When ESPN’s First Take tackled African-American resentment of Tim Tebow, they missed a key contributor to that discussion, the Black Church.
First, though, I want to commend the show for having the courage to address this controversial issue with both reason and passion.
Former NFL quarterback, and African-American, Kordell Stewart offered a closing, choked-up plea for black quarterbacks to be given some of the same chances that a media-darling, but inconsistent quarterback, like Tim Tebow has received.
That was some of the rawest, most soul-stirring stuff on this subject that I have heard.
It is clear that race and religion are still sensitive issues in sports, and not least at the most prominent position in the National Football League, the quarterback.
For an embarrassingly long time in the NFL, the vast majority of quarterbacks were white.
This was the case for so long, in fact, that Rush Limbaugh once claimed that an underperforming African-American quarterback was getting preferential treatment, a pass if you will, from a biased liberal media hoping for black success.
Oh, Rush. May Tim Tebow pray for your soul!
Quarterbacks don’t slip under anyone’s radar. A quarterback gets all the attention, for good or ill.
Many analysts insist vigorously that Denver Broncos quarterback and outspoken Evangelical Christian Tim Tebow, is not a viable long-term NFL player at that position, and his pitiful (or pitiable, depending on your relationship to Tebow) end to the regular season makes that case even more persuasive.
Well, that is not what NBA legend LeBron James thinks; he took to Twitter early in the Tebow debates to call out Tebow’s critics and to champion Tebow’s victories.
Another towering NBA player in Tebow’s corner is Dwight Howard; he backed Tebow with religious fervor, literally: “U got Jesus. U can’t lose,” he tweeted to Tebow.
Phoenix Suns guard Jared Dudley, also an African-American Christian, has used similar religious rhetoric in supporting Tebow, who he consistently refers to as “a man of God.”
Despite the focus on racial resentment on First Take, a lot of African-Americans in general and African-American Christians in particular like Tim Tebow and support him against his critics.
This, of course, does not disqualify anything anyone said in that compelling episode, but it does add another important layer to the discussion.
In fact, before Tebow’s first start of the season against a barely sputtering Dolphins' squad, Dolphins’ center and African-American Christian, Mike Pouncey, claimed that God had primed Tebow for the matchup.
In the interest of full disclosure, though, Pouncey was a teammate of Tebow’s at the University of Florida, when they were still together swallowing up opposing bait in Gator chomps.
But it isn’t just former teammates.
One of the most provocative comments I have heard during discussions of Tebowmania came from Tebow’s current teammate and African-American Christian Brian Dawkins.
After Tebow had led yet another Broncos’ fourth-quarter comeback (I developed carpel tunnel from that line this year), this time against the New York Jets, Dawkins hinted that there was some kind of divine conspiracy at work in their victories:
This is something that does not happen all the time. Myself and Tim were talking before the game and believing in something of a higher purpose and, you know, there are just some things happening that just don’t happen all the time.
(By the way, if you are searching for a variable that changed from the Broncos' winning to losing streak, look where Dawkins has been during the losing spell: injured on the sidelines.)
Why have so many African-Americans invoked religion when supporting Tebow? Why, if Tebow inspires racial resentment, does he also have such abundant African-American support?
Lewis Woods Jr. is a law student at Tulane University, but he also has a Masters of Divinity from Duke University and is a perceptive football fan. As an African-American with a long pedigree in the Black Church his voice adds a valuable contribution to the religion, race and Tebow discussion.
For this, and because he is just a really cool guy, I am grateful that he is my brother-in-law.
I interviewed Woods for a story I was developing on African-American support of Tebow, when Tebow was still riding a steady wave of winning.
I asked him what he thought about religious support for a winning Tebow.
"I think as Christians and fans, it is easy to go with a victor, but we are more so called to put ourselves in the shoes of those who know agony, defeat and sorrow."
And Woods took issue with the idea that God was helping a football player win, particularly one who is making millions of dollars.
Jesus was someone who turned a little bread and fish into a feast so that everyone could eat. That is a true miracle. I don’t think it is a miracle for [Tim Tebow] to live in the house of mirth and to leave others in the house of sorrow.”
(Since this interview, Tebow has, of course, become well-acquainted with sorrowful losses.)
But Woods understands why Tebowmania has resonated with at least some people in the black churches:
Within the Black Church, I think there is a lot of emphasis on God’s providential hand. So, I mean, the Black Church believes in a God who can help oppressed and powerless people and bring them through some of the worst and darkest days in history; to not just be survivors but to find success in society and to give God credit for all the success. I could see that as something that resonates [with the Tebow story].
It is not just on religious grounds that Woods finds affinity between Tebow and African-Americans.
I personally think in some ways Tebow gets the criticism that black quarterbacks have received. The criticism is that they run well, but they don’t throw well enough, or they aren’t smart enough to play the position.
Many of those quarterbacks have had to switch positions because of that criticism. Some have switched to the running back position, while others are now wide receivers.
For him [Tebow] to come in and get a lot of the same criticism and to succeed despite that criticism, as a quarterback, it’s easier to identify with him in that regard.
This idea of African-American identification with Tebow might seem like a polar opposite view to the one expressed by Kordell Stewart on ESPN. I asked Woods about that.
"I can see both sides," he replied.
This diversity also means that media outlets need to include as many of those informative voices as possible.
Race is not monolithic, and neither is religion.
For some, Tim Tebow represents excluded, marginalized people who have faced unreasonable opposition, and who trust in the providential oversight of a magnanimous deity to override prejudicial opinion; Tebow has thus captivated a fan base that includes a wide swath of African-Americans and African-American Christians.
Nevertheless, the incessant media attention of the Tebow story (which I have contributed to at this publication) also raises questions about why other fascinating narratives (think Cam Newton) are not given the same level of glossy limelight.
I’m grateful that ESPN had the courage to bring this conversation out of the shadows. May it continue in the light.