For the foreseeable future, Mike Sam and Tim Tebow find themselves interconnected. Although they play the same sport, and even played in the same college football conference, the two worldviews they symbolize couldn’t be more different.
Sam is now out and proud as the country’s first openly homosexual player in its most popular sport. He has become the rallying cry for the progressives and their new tolerance, which essentially is a zero tolerance policy for the old one. Either get with the program or you will be made to care, as ESPN’s exhaustive and heavy-handed promotion of his story this week indicates. Frankly, it’s been hard to tell the difference between sports talk radio and MSNBC the past 7 days. Both basically condescended and sneered at traditional American morality all the same. Suddenly the progressives seem mighty interested in football, when for the past two years they’ve been trying to kill it as too dangerous.
Meanwhile, Tebow is not currently playing, but preparing instead for his new gig on ESPN’s SEC Network this fall. Nevertheless, as the champion of throwback America, his shadow still looms large over this cultural clash. My email inbox and social media interactions are overflowing with angry traditionalists, who see a complete and total double-standard at work here. In their minds, the same mainstream media who seemed to openly be rooting against Tebow, still the only Heisman Trophy winning quarterback to start and win a NFL playoff game since Vinny Testaverde, are the same ones already nominating Sam for the Hall of Fame before he’s even drafted.
Both Tebow and Sam have now become proxies for the two different Americas attempting to fly the same flag. These two Americas represent conflicting value systems, each struggling mightily to peacefully co-exist in a pluralistic age.
Caught between these dueling civilizations is Corporate America, which seems to offend somebody no matter what it does. Cater to the progressives and traditional Americana rises up, as we saw in the recent Duck Dynasty flap. But if Corporate America sides with old school Americana, it risks the charge of the politically correct brigade and its allies in the media.
Into this abyss steps the National Football League.
Perhaps the most powerful brand name now in American pop culture, most of the NFL’s fans still believe in faith, family, and freedom, which partially explains why outspoken Christians like Tebow and Robert Griffin III have led the NFL in jersey sales the past few years. The league hasn’t even had a team in Progressive Valhalla, otherwise known as Los Angeles, in almost 20 years. On the other hand, the league’s perennially most popular team, the Dallas Cowboys, resides within the de facto capital of Red State America. One of the NFL’s most recognizable franchises defies the tolerance mob each autumn Sunday by continuing to call itself the Redskins. Its most successful franchise in the past decade is called the Patriots. Maybe its most famous team ever is located in Green Bay, a town with barely 100,000 residents.
This is the league that begins its Super Bowl with a reading of The Declaration of Independence, and every one of its games seems to conclude with a postgame prayer on the field between players on both teams.
Nevertheless, the NFL is not in and of itself a ministry nor a political party. It is simply a business, which wants to appeal to as many people and make as much money as it can. Michael Jordan once famously replied when asked why he wasn’t more political during his playing days, “Because Republicans buy sneakers, too.” So while the NFL’s most loyal fans might have more in common with the millions watching Duck Dynasty than, say, the Bravo Channel, in the NFL’s mind it doesn’t do itself any guy rattling the cages of the fabulously offended. Thus, the NFL has gone out of its way to show it can walk the rainbow-colored road as well, hoping that its product is so popular with the faith and values crowd they’ll overlook these overtures.
But it’s not that easy.
I know many Christians who believe Tebow is not playing in the NFL simply because of anti-Christian bigotry, despite the fact there are many Christians of diverse backgrounds in the league. And its most marketable player, Peyton Manning, is also a believer. I watch more football than most married men probably should, which doesn’t make me an expert but allows me to fancy myself as one. I don’t believe there were 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL last season better than Tebow, but I also don’t think he’s being black-balled for his beliefs, either.
I think Tebow’s problem in the NFL is the same problem Sam is about to encounter.
In an article in the National Football Post, an anonymous NFL agent had this to say about a team drafting Sam:
"I believe most general managers will give some serious personal thought as to how their team and even their own job will be affected by having Mr. Sam drafted to their team. Eventually, if they have to cut Mr. Sam, they may wonder if they will have to defend themselves against the media who potentially could accuse the GM of cutting him because he is gay. Additionally, are the GM and/or head coach ready for the media circus that Mr. Sam could possibly attract? Can having him on my team be a distraction? These are the questions that will be privately pondered and internally discussed."
Jason Collins only averaged 3.6 points per game for 11 years in the NBA, and was essentially a marginal pro basketball player. Yet the league recently had to address media questions about Collins not being signed for this season because he was a homosexual. Would the league have to respond to inquiries about any other unsigned player with such pedestrian lifetime stats? I think we all know the answer to that.
So imagine you draft Sam, and he’s not good enough. Or he doesn’t fit your team. The progressives have elevated Sam to iconic status, and people don’t take too kindly to their icons falling from grace. Could the front offices of such a team suddenly become glitter-bombed or picketed by the tolerance mob?
The same can be said of Tebow. If you sign him and have to cut him or bench him, are you going to have people literally praying for God to curse your franchise? For example, one prominent conservative blog published a story last week from a reader, who claimed God personally intervened in the Super Bowl to chastise the Broncos for getting rid of Tebow.
Neither one of these scenarios is good publicity for the NFL or any of its teams. Success for a NFL team requires conformity of divergent individuals in a locker room, committed to the same mission (see the Patriots). If you’re a dog murderer, wife beater, deadbeat dad, stoner, womanizer, or choir boy and can play, the NFL will take you if you can conform.
However, this is not basketball, a sport built around individual stars. This is the ultimate team game, and if you – or your fans – cannot conform to what’s best for the team then the team cannot be successful. No one player is bigger than the team.
The truth is, for better or for worse, both Tebow and Sam are now bigger than any team that would sign/draft them. In many respects, these dueling subcultures only have themselves to blame for the playing fates of each. Although it should be noted that Tebow’s excellence on the field is what drove people to later know more about his personal life. Tebow even canceled a speaking gig at a prominent church to avoid the limelight that comes with his persona.
On the other hand, although he was also a fine college football player, plenty of progressives who had no idea who he was prior to this have similarly rallied behind Sam. He has done little to deter them, in fact he seems fine being their political football.
That decision will likely cost him in the NFL, not the fact he’s a homosexual. His Missouri teammates didn’t mind because he was a great player, but then it was just an internal team matter. Now it’s a culture war. NFL teams don’t win games when the topic is anything other than the play on the field.
As a Christian I believe we are all better off if the only agenda that determines success in our culture is excellence. Both sides of this debate would be wise to remember that if the agenda is politics instead, it ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.