David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, LLC, an association of Hip Hop generational scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of Hip Hop, urban, and youth cultures. Peterson blogs for the Huffington Post and has appeared on Fox News, CBS, MSNBC, ABC News, ESPN, and various local television networks as an expert on race, politics, and popular culture. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson