December 19, 2011

Tim Tebow: The New Western Man?

by Brandi Denison 

First, a confession. Although I am a Coloradoan at heart, and therefore, a Bronco’s fan, I am only a fair-weather football fan. My knowledge of the game is through osmosis. I have absorbed the rules and rhythms of the game through the hours my dad, uncles, and cousins have spent watching and hoping that the Broncos will recover their former glory. But there is a new man in town and he has caught my attention.

Photo by Mark Seliger
 What? No, not that. I meant Tebowing.

This gesture has started a craze among athletes—ranging from high school players to professionals, including skier Lindsey Vonn. Vonn, a native Coloradoan, said that she would Tebow if she won a race in Colorado (a feat that the world-class skier has never accomplished). When she won her first race in the States at Beavercreek last week, she knelt down in front of her skis. In honor of God? No. When asked why she did it, she said: “Go Broncos. I did it. Got to represent.” 

Many Coloradoans of all religious stripes might be in agreement with Vonn. For fans that have seen their team come so close to glory only to have it slip away in a fumbled football, Tebow is their savior. Tim Tebow fits into a mythic narrative Coloradoans have of themselves and of their sports teams—a little scrappy, but he gets the job done. Except last night, but an SNL skit predicted that this would happen.

But there’s more to Tebow than meets the eye.In addition to being portrayed as the savior of the Broncos, he has been heralded as the new face of evangelical Christianity. For one thing, he has a mythic birth story. In short, according to his parents, Tim Tebow shouldn't be here.

He has caught the attention of non-Christians as well. In an article for the ChristianScience Monitor, Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston said:

I happen to be Jewish … and it’s not Tebow versus other religions,” Mr. Lebowitz says. “I believe in a new construct of manhood. You can be tough as heck on the football field, but still be kind, compassionate, respectful of women…. He sends a message that there may be dignity in choosing partners carefully, or respecting your body and someone else’s body as a temple. I respect that.
So, is Tebow, situated in the American West, giving us a new vision of manhood? One that is tough as nails in the workplace, but kind, compassionate, and respectful of women everywhere else? 

No, of course not. Tebow is just engaging a very old idea of American masculinity, popularized by many writers and actors, including John Wayne. Here’s a clip from Rooster Cogburn (the 1975 sequel to the original True Grit), where Cogburn advises Eula Goodnight (played by the “Yankee” Katherine Heburn) on his take on gender and religion. In short, Goodnight asks Cogburn if his name is written in the Book of Life. After some back and forth, Cogburn responds by advising Goodnight to follow the apostle Paul's recommendation that women stay quiet.

Cogburn was tough in a fight but always willing to help ladies in need out. Sounds a little like another popular hero (albeit a mid-western one): 


Truth, Justice, and the American Way are secular ideals that Tebow, among other western heroes, embodies. Wait! You might object, as Tebow is the first to popularize an evangelical message on the national football arena

Oh? Do you remember this guy?

Tim Defrisco/Getty Image
Bill McCartney was the storied coach of the University of Colorado at Boulder football team from 1982-1994. During his tenure as coach, he led the team to win 3 consecutive Big Eight Conference titles. Off the field, though, McCartney worked to fight another battle. 

In 1990, McCartney founded Promise Keepers, an organization whose mission is to: “ignite and unite men to become warriors who will change their world through living out the Seven Promises.” These Seven Promises include supporting men in “building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.” Promise Keepers teaches men that they need to be the spiritual head of their household, leading their wives and children into salvation. 

McCartney also participated in another storied birth story—that of Timothy Chase (TC) McCartney, a quarterback at LSU. TC is the son of McCartney’s daughter, Kristy, and one of his football players from the CU team, Sal Aunese. Sal was diagnosed with cancer when Kristy was pregnant. Before Sal died, Bill McCartney led Sal to Christ. You can read the story here. 

I’m sure that this list could go on. Tebow is just one of many other Christian athletes working to use sports to transform images of both Christianity and masculinity. Look for Annie Blazer’s book, Faith on the Field: Sports, Gender, and Evangelicalism in America in the coming months to help contextualize male athleticism within a broader evangelical culture. 

Now, I have to ask. Is this a type of masculinity that we want modeled for us? Tebow’s optimism, sportsmanship, and charity work do seem quite admirable. Indeed, in the face of NFL scandals like Rob Gronkowski’s photo shoot with a porn star, Tebow stands out as a quarterback parents could encourage their kids to look up to. 

However, we need to interrogate even Tebow's version of masculinity. Are these really the only two ways of being a man in the United States today? Neither one is desirable, as both define themselves against subordinating women. On the one hand, women become valued as objects of male desire, but on the other hand, women are powerful only in their capacity to sacrifice themselves  in order to build an evangelical home. In both of these visions of American manhood, women stand behind the men. We do need new constructions of manhood. I'm just not sure that we have found our guy in Tebow.  


Joshua Paddison said...

I haven't rooted against an athlete this much since Bill Laimbeer...

AHaitz said...

Great article. I really enjoyed reading it.
I do want to give you my view as being the wife of a Christian man who is a strong leader, yet compassionate to others in this world, and I must tell you that I do not feel like a subordinate. The Bible really teaches that in a marriage the man and woman are partners. Yes the man is the leader of the home and bears a lot of responsibility of providing for the family; yet I know in our home that each decision my husband makes for our family, he has first come to me to ask what I think and most often we make these tough decisions together as a team.
I know that there are others out there that say they are Christians and they think/ make women subordinate to them, however that's not what I get when I read the Bible.
Your article reminds me of the book, Compassionate Samurai, by Brian Klemmer. We need more men and women that are Compassionate Samurai. Check it out if you have not read it. :o)

Brett Hendrickson said...

You have to have a subscription unfortunately, but this week's Time has a good short piece about Tebow by Jon Meacham:,9171,2103742,00.html