Inspired by the warring sides of the Civil War, we remain two large political pockets, two teams, red and blue. We keep to our own backyards. In Colorado, evangelical Christians happily pray on Sundays for their country to grow into the City on a Hill. In New York City, drivers are penalized for parking in the bike lane.
But our two great American families are about to attend an awkward reunion that only football could bring about: Tim Tebow living with the New York tri-state area’s lesser relation, New York Jets. Traditionally, New York is not a city embroiled by ideological battles over religion. Such matters were most intense when Irish workers guarded Old St. Patrick’s from being burned by Know Nothings. New York loves its divisive figures and the absurd journalism they create, but not when they inspire sportswriters to offer their views on theology.
Tebow and the Jets. Each represents an entirely different aesthetic, so much so that they would make for a badly written network television sitcom about an odd couple: Tim is from the South. Like most Southerners, he wants to return to the home of old time religion; the song “Dixie” speaks about living and dying in the South. Their world is a narrow spectrum, at least through the eyes of a man who believes in one supreme truth in the world, as Tebow does.
The Jets fan, on the other hand, is the weekend warrior, a product of the fervent, neurotic, and secular North. Divorced, saddled with child support, the Jets fan wants nothing more than to avoid his cousins, uncles, nieces, neighbors and aunts on Saturdays. He burns meat alone in his backyard. He gets drunk in front of his son while tailgating on Sunday at the Meadowlands.
Tebow (as every human with a computer and a blog has pointed out) is the messianic child of college football, the traditional sport of the South. Tebow did not go to the Jaguars because even the Jaguars may not stay in the South much longer. Professional sports are a hard sell in a part of the country where the idea of working for nothing has always been a part of their history. Tebow is the chaplain of this supposedly honorable aesthetic playing in our most cravenly greedy sport. He plays to spread the Lord’s word, and for money, I suppose.
The New York Jets themselves provide less potential for myth-making. I am a devout Jets fan, yet well I know they are the most cartoonish manifestation of the more secular, professional aesthetic. One friend of mine reminded me that former star defensive end Mark Gastineau probably did much to spread the gospel of steroids. What about our current coach? Can you imagine Rex Ryan’s tapestry of vulgarisms with Tim Tebow in the audience? Bombastic, profane, overrated, unselfconscious and dull, the current Jets team is like the coyote that has used too many ACME contraptions to catch the road runner and has found himself suspended over an abyss, with nothing more than a broken umbrella.
The Jets’ only mythical gift to the game is Joe Namath, who was in the South but not of it. That’s why Namath’s play off the field was as much the star for the New York media as his work on it. Tim Tebow, on the other hand, is a self-professed virgin because he believes sexuality is the domain of the Christian family. Imagine the pious Tebow, presented with the temptations of the nation’s capital of secular humanism. Like villains out of a French novel, the Post and Daily News may relish the opportunity to see Tebow deflowered.
The contrasts build. Tebow will be suiting up in a city that was not only home to Stonewall riots but is now home to Protestant parishes with gay ministers. There may be a few NASCAR fans in Jets nation, but the car culture of Long Island, with its endless blocks of auto body shops, has nothing to do with that. Can the man whose famous birth story has heartened many a culturally conservative Republican feel at home in a city whose idea of a Republican is Michael Bloomberg?
Tim Tebow is the visible emblem of a version of America that yearns, whether they know it or not, for a theocracy. Last season, Tebow compelled one venerable Boston scribe to ask whether or not Tebow’s Southern Baptist beliefs held that Catholics were damned to hell, to which a self-described Christian Libertarian blogger responded by saying that only a “God-hating liberal” could “hate Tebow.” That’s a sample of Tebowmania.
Is Rex Ryan aware that each time he starts Mark Sanchez at quarterback over Tim Tebow, he will, as was suggested often last year, be making a political statement about the Christian athlete? Does he realize that he is going to be seen as silencing his beliefs?
Absurd? Yes. But this is the tone of the contemporary American discussion over faith’s role in society, and Tebow’s mere existence is just fodder for this nightmare to make its way to the Big Apple. Let it fall flat there.