November 10, 2011 10:07 pm

Tebow or not Tebow, that is the question

Do you know how to Tebow? Unless you follow American football, you might not know what I’m talking about. But Tebowing is all the rage in the US today – and anyone with more than a passing interest in our society should take note.

Tebowing owes its origins to a God-fearing football player named Tim Tebow (pronounced: Tee-boh), who celebrates good fortune on the field by dropping to one knee and lowering his head in prayer – assuming a pose not unlike that of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, if “The Thinker” got off his pedestal, put on pads and rested his forehead on his fist.

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Gary Silverman

In recent weeks, Americans of all sorts of races and creeds have been trying to mimic – and mock – Mr Tebow’s signature stance. It has reached the point where players who tackle Mr Tebow during football games are Tebowing in celebration. There’s a website devoted to striking the pose – www.tebowing.com – that features pictures of people Tebowing in locations as unlikely as Hangzhou, China. The term has even earned a definition in the Urban Dictionary: “To get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”

The Tebowing craze is funny, representing as it does a kind of latter-day Twist or Macarena. But it is also significant because for all its good humour, it highlights the growing polarisation of US society along religious lines and Mr Tebow’s prominent role in the process. At only 24 years old and having started only a handful of games as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos of the National Football League, Mr Tebow is developing into the most controversial figure in US sports since the heyday of Muhammad Ali.

Banx cartoon

Mr Tebow is more mild-mannered than Mr Ali but people seem to either love him or hate him, and the controversy has everything to do with his religious beliefs. “While Tebow is not the first openly religious athlete,” The New York Times noted, “the circumstances surrounding his performance this season are so unusual, the NFL is experiencing a rare, if not unprecedented, religious feud.”

Mr Tebow could be described as a poster child for the religious right. The son of Christian missionaries, Mr Tebow was home-schooled by his mother until he enrolled at the University of Florida, where he established himself as one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever and became known for writing the names of Biblical verses on his face in “eye black”, the grease athletes apply below their eyes to cut glare.

He managed to become a controversial presence in pro football before he even played his first game. During the 2010 Super Bowl, a group called Focus on Family ran an anti-abortion advertisement that focused on the actual circumstances of his birth. While pregnant and doing missionary work in the Philippines, his mother fell ill and was advised to have an abortion. She resisted and delivered Tim, her fifth child.

Mr Tebow grew up to become an impressive physical specimen. At 6ft 3in and about 240 pounds, he is a big man for a quarterback and he runs well. But when he left college, experts wondered whether his style was suitable for the professional game and suggested he might have to switch positions. Mr Tebow has an unorthodox throwing motion, a flaw for a quarterback, whose main job is to pass the ball to his receivers.

This has led to further debate over whether Mr Tebow is qualified to play quarterback, the most important position on any NFL team. The suggestion has even been made that he has been overrated because of the regard people in football have for his character and religious beliefs.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of this furore is that it mirrors the leadership discussions that have been taking place in conservative political circles recently. If you think about it, a lot of Tebow-like figures are running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Their faith is sturdy, but they are not particularly adept at things a person in such a position should be able to do. Just as Mr Tebow has trouble throwing, Texas Governor Rick Perry has trouble talking.

There is a Tebow temptation in the air – the hope that a charismatic true believer with guts and gumption can overcome adversity and win against the odds, as Mr Tebow has done in two of the three games he has started this season. The problem for the Republican Party could very well be that Mr Tebow won’t be old enough to run for president until 2024, and in the meantime, it’s hard to imagine anyone Romneying, Perrying or Caining.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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