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Jane Ahlin, Published January 14 2012

Ahlin: Tebow is comedy for some, new sports angle for others

When it comes to Denver Bronco Tim Tebow kneeling in the end zone after a big play, I mostly agree with Forum columnist Tracy Briggs, who wrote recently that there are worse examples for kids to emulate than a devout, clean-living football star. While Tebow’s behavior is theatrical and, as religious expression, off-putting to many, in and of itself, it’s hard to see it as harmful.

The message that sticking to the straight and narrow leads to success is a good one. On the other hand, a problem arises if kids conclude that Christian faith and good fortune – particularly money and fame – are directly linked or that overt expressions of faith are acceptable only for Christians.

Tebow has been clear in saying that God doesn’t choose sides in football games (let’s all say, “Thank God for that”). Still, Tebow sees his position on the football team as a “platform” for his faith, and he thanks his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” every chance he gets.

Especially in the most recent game between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tebow’s football skills and the Bible seemed to have intersected, giving sportswriters a different angle to consider in their reporting, and, yes, also providing fresh material for comedy writers.

If you’ve missed the story, Tebow wrote “John 3:16” in his eye black for the Broncos/Steelers game, and his ensuing stats were 316 total yards passing with an average of 31.6 yards per completion. I saw one report saying that the opposing quarterback also threw an interception on third and 16, but I haven’t confirmed that. Whether or not the interception story is true, the opposing quarterback adds another religious dimension to the story – also evangelical.

In fact, in an op-ed for the Washington Post preceding the recent Broncos/Steelers game titled “God’s Quarterbacks,” religion writers David Kuo and Patten Dodd sought to explain something about evangelical politics through stories of Tebow and Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback.

For those – including me – who are not fans of professional football, the memorable thing about Ben Roethlisberger was the charge of sexual assault leveled against him in 2010 – a charge that never resulted in a trial. However, as Kuo and Dodd report, “(Roethlisberger) was suspended for four games under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.”

What I either never knew or didn’t remember was how full of evangelical fervor Roethlisberger was as a rookie. Evidently, he put “PFJ” (“play for Jesus”) on the bottom of his football shoes and was quoted in an interview before the 2005 Super Bowl as saying, “You don’t have to listen to what I have to say, but I always have the opportunity to glorify God in all that I do.”

Somewhere between 2005 and 2010, Roethlisberger obviously did some major backsliding, but now, according to Kuo and Dodd, he has returned to his faith. The two writers refer to Tebow and Roethlisberger as two examples of evangelicalism, “one of zeal and one of redemption”: the “missionary” and “the prodigal son come home.” Using the two quarterbacks as examples, the writers identify “sincerity” in candidates – particularly about life struggles – as the key to getting the vote of evangelicals.

Back to the outcome of the recent game. It’s probably best to explain Tebow’s stats to kids as an entertaining coincidence rather than as God playing favorites. (After all, if God controls football games, why did God let little Eva’s mom lose her job or the dad of her friend George get kidney cancer? And then there was that “C” on the science test even though Eva studied and prayed.)

We also might consider how a devout, clean-living football star named Jamal Ali al Nasari would show his praise as a child of God during a game and how comfortable we’d be with it. For that matter, if every player chose to be true to his religion or belief system with some personal antic after a big play, the novelty of Tebow quickly would wear off. Tebow’s sincerity aside, football is just a game.

Ahlin, of Fargo, writes a Sunday column for The Forum.