This morning Tim Tebow, the most recognizable and polarizing quarterback in the NFL for almost two years, was released by the New York Jets into the cold hard world of unemployed NFL players. The move was not entirely unexpected, Tebow had received little or no playing time on the Jets despite the fact that starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was terrible this season and the team was going to miss the playoffs by a mile. Nevertheless his amazing career arc, from college to two short years in the NFL, seem eerily similar to the current state of politics in America and the Republican Party in particular. Tebow’s rise and fall follows the same pattern as the Tea Party movement and the anti-Obama right in America, and his demise in football shows the ultimate triumph of the left in America’s waning culture wars.
Tim Tebow came to national attention as the superstar quarterback of the Florida Gators. He immediately became a media darling for his good looks, open Christian faith and most importantly incredible success in one of the most storied college football teams in America. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2007, took the team to the BCS Championship in 2008 and a 13-1 record in 2009. His clean, white, boy-next-door image was an antidote to for many Americans to a college football world that had been corrupted by money, shady coaches and thuggish prima donna (i.e. black) players. The most controversial thing about Tebow was his penchant for putting bible verses on his eye paint before games and telling the world that he was a virgin.
Tebow’s popularity, especially amongst the evangelical community was a real boon for the NFL. The lockout had left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans, and high profile scandals like Ben Rothlisberger’s rape accusations further entrenched the view that the league was no longer a place for hometown heroes. Despite real concerns about his ability to actually play the quarterback position at the pro level, Tebow was drafted and entered the NFL in the 2010-2011 season for his supposed ‘intangibles’ which is another word for ‘publicity’ in sports marketing circles. He rode the pine his first year, but in the 2011-2012 season, when the Broncos were desperate and the season looked lost, they put Tebow in as the starter and miracles began to happen. Even though his mechanics were horrible and his stats were abysmal he led the team to an improbably 8-1 finish to the season and then defeated the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff win. He was a certified hero, his pre-game praying stance “the Tebow” was the hottest thing in Christian talk circles, his speeches to evangelical crowds were at Rick Warren levels and his demographic profile made him a very convenient cover for thinly veiled race-laden conversations about the sport on ESPN’s “First Take” and other programs.
While all of this was happening President Obama was at the lowest point of his presidency. With approval ratings in the low 40s, the GOP seemed poised for a 2012 backlash to the new millennial multi-cultural center left secular politics of the Obama era. Tebow was perfect for this era. He was courted by every GOP presidential candidate in 2012. He was asked about his political future, Harry Reid even found ways to reference him in his speeches. After his incredible 2012 run, Tebow the cultural lightening rod seemed poised for an amazing future. Then he got traded to the Jets, and the Broncos picked up Peyton Manning. In other words, a better, more acceptable Republican.
Tim Tebow was a winner, he could galvanize a crowd, but his brand of football was not sustainable. The Broncos and John Elway knew that for the long haul, a charismatic but polarizing QB with a penchant for last second heroics wasn’t as good a long term solution as Peyton Manning. In other words he’s a nice clean safe Republican. Peyton Manning is just as conservative as Tebow and has given money to GOP candidates for years. But he’s always kept his politics in check, and in this day of changing values and multi-culturalism a conservative quarterback who is technically sound and keeps his politics close the vest is a better bet than a charismatic but polarizing QB who may get people excited but may not be a long term solution.
Tebow was shipped off to the New York Jets, never even got a chance to play and was unceremoniously cut today with little or no chance of playing American football again, certainly not as a quarterback. Just like the GOP was in love with the hard right Rick Santorums and Newt Gingrich types in the 2011-2012 cycles in the end those candidates may have moved a small segment of the population, but they weren’t mainstream enough to work out long term. It was safer to go with an amenable bland guy like Romney than run the risk of a firebrand like Santorum. Similar to taking a safe but underachieving choker like Manning over Tebow for the long term. Tim Tebow was a product of his time, when culture and passion overtook common sense and results. But those days had a short life-span. American sports fans don’t want polyanish heroes anymore than they want cookie-cutter perfect presidents. They’d rather take a safe underachiever than a risky boom or bust superstar. The Tim Tebow era is over but he’ll probably always have a future in the warm arms of the diminishing cultural right.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.