Journalism, Jesus & Tebow

TebowISAIAHSo, are we getting close to increased mainstream media coverage of (a) the content of Florida Gator superstar Tim Tebow's faith, (b) the impact of that faith on how people (including reporters) perceive him and (c) the impact of that perception on, oh, his chances to receive another Heisman Trophy? Clearly, there are reporters and columnists out there who are starting to get fed up with this young man. It's showing up in the work of columnists. Meanwhile, Tebow's public pronouncements -- including his high-profile use of Bible references -- is raising some interesting questions for college-football beat reporters. More on that in a minute.

But first, check out this broadside from Sam Cook of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.

Thank God Tim Tebow is a senior at the University of Florida.

Or, if Tebow was talking for me, "Praise the Lord!"

I don't know how many more "God bless" comments I can stand from the 2007 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Religion -- except for the "Hail Mary" pass -- has no place in sports.

In Tebow's case, he should play football and forget about us sinners for 3 1/2 hours every Saturday. Somehow, we'll survive without him displaying a "John 3:16" Bible verse under his eyes.

We separate church and state. Why not church and sports? Would it fly with the NCAA or TV networks if a player exhibited "God is dead" on his face? Freedom of expression would be wiped away as quickly as the greasepaint.

That's an interesting, if irrelevant, point about the prospects for an atheist in a football helmet -- at least it's irrelevant for the work of a journalist covering stories about Tebow's career at the University of Florida.

Is the eye-black matter an issue for the player's coach or administrator? Sure. The football team is a voluntary association. Should the NCAA take some action to control or even ban religious expression? That's possible. The National Football League has already leaned that direction with its informal agreement not to show the post-game prayers on the playing field between players on opposing teams.

Let me note that Cook -- a Lutheran -- isn't knocking private expressions of faith in locker rooms. You know, prayers for players to be able to do their best and prayers for protection for players on both teams.

What Cook is really mad about is the fact that Tebow's parents -- evangelical missionaries in the Philippines -- are trying to win converts in the heavily Roman Catholic Philippines. He is offended that they preach salvation, heaven and hell in that context. He is very offended that some people seem to think that Tebow's missionary work is worthy of admiration and that their views are making it into public media, while the dark side (from his doctrinal perspective) of the Tebow family's work is not getting enough ink.

(An aside: I was in the Philippines this summer and talked with several Catholic leaders who think their own church needs to get to work re-evangelizing many of the cultural, but not active, Catholics in that nation. This is a rather complex issue.)

You can read Cook's column for yourself. He has every right to speak out, of course, including making statements that the Tebow family is preaching bigotry. Of course, Tebow and his parents have a right to preach their own sermons in response. Or is Cook saying that sports columnists get to preach, but athletes do not? It's hard to tell.

Anyway, my Scripps Howard column this week focuses on Tebow and the difficulty that secular sports writers are having covering his faith -- especially those eye-black patches under his eyes.

tim-tebow-a-virginHere's the top of that column:

After being knocked halfway to kingdom come, Tim Tebow knew that millions of college football fans would be paying close attention to his eyes the next time he led the Florida Gators into action.

Viewers would be looking for signs that the quarterback was OK after a nasty concussion. Many would also want to see which Bible reference would be written in the patches of eye black that would be visible whenever television cameras focused on the face of America's most famous muscular Christian.

Tebow was wearing Isaiah 40:31 when he got hurt against Kentucky: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

This biblical commentary continued when he returned against LSU, with a reference pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."

The Palm Beach Post put it this way: "Give thanks in all circumstances."

Not exactly.

You see, it's hard to avoid quoting the Bible when you're writing about an athlete who refuses to stop quoting the Bible.

Viewers who used an Internet search engine could find the full scriptural reference. Those who relied on news reports, however, tended to find language scrubbed clean of the fervent, conservative and, for many, offensive faith that shapes the lives of Tebow and his missionary parents and siblings.

Yes, the column addresses the John 3:16 issue, when Tebow put the ultimate evangelism verse under his eyes during the BCS national championship game. It also addresses those 700,000-plus URLs that pop up when you put "Tebow, virgin" into an Internet search engine.

Please read Cook's column for yourself. Then read mine, if you wish, and then let me know what you think of the JOURNALISM issues raised by Tebow's words and actions. Stick to the journalism, please.

PHOTOS: A sample of the eye-black content issue. Then, Tebow poses with a fan on a beach, something that probably happens quite a bit in Florida.

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