Tim Tebow Sparks a Deadspin and Sports Illustrated Writing Duel

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Tim Tebow Sparks a Deadspin and Sports Illustrated Writing Duel
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Tim Tebow's NFL football career died, Sports Illustrated wrote a retrospective and Deadspin set it ablaze.

That is a brief summary of events that began with a much longer story, "The Book of Tebow," by senior Sports Illustrated writer Thomas Lake, writing in this case for Longform - SI.com.

Lake's mix of extended reflections and vivid graphics quickly drew positive attention on Twitter.

Win Bassett noticed:

 

 

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Other writers, like Joan Niesen, were drawn to the commentary on Tebow's time with the Broncos:

 

 

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And it wasn't just football writers offering praise. ESPN.com Red Sox reporter Gordon Edes was also impressed:

 

 

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Tim Marchman at Deadspin refused to be "praise baited" and countered with a scathing review of Lake's piece entitled "Sports Illustrated Goes Long on The Quarterback Who Couldn't," which included the words "relentless awfulness."

Marchman insists that, in "The Book of Tebow," Lake dresses up pedestrian points in "nonsensical" prose, seeking style without substance. 

The substance Marchman thinks is missing in Lake's piece is a serious appraisal of Tebow's religion, or at least some of the religious leaders with whom he has been connected.

Marchman complains, for instance, that Lake writes in generalities about a scheduled speaking engagement that Tebow ultimately canceled at a Texas church led by a pastor, Robert Jeffress, whom Lake vaguely calls a "cultural critic." Marchman is more blunt about the unsavory features of Jeffress' countercultural faith.

Robert Jeffress is a cultural heretic not because of his lack of fear, but because he's said that President Obama is paving the way for the anti-Christ, that gay people are an abomination, and that Islam and Mormonism are heresies from the pit of Hell. 

Marchman is right that these details matter, and especially for a long meditation on the interplay between religion, culture and football in Tebow's brief NFL career.

But while Marchman seeks to be more specific about Tebow's religion and religious associations than Lake, he potentially adds confusion by exaggerating the sectarian nature of Tebow's faith. He complains:

As a minor example, take the capital virtues, the Latin names of which tag each section of the piece, presumably indicating that each is meant to relate to or illustrate its corresponding virtue. This not only renders the entire structure of the piece incoherent—in exactly what sense does a 1,500-word vignette about how Tebow played poorly with the New England Patriots have anything to do with caritas?—but raises the question of just what Catholic theology has to do with an aggressively Baptist football player.

Marchman doesn't seem to take that final question seriously, as if the implied answer is "Not much," or "Nothing at all." The correct answer is "More than you might expect." 

Tebow's particular religious beliefs may seem exclusive, but a Jew started the "Tebowing" craze, Muslims used a billboard to call for him to start in Denver in 2011 and, yes, even Catholic theology was part of Tebowmania.

A Catholic theologian named George Weigel wrote one of the first journalistic pieces to claim that cultural criticism of Tebow the football player was undergirded by disdain for Christian faith: "Whatever we think of Tim Tebow’s theology of salvation, Tim Tebow and serious Catholics are both fated to be targets of the Christophobes."

Besides attracting defenses from Catholic theologians, Tebow has also made Catholics important parts of his relational circles.

Tebow's college coach, Urban Meyer, is Catholic and was inspired, in part, by Tebow's evangelical zeal to take his family on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.

Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Camilla Belle

Tebow's first girlfriend as an NFL quarterback? Actress Camilla Belle. A Catholic.

Contrary to what Marchman suggests, then, there is a surprising affinity between Catholicism and Baptist faith when it comes to Tebow (even though that relationship is complicated by the fact that Tebow's evangelical missionary work has focused on the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country).

Perhaps Marchman has a more restricted view of "theology" in mind, one that would meet the more rigorous standards of a seminary, rather than the messy mundane of everyday life. That would explain why he quibbles with Lake's application of the Christian concept of grace when he writes:

Similarly, you have lines like this: "Another thing about grace: The more you receive, the more you can give." This is less a thought than a thought-like object; as vigorously as the various branches of Christianity disagree about grace, the gift of divine mercy is rarely spoken of as something that comes in measurable quantities, or that lousy quarterbacks are capable of bestowing. A line like this can't be taken seriously as anything other than a series of sounds ....

If you listen to what actual religious football players have said about Tebow, though, it is Lake's explanation of grace that seems more fitting than Marchman's assumption about a precise use of theological terms across the Christian spectrum.

Look closely at what Karlos Dansby had to say in 2011 when he was a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins and after Tebow led a frenzied comeback in the waning minutes to set up an overtime win for the Denver Broncos.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Karlos Dansby

"Us losing to Tim Tebow the way we did, we seen it first hand" .... "Young man is blessed.  Young man has a special anointing on him.  And for God to show himself in that game the way he did, through the guy he did it through, it opened a lot of guys' eyes on our team.  And it brought a lot of guys closer to God, so like I said, everything happens for a reason. ... My hat goes off to Tim.  And God working through him like that, it opened up a lot of eyes.  He's a blessed young man and I wish him much success the rest of his career."

Dansby uses "anointing," rather than "grace" there, but the basic idea that Tebow has been blessed to be a blessing to others fits Lake's concept of grace.

My point is not that Tebow was (or wasn't) actually "anointed" or bestowed with "grace" at one stage in his NFL career or that his wedding of football and faith should be applauded (or denigrated).

I am suggesting that Marchman "threw shade" on Lake in a couple of respects: His barrage on Lake's Tebow article fits the trash-talking connotation of that expression, but more importantly Marchman occludes aspects of the relationship of faith and football in Tebow's story, while supposedly shining a bright light on what Lake missed about that interplay.

For a short piece that seeks a thorough takedown of a much longer one, that failure to hit the target is significant.

Maybe Deadspin should have gone long.

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