Tracing Tebow: An NFL Outsider’s Perspective on Tebowing and Sports Media

Written by Andrew Sercombe January 24, 2012

Come on, everyone Tebow!” – Jimmy Fallon on Late Night as “Tebowie”

Colton Orr skated by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench to many smiles, jeers, and pats on the back. Orr had just scored in the shootout of the Maple Leafs’ Fan Appreciation Night; a skills competition the Maple Leafs hosted on December 20th. After scoring, he bent down onto one knee in front of the goalie, and hung his head in prayer for close to three seconds. Orr, a stereotypical National Hockey League fighter who later was demoted to Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate after the celebration, took his rare opportunity of taking a shootout shot – and furthermore even scoring – to display what he later told reporters after the game was called “Tebowing.” The next week, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson preformed the same bowing gesture after scoring a goal in a genuine NHL game. Tebowing had entered the NHL twice.

I had now heard the term Tebowing numerous times used in many different contexts in the month of December, understood that it originated in the National Football League, and was aware of the quarterback Tim Tebow in Denver, but was struck as to how cross-dimensional Tebowing had become in sports. It was not a product of football, but of media. The understanding of Tebow was defined by Tebowing and a skewed meaning of the act framed by writers, broadcasters, photographers and other media.

Tebowing appears to have many different connotations, and it is difficult to find one concrete understanding while attempting to familiarize oneself with this new “meme.” Tracing it from its recent presence in hockey, and how it appeared as a mocking gesture in the NHL, back through the sportscasters, broadcasters and writers who extended the meme through media, and finally to Tebow himself who prays during his football games after throwing touchdown passes, Tebow’s background and the stories of his on-field play, are overshadowed by a sensationalized, celebratory off-field symbol surrounding him. Seven forth-quarter come from behind wins this season and an overtime Wild Card win against Pittsburgh did not help Tebow escape the media attention. Neither did his outspoken Christianity, or the numerous hypothetical GOP endorsements. At a time where the lead up and results of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries dominated the news, Americans ate up the Tebow story in sequence this season.

Tebow threw for a season-high 316 yards and set an NFL record with 31.6 yards per completion against Pittsberg on January 8th. Trending on Google the next day was the Bible verse John 3:16 – a verse Tebow marked on his eye black while playing for University of Florida.

Tebow was built as the true American underdog, but the storyline season that captivated sports fans came to an end on January 14ththis weekend. Tebowing was universal by the time of Denver’s loss in the divisional round of the 2011–12 NFL Playoffs. His playoff run was watched by many on television, and it is clear that despite the attention Tebow received by media, he was outplayed by his counterpart Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. Tebow is not the best player in the NFL, yet he is given an exceptional amount of attention on sports highlight shows and sports broadcasts. People watch him, read about him, and consume what media has constructed as a Tim Tebow product. Media has turned him into a spectacle, and his image and aura are doubly consumed by fans.

Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots talks with quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos after a game at Sports Authority Field

Tebow has encountered media attention his entire career. In college, his records and awards were overshadowed by his religious views. Quickly, the media turned Tebow from an athlete into a celebrity before he made his professional debut in Denver. The meaning of Tebowing transforms as Tebow’s career progresses. From college to the NFL, and now into other sports such as the NHL, Tebowing is taking on a new symbolic cultural form created by media. You do not have to be a football fan to have heard of Tebow. On YouTube, videos of children performing their renditions of Tebowing are going viral. Parodies on television by Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon pay tribute to Tebow, and even hateful videos and websites prosecuting Tebow and his religious beliefs exist.

Tebow wore references to biblical verses on his eye black when playing for University of Florida. Dubbed “The Tebow Rule,” NCAA football banned messages on eye paint in 2010.

Many critics agree that Tebow has been a part of a miraculous season, full of upset victories and come from behind wins, and has sparked a lively debate about the role God plays in a player’s success on the field. However, I see another debate: What is media’s role in sports, and to what extent should its involvement be permitted? What in sports media constitutes celebratory attention towards athletes? Where is the line drawn between fiction and reality in sports media?  Tracing Tebowing from the NHL back through media and to the NFL has led me to believe that media is a circus that has followed Tebow his entire career, shaped the understanding of Tebowing in culture, and is responsible for the side-act following Tebow and the NFL. A season of terrible coaching, the Packers’ run at perfection, and the race for Dan Marino’s passing record have been overshadowed by Tebow; an all too common occurrence of sensationalized fiction in the ongoing relationship between sports and media.

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