February 5, 2010
(RNS) -- Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow won't be on the Super Bowl field in Miami this Sunday (Feb. 7), but his expected prime-time anti-abortion ad is keeping him in the spotlight, and raising questions about the sometimes awkward balancing act between religion and sports.
"He has become sort of the epitome or exemplar of the engagement between Christianity and big-time sports," said Tom Krattenmaker, author of the new book, "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers."
"I can't recall ever seeing so much (attention) around one athlete: oth incredible respect, incredible accomplishment on the field, sterling character off the field, combined with this level of controversy and discussion and hoopla."
To be sure, religion and sports haven't always been on the same team; just ask any pastor who's found members of his flock out on the links on a Sunday morning instead of in the pews. At the same time, sport evangelism ministries are more than half a century old, and even St. Paul turned to sports metaphors in talking about running "with endurance the race that is set before us."
But Tebow's public expressions of faith -- from Bible verses painted on his face during games to the $2.5 million Super Bowl ad sponsored by Focus on the Family -- have sparked a range of questions about what's appropriate when God meets the gridiron.
Some observers say Tebow has every right to appear in a Super Bowl commercial, even though they might question whether it's the best way to share his views.
"It could very well be a great message, but is it a good venue?" asked Paul Louis Metzger, who teaches theology and culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore. "Is it helpful to the discussion, or does it up the volume, so to speak, on the culture war rhetoric?"
Some sports columnists have given Tebow a foul, saying the ad about a hot-button social issue is, well, out of bounds.
"Religion should not be part of sport. Period," declared Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander in a recent commentary. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice urged supporters to pressure CBS to pull the ad because they "object to the equation of being Christian and being anti-abortion."
Though the contents of the ad haven't been released, it's widely expected to feature Tebow and his mother, who was advised to consider abortion when she was pregnant with Tebow because of a high-risk pregnancy. "I know some people won't agree with it," Tebow has told reporters, "but I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe."
Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said the ministry hasn't drawn so much free publicity since founder James Dobson interviewed serial killer Ted Bundy on death row two decades ago.
"Obviously, the Tebows are an outspoken, solid Christian family; Focus on the Family is an outspoken Christian ministry," Schneeberger said. "It was a natural partnership to team up with them."
He added that the Tebows were picked for the ad, which was funded by a "handful of donors," because of their "inspirational story."
Tebow isn't the only one who's getting into the game this Super Bowl season. The Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic cable channel, will air a "Faith Bowl" roundtable on Sunday that features Catholic pro athletes, including Seattle Mariners designated hitter Mike Sweeney and Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Bobby Keppel.
National Football League players will sing in a choir at the 11th annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration on Friday in Miami. And a California church is competing to have the ad it created for Doritos air during the big game.
With organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, evangelicals have long been players in mixing souls and sports.
Krattenmaker, for one, would like sports to be more sensitive to a range of faiths, and wishes evangelicals could be less focused on the "worship" of sports idols like Tebow.
"I know a lot of deep-believing evangelicals who are disturbed by what you might call this celebrity endorsement model of Christianity, and also concerned that this engagement of pro sports can distort the faith," said Krattenmaker, who attends a Unitarian church in Portland, Ore. "That's a concern that I share."
Some evangelicals also have concerns. Ed Uszynski, who works for Athletes in Action, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, said he urges athletes to rethink how they express their faith.
At a recent college football game he attended, he said at least 10 teammates dropped a knee in prayer: "It becomes rabbit-footish," said Uszynski, adding that he wasn't speaking for the ministry.
Author Shirl James Hoffman, who wrote this month's Christianity Today cover story about "Sports Fanatics," said efforts to evangelize athletes and fans should also address some of the violence -- especially in football -- and the locker-room raunchiness and vulgarity that's all too common in professional sports.
"The idea that we can save enough athletes that we're somehow going to change sports, change the hearts of athletes -- look, we've tried that," said Hoffman, author of the new book, "Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports," in an interview.
"Professional football is filled with Christians. Has it changed the moral tone of the NFL? Not at all."
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