Friday, March 8, 2013

Battle Lines? Tebow, Faith, and the NFL

Looks like a showdown may be looming.

A showdown over a longstanding conflict of interest in American evangelicalism:  the NFL.

Fox News is reporting that gay activists are demanding that football sensation Tim Tebow cancel his planned appearance this weekend at a conference for men sponsored by the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.  Since Liberty advocates Biblical doctrine that defines homosexuality as a sin, gay activists, in their twisted sense of logic, consider the school a hate group.  And since the NFL has adopted a policy of appeasement towards the LGBT community, particularly in the wake of some derogatory comments about gays by, ironically, a player for the San Francisco 49ers, activists figure they're well within their rights to demand that Tebow not exercise his.

Part of the problem involves Liberty's insistence that Tebow's remarks during the conference, called Wildfire, will not be made available to the general public.  It might help diffuse the situation if the university acknowledged its current policy can indeed be easily misconstrued as a method for Tebow, his hosts, and his audience to brazenly and hatefully bash homosexuals.  There is a Biblical way to label an activity such as homosexuality a sin, and there are many unBiblical ways of doing so, which, unfortunately, are all too common.  If Liberty wants to maintain its credibility as an evangelical voice of both the Gospel and God's grace, then appearing to obscure the content of this event isn't helping.

Nevertheless, it's almost certain that nothing Liberty or Tebow could do would pacify America's increasingly intolerant and vitriolic gay lobby.  Just a couple of weeks ago, they managed to force Tebow to back out of a speaking commitment at Dallas' First Baptist Church, and they did so by threatening to excoriate the NFL if American football's administrative powerhouse didn't pressure Tebow to cancel.

Unfortunately, Tebow has found himself in the midst of a complex and volatile personnel scenario with the New York Jets, for whom he's had an unproductive tenure.  Caving to hysteria from the pro-gay lobby and financial hogtying from the NFL was an easy way for him to salvage some career stability during football's off-season.

And this is where we get to the longstanding conflict of interest.

Many people of faith worship the gridiron gods.  For years, evangelical churches in North America have found it easier to bow to popular pressure and re-work Sunday worship schedules around the NFL.  Somehow, baseball has never been able to commandeer so much allegiance as football in our communities of faith.  And originally, that wasn't the NFL's fault.  Although it's a shadow of the bloody combat that characterized football's early days, the sport's gladiator aspect genuinely juices its fans, especially since most other sports lack such brutality.  This gladiator rush has helped fans allow the game to develop economic and even cultural dominance in the United States, even if the game itself isn't as fiercely popular as soccer - what's known as "football" - across the rest of the planet.

How powerful is the NFL?  Back when most churches still had Sunday evening services, they were almost always cancelled on Super Bowl Sundays, or shown on televisions set up in the youth room down the hall from the sanctuary.  If a city's local team was playing during service times, church attendance would drastically slip, for obvious reasons.  Can the same be said for anything offered by Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association?

Over time, it became a fact of life to which churchgoers resigned themselves.  There's a football game on today?  Well, no point in expecting a full house - unless you're going to so-and-so's to watch it on their new TV!

Then there were the Christians who fretted about professional athletes who claimed to be saved, yet "worked" on the Lord's Day.  Didn't they know the Sabbath is a day of rest?  It struck some evangelicals the wrong way to have Christians bending what they perceived to be Sabbath day rules so they could earn big paychecks as the rest of us enjoyed their aggressive athleticism.

These days, all of those concerns have pretty much evaporated.  Either churches have pretty much given up meeting together on Sunday evenings, or the die-hard fundamentalists who railed against sports on Sundays have passed on, leaving in their wake the relatively new phenomenon of intensive youth sports that consume entire Sundays.  Today's sports struggle isn't so much whether you should arrange your Sunday schedule around athletics, but how you can get your kids' coaches to understand you at least want to attend church as a family on Sunday mornings.

Still, the grace that evangelicals have lavished on the NFL, both in its Sunday programming and its authority over the many ways we consume professional football as a society, appears to have created a monster.  Whereas athletic leagues never used to editorialize much on controversial sociopolitical issues of the day, the NFL appears to be harboring aspirations of becoming the sports world's most progressive and powerful agent for change in American life, particularly when it comes to gay marriage.

We've still got a ways to go before the NFL becomes synonymous with left-wing politics.  However, might the league's growing concern over Tebow's stance on social issues, and the LGBT's increasing enthusiasm for egging the NFL on, help portray a shift that could be taking place within America's favorite sport?  And if that is the case, might we sports-hungry evangelicals allow our allegiance to the NFL to strain our allegiance to our faith?  Let's face it:  many evangelicals get more excited talking about their favorite sports team than about what Christ is doing in their lives.  Granted, baseball and hockey fans can do the same thing, but with the NFL, thanks to its gladiator component, the reverence fans have for their favorite players can border on the idolatrous.

For now, at least, the NFL isn't pitching a public fit over Tebow's appearance at a Liberty event like they were about to over First Baptist.  Perhaps that's because even though it's the legacy school of moralist firebrand Falwell, an East Coast university is a tougher and more unpopular voice to trample upon than a church in Texas, the state our media loves to bash these days.  And Tebow likely bought some relief from league headquarters by previously caving on the more politically expendable Dr. Jeffress in Dallas.

Nevertheless, don't be surprised if battle lines between evangelicals and the NFL aren't being drawn right in front of our eyes, and, unfortunately, across the resume of Tim Tebow.

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