Tebow, 15 years later
On Netflix’s Untold: Swamp Kings, worship, and idolatry
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Thirteen years ago, I traveled to Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl to meet Tim Tebow. I had covered the event before and remembered it fondly as a football-only affair for players, coaches, scouts, and agents. The Tebow experience was something different entirely, inasmuch as the lobby of the Renaissance Mobile downtown was shoulder-to-shoulder with Tebow worshippers who shared in common sharpies, stuff to get signed, and a crazed look in their eyes. These worshippers (all in Tebow jerseys) included kids (normal), middle-aged men (less normal), old men (kind of weird), and women of all ages and backgrounds. “Wild” doesn’t begin to describe it.
We have 15 years or so in the rearview mirror since Tebow descended from the heavens (or Jacksonville) upon Gainesville, Fla., and made college football kind of weird for a few years. And now we have a documentary about it on Netflix, called Untold: Swamp Kings, which chronicles the rise of Florida football in ways that are mostly well-done and fascinating and ways that portray Urban Meyer as miserable and borderline psychotic and Tebow as kind of ethereal/weird/bicep-centric (he’s always seated next to a Bible).
For a football junkie like me, it’s riveting. But for a now middle-aged Christian who enjoys thinking about sports and has always struggled to keep them in their proper place, it’s more riveting.
When the Tebow experience started, I was a young adult, raising toddlers, and by and large didn’t care or have time to care about a muscled-up Super-Christian who was running people over and kneeling in end zones. If pressed (then) I would have said something like, “I enjoy watching him play but am not crazy about the performative prayer stuff given that the Bible says, you know, not to perform your acts of righteousness before men in order to be seen by them … and all that.”
Now, 15 years later, Tebow exists as a sort of interesting cultural object that is emblematic of a certain time: the beginning of the internet and the beginning of social media, which both hyper-charged football idolatry in ways that are captured very well in Untold Swamp Kings. The stadium footage is especially riveting, showing people in the throes of worship. Eyes closed. Swaying in unison. Shouting in unison. Cut to a locker-room scene with grown men screaming with a crazed look in their eyes that says, I won’t be able to live without winning this game. … This game is my whole life. The whole thing is a compelling, disordered mess.
In strange ways, Tebow himself has both “exceeded expectations” as a public figure and also weirdly hasn’t, in that the range of outcomes in 2010 could have included “president of the United States” or, for some people, “maybe the Messiah” and it wouldn’t have really raised an eyebrow. To me, it’s weird that Tebow isn’t at least the muscled-up lead pastor of a 30,000-seat megachurch. This seemed like the most inevitable outcome of all.
Instead, if you go into any Michaels or Hobby Lobby on earth, there is a 100 percent chance of you finding a ghostwritten and moderately inspirational Tebow book for sale somewhere near the mints and the gum. He appears from time to time on ESPN, saying moderately insightful things about college football. He played a few years in the pros, did some underwear ads, then tried baseball, and then tried football again. All of which to say, “He was a guy in his 20s who wasn’t the Messiah.” This is fine.
The idolatry the documentary portrays is gross and convicting. I’ve done my fair share of it as a player, a coach, and a fan. The Tebow stuff scans as kind of charming and quaint and a little sad on the level of “I wonder if they had it to do over again, if his parents would have chosen all of this insanity for him?” They certainly fell face-first into it in real-time and considered it a blessing to themselves and others. I’m not so sure.
The desire in the heart of man to identify someone to worship is strong. It always has been. It shows both that we were made to worship but that being worshipped never works well for us and never ends well.
As it turned out, Tebow worked really well as a football player. He made sense there. He—and Florida, and the SEC, and Urban Meyer, and winning—all work significantly less well as sources of hope and objects of worship.
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These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.