The Curious Case of Tim Tebow: How an Athlete is at the Center of a Polarized Culture

Tim Tebow is an interesting case study.

He is the kind of guy you want your daughter to date. Tebow is a strong Christian who is rooted in God’s love. We’re not talking about the celebrity form of Christianity, in which one claims to be a Christian but you never see any fruit. Tebow is authentic in his faith and charitable in his care for others.

Yet, Tebow is the last person you want starting for your favorite NFL franchise. Sure, Tebow managed to lead the Denver Broncos to a postseason victory over the Steelers, but he is much maligned for his style of play. His style is more suited for the college game, which Tebow was, perhaps, one of the best ever winning a Heisman and two national titles. Tebow’s biggest weakness has been his ability to accurately throw a pass, which is something a quarterback is expected to do.

This week, Tebow was traded to the New York Jets after the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning. It has led to usual discussion that accompanies Tebow in the NFL. On one side, you have those who believe Tebow is not a starting quarterback and should change positions. On the other side of the debate are those who believe Tebow has been unfairly criticized because of his faith and that his record shows he can play in the NFL.

It is a debate that will not go away with Tebow moving to the country’s media center. With this maybe another question needs to be asked. Why is Tebow such a polarizing individual and what does it mean for all of us?

To answer the question, we have to understand what it means to be a polarizing figure in a culture. By a polarizing figure, we mean someone in whom no middle ground exists. The very mention of their name fosters extreme affinity or dislike. Tebow is not the first polarizing athlete, and he certainly isn’t the only athlete today who is polarizing. Since 2009, Tiger Woods has become a polarizing figure because of his private life.

However, Tebow’s polarization seems to goes beyond sports and cuts into the fabric of American popular culture. That is because what makes Tebow polarizing is part of a growing problem in our culture. Tebow’s polarization is due, in part, because we have forgotten what it means to disagree.

This plays out in the weekly response to Tebow’s performance and his recent trade to New York. While some argue they are making sound judgments about his play, and are not doing so because of his faith, others see something else. They argue that when analysts criticize Tebow is because he is open about his faith in Christ and lives it out. That is where the polarization exists and causes both sides to  argue with the other.

We see this at play in other areas of life outside of sports. This arguing among different sides is at the core of our current election cycle. Currently, we have conservatives on the right and liberals on the left – the two extremes of American politics – arguing to the point where almost any politician is automatically a polarizing figure.

Why does this happen? Why do we have a problem with proper disagreement in our public discourses? I believe there are several reasons for this.

Whether we want to admit or not we follow the example of our leadership. Leadership that is highly partisan is going to lead to a culture that is highly splintered and polarized. Because our leadership operates in extremes we have followed suit and do the same. This extreme nature prevents us from seeing value in the other, because we are too involved in our positions.

Because of this, differences of opinion become larger battles. We are insulted when someone doesn’t agree with us, because we find no value of truth in someone else’s opinion. We maintain that ours is the only acceptable opinion. This is the nature of the debate surrounding Tebow. There are two opinions – one says he can play and the other says he cannot as a quarterback. The inability to respect the other’s opinion prevents finding common agreement between the two sides.

Do we really enjoy our debates and discussions turning into a polarized activity? We don’t need the stress. The only way for change to take place is if we step back from the ledge of the extremes. Our leaders – both in politics and the church – must be willing to see commonality with each other, which will, in turn, give the populace reasons to the do the same. Until people see leaders respecting others, we will continue to debate and disagree from the ledges, which will continue to put people like Tebow and others at the center of our polarized culture.

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