Reporter: “You were trailing most of the game, but you were able to come back in the final minutes for the big win. Can you tell us how that felt?
Quarterback: “Well, first of all, I’d like to remind everyone that there is no God, and that everything that happend on the field tonight was the result of purely human endeavors, accomplished through a perfectly natural mix of some good genetic luck, a ton of hard work and the ingenuity of some brilliant minds. So nobody’s prayers were answered, and rather than thanking a nonexistent God, I’d like to thank my teammates and coaches, and all the other actual real people who helped make this happen…”
The Orange Crush defense of 1977. I was five years old, and I remember it well.
After all, I had the entire Orange Crush can collection on my bookcase. For those too young (or disinterested) to remember, that was a popular orange soda at the time, and the Denver Broncos adopted its name for their dominant defense, where Lyle Alzado and Randy Gradishar were the heroes of the team, overshadowing quarterback Craig Morton. That Broncos team would be the first to reach the Superbowl, only to fall to the Dallas Cowboys.
From then on there wouldn’t be another real bright spot until 1983, when Denver drafted the young Stanford hotshot John Elway. After a rocky start, he soon changed the ethos and the future history of the team by making it his own, a transformation crystallized by “The Drive”, Elway’s epic AFC Championship performance in which he commandeered a 98 yard comeback victory against the Cleveland Browns.
That was January 11th, 1987. Seven months and three days later, on August 14th, Tim Tebow was born.
In all my years of Bronco fandom, from 1977, through the early Elway peaks and disappointments, through their two Superbowl victories which finally came to pass in the late 90s, through all the ups and downsthe team and its fans went through over the decades, I never knew two things:
I never knew the political affiliations of John Elway or any other Broncos player.
And I also never knew their religious beliefs.
In Colorado, John Elway was a universally acceptable hero to the state. Had he used his status to promote a personal, and divisive political and/or religious agenda, it would have tarnished his legacy, as well as the ability of lifelong, loyal Broncos fans to enjoy the sweetness of those two Superbowl victories without any trace of bitterness or awkwardness.
Fortunately for all Broncos fans, and for Elway’s good standing in history, he played only one singular role as quarterback of the Denver Broncos: Quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
Unfortunately for all Broncos fans and NFL fans who do not subscribe to Tiim Tebow’s personal brand of Christian fundamentalism, or who simply value the arena of sports as an apolitical and areligious realm, he has chosen to play a dual role. One aspect of his chosen role is as Quarterback, but the other is as Proselytizer-in-Chief of the Denver Broncos.
By adding that religious dimension, by inappropriately abusing his position of privilege to wear the Broncos uniform, using it as a platform to advance his personal evangelical agenda, he has stolen from us not only the chance to appreciate him solely as an athlete, but also the ability to unambiguously, unreservedly support him as the leader of our team. (He has also deprived himself of the opportunity for his career as a professional football player to be evaluated primarily by his accomplishments on the field, but as this is his own problem, I won’t concern myself with it further here).
The U.S. military has a very sound policy regarding what political actions its members can and cannot engage in. The policy does not completely prevent people from engaging in partisan political activity, but where they are allowed to do so, they are specifically required not to be in uniform, and not to be engaged in any capacity as an official representative of the Armed Forces.
One important (and obvious) reason for this (another being that it is most likely unconstitutional) is that the U.S military does not selectively represent and defend only Democratic Americans, or only Republican Americans, or only Libertarian, Green or what have you Americans; it stands for and protects all Americans, and as such its members (politically opinionated and active as many of them are) are required, when officially representing the United States, to keep on a good game face and conduct themselves in a manner which is not divisive or alienating, and which does not mistakenly create the appearance that the political views of individual members of the Armed Forces represent the official stance of the nation which they serve.
When it comes to politics – and religion – professional sports leagues and franchises would be well served to follow suit.
I should add that I think this should apply across the board to all expressions of divisive religious or political views, including those I happen to agree with. Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns, for example, has a lot of mostly liberal political views that I tend to share. But although his opinions would be more palatable to me than Tebow’s evangelicalism, I would oppose just as much his promoting them in his capacity as an official representative of the NBA.
Nash remains wildly popular in Arizona, the Southwest’s bastion of conservatism. How? Simple. He keeps his progressive views separate from his basketball career and his role as the public face of the Suns. He understands what it means to be a professional. You will never hear him (as Tebow incessantly “Tebows” and praises his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”) endorse gun control or a more humane immigration policy. As an action which would alienate a significant segment of Phoenix fans who just want to enjoy some basketball and support the team, it would be inappropriate, unfair and divisive for him to do so.
Likewise, it should go without saying that the Denver Broncos are not the “Denver Christian Broncos”, the “Denver Broncos for Christ”, the “Evangelical Denver Broncos”, or even (despite the bumper stickers asking then why are sunsets orange and blue?) “God’s Own Denver Broncos”. They are the DENVER Broncos. And they are there for ALL the people of Denver and Colorado. Not just those who happen to have the same worldview as Tim Tebow.
Imagine if, after a game, an NFL quarterback actually dared to say the (fake) quote at the top of this post. Can you imagine the outrage? Fox News would immediately be running a 24-hour smear campaign to get him fired. All the pundits and talking heads, all of ESPN’s experts, all of CNN’s celebrity newscasters, to a person they would all be screaming their outrage at how offensive and disrespectful such a statement is to all of those with deeply held religious beliefs.
In Tebow’s case, however, they pretty much rounded up the wagons to encircle him with a ring of protection (if not, as in the case of Fox, outright promotion) of his “rights” to preach and proselytize his religious propaganda while working in his official capacity as a Bronco.
But please, let’s keep in mind that while a server at Denny’s has the constitutionally guaranteed right to tell one of his or her customers to fuck off, Denny’s also has the right to fire that person, as well as to establish rules of appropriate and inappropriate behavior which their employees must adhere to if they want to keep their jobs.
Does Tebow have the “right” to speak his mind? Of course, but that does not always make it right, appropriate, or tasteful to do so. And when, as the highest profile representative of a massive sports franchise backed loyally by millions of people, he engages in activities which alienate, infuriate, bother or otherwise turn off a huge number of fans who have been lifelong supporters of that team, well, it just ain’t right.
Unfortunately, I think we must, until we get indications otherwise, ssume Tebow won’t “see the light”, and will continue to prioritize his selfish personal religious agenda over the better interests of the entire Broncos fan base (as Dr. House said, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be religious people.”).
And so, I would urge the Broncos, and all professional sports teams for that matter, to institute a policy, modeled on that of the military, to require their players to refrain from engaging in overtly religious and political activities while in uniform and/or while officially representing their organization. To demand that their players respect the uniform, which not only represents their team, their league and their sport, but also represents the noble ideal that the world of sports might always remain one of the few last spheres in which people of differing religions, political views, backgrounds, or any other imaginable differences which might otherwise set them apart, can meet on neutral ground in a spirit of friendship and peace, and just… play.
Then I, and everyone else, can shut the hell up about all of this and just watch the damn games with no reservations.
[Note: I started writing this in December but due to a busy January did not find the time to finish it until now. Obviously, since Tebow and the Broncos got punted out of the playoffs weeks ago, this post has lost some of its currency and cache, but I hope it won't have lost its relevance in the bigger picture of sports, religion and politics.]