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Heaven & Hell on the Gridiron: Morality on display in the Tebow vs. Roethlisberger, Broncos vs. Steelers playoff matchup

January 7, 2012

The temptation is mighty, but I must try to resist.

Heading into this weekend’s Denver vs. Pittsburgh wild card playoff game, I want very badly to fall back on obvious but facile angel-devil comparisons between Denver QB Tim Tebow and his Pittsburgh counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger. Together they are responsible for two of the most prominent “off-field behavior” stories of the last few years; the short, short version is that Tebow is a good boy and Roethlisberger is oh-so-very bad. But ultimately there are more interesting components to this game than one quarterback’s holiness and the other’s tendency to be a holy terror.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to minimize or make light of the sexual assault and rape accusations that were levied more than once against Ben Roethlisberger. Frankly, I think it’s a damn travesty that the guy didn’t have to face harsher legal scrutiny during the 2010 investigation of his behavior in a college bar in Milledgeville, Georgia. He should have been in a courtroom and eventually a jail cell if found guilty, but formal charges were never even brought due to supposedly insufficient evidence to support the accuser’s rape claims. Based on reports of the investigating officer’s blatant sympathy and even admiration for Roethlisberger, I am sorely doubtful that justice was done. Leaving aside that question, I just can’t like or respect Roethlisberger as a player or a person because of years’ worth of his widely observed, loutish, disrespectful, aggressive, just plain mean behavior in bars, pubs, and clubs across the country. Concussion side effect (and recent clean living) or no, for years the guy was a walking human hard-on looking for space to violate, and a man like that just isn’t worthy of anyone’s respect or adulation until he earns it, repeatedly, year after year after year. Call me back when Roethlisberger has lived decently for a couple of decades, and given away most of his football riches to people who need help, and maybe then I’ll talk about respectability.

By all accounts of his off-field and even on-field behavior, Tim Tebow is the saint in direct comparison to Ben Roethlisberger’s sinner, and I’m fairly surprised that we haven’t seen more articles that blithely point out that dichotomy in advance of Sunday’s playoff game. It would be a logical new angle in what we all know has been an absolute onslaught of Tim Tebow media coverage, extending beyond ESPN into wider entertainment news and late night comedy spheres, during the 2011 season. This has been a storybook season for Tebow, if your storybook is one that tells of an obsequiously pious, deficiently skilled NFL quarterback who has inspired a legion of fans, many of whom care more about prayers than players, to root for the Denver Broncos because they believe Jesus Christ is the team’s real field general. If that’s the case, the actual evidence points to Jesus being a mediocre leader at best, as His team remains quite terrible, capable only of backing their way into the playoffs by failing to lose (can’t really call it “winning,” can we?) the worst division in either conference.

All sacrilegious humor aside, I firmly believe that Tim Tebow is headed toward a forgettable career in terms of actual accomplishments on the football field, but a much more important lifetime of good works in the real world. Even while playing football at the highest competitive levels, Tebow has devoted a lot of time and money to visiting cancer patients and building hospitals for the impoverished, so I can only imagine that he is aiming for an even more active philanthropic career after he leaves football. I give the guy a lot of credit for his tendency to use his fame and fortune not to increase his own luxury and physical gratification, but to ease the suffering of others. That stands in sharp contrast to the vast majority of public portrayals of Ben Roethlisberger’s character. If even a quarter of the stories are true, it seems safer to assume that a needy person who encountered Ben Roethlisberger would be more likely to see a waving dick than a helping hand.

OK, so I just gave into the moral comparison temptation a bit. But it’s probably OK. Roethlisberger apologists were probably already wanting to choke me with their Terrible Towels, and the Tebow fans, well, they’ll just have to forgive me.

Back to my real final point about Tim Tebow, which is that I just can’t see him as a wholly positive presence or role model in the sports world either, despite his upstanding citizenship and his fairly clear ethical superiority to a guy like Ben Roethlisberger. For me it goes back to the obsequious on-field piety I half-jokingly mentioned above. I have no reason to doubt that Tebow’s manifold prayer rituals are genuine, and I also believe that the sports media have made the very conscious choice to train their cameras on Tebow as soon as they see the faintest hint of a pending genuflection. However, it seems obvious to me that Tebow is making his own conscious choice to pray on the field in a very visible and physical manner as often as he can. I’m starting to think he would pray during plays if taking a knee weren’t a sign of surrendering the play as well as surrendering to Jesus. I take issue not with Tebow’s faith and devotion—especially because of his service to humanity on the basis of that faith—but instead with his Bible-verse facepaint, melodramatic kneeling, and all the other signs that he, frequently and enthusiastically, crosses the line that separates practicing his religion from proselytizing on his religion’s behalf.

In sports, especially during the playoffs, the last thing a team wants is unnecessary distractions of any type. Tim Tebow will never be a game-day distraction because he stayed out till 5:00 in the morning, got tanked on Jagermeister, and violated the dignity and bodies of several young women the night before. But I can certainly see an instance where coaches face pressure to play Tebow, despite his frequent inability to produce and play at high levels, coming from a fanbase segment that admires Tebow the man more than Tebow the player. Maybe it will even happen tomorrow, as Tebow’s poor production and the team’s 0-3 mark to end the season has led to back-up Brady Quinn’s receiving half the first-team snaps in practice this week. Unless you see Tebow as somehow “divinely inspired,” or face relentless pressure from fans who do see him that way, it seems questionable to leave Tebow in the game if he really stinks it up for two or three quarters. Reason and probability say that the team’s mid-season run of unlikely 4th-quarter comebacks can’t continue forever. It’ll be interesting to see which decision-making method—faith vs. reason—wins out if the Broncos are down 14 in the fourth quarter and Tebow’s had a God-awful game thus far (pun intended). If Tebow is taken out of the game, and then Brady Quinn falls short in the 4th quarter, the second-guessing from the Tebow devotees will likely be, you guessed it, of biblical proportions.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison between individual players in tomorrow’s game is between Tim Tebow and a Steelers counterpart with whom the Broncos QB actually shares some similarities, but also some big differences. As I learned while preparing to write this piece, Pittsburgh’s all-world safety Troy Polamalu is another deeply religious NFL star who enacts his faith through human service as well as worship. In this way, Polamalu and Tebow are spiritual kin, but the on-field contrast couldn’t be sharper. Polamalu’s game prayers are rare, and he does them as quietly and privately as one can while on a field in front of 60,000 people. More importantly, Polamalu demonstrates, week in and week out, that he is one of the most talented defensive players of our era, an almost unprecedentedly fearsome safety/linebacker hybrid who reliably makes his team better. Polamalu is the best player on one of the league’s best defenses, while Tebow is perhaps the worst player on one of the league’s worst offenses.

So, when Polamalu is hunting down Tebow in the backfield and tackling him for losses tomorrow, we’ll see two men who both believe that they owe all their talent and success to their Maker. We’ll see two men whose faith leads them to do good works and help people, offering a welcome balance to the harmful proclivities of morally questionable star athletes like Ben Roethlisberger. But at the heart of it all, stripping away all the media-generated culture-war hoopla, I think we’re likely to see a more talented defensive player (Polamalu) absolutely own a hapless, in-over-his-head quarterback (Tebow). Based on how badly Polamalu’s defense is likely to shred Tebow’s offense, if you didn’t know any better and believed football outcomes were the product of divine intervention, you may well be swearing that Jesus Christ himself is a Steelers fan. Of course, He’s not. Jesus is totally an Aaron Rodgers guy.

  1. Lloyd permalink
    January 8, 2012 6:21 pm

    If the halftime score is any indication, Jesus and/or Tebow must have taken some lessons during the last few days. More power to ’em, I guess…I’m more than ready to eat crow if I have to.

  2. Lloyd permalink
    January 8, 2012 8:33 pm

    OK, OK. Jesus clearly loves Tebow. I take it all back.

    No, seriously, that was a good game and a solid performance by Tebow. I tip my hat.

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