The Tebow effect in Israel?

Tebow is a devout evangelical Christian who presents his faith to the NFL, the fans and the press.

January 15, 2012 21:39
The Denver Broncos' Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I’m a big fan of American football. Like millions of others, I follow the game and my favorite team every Sunday during the season. But this year, people have been talking about more than just the game. Out of seemingly nowhere, we’ve seen the rise of Tim Tebow, a unique individual who has stirred a fair share of controversy. Most of the hype has been fueled by the by the mass media and the National Football League (NFL) itself. For those who don’t follow American media, here’s a quick recap.

Tebow is one of those success stories you find every once in a while in professional sports; a backup player who got a chance to shine and came through with flying colors. Tebow got his chance to become the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos after the team began the 2011/2 season with a 1-3 record. After he began playing full time, Tebow’s team won seven out of the next eight games they played.

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Several of those victories came in a dramatic, last-minute fashion before the Broncos bowed out of the playoffs this weekend with a loss to the New England Patriots.

But that’s not why people besides football fans are talking about him. Tim Tebow is a devout evangelical Christian and has no second thoughts about presenting his faith to the NFL, the fans and the press. The 24-year-old athlete often starts a post-game press conference by thanking “My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The various articles that I’ve read, and there have been dozens published across the media spectrum, show Tebow to be sincere. He reportedly devotes a lot of time to the community including volunteer work, meeting with children with terminal illnesses etc. The scope of his popularity in the United States has shown that Tebow’s appeal is not limited to Christians.

On many occasions, especially after a victory, the quarterback is seen going down on one knee in prayer with his head resting on one hand. That position has now become known as “Tebowing.” The popularity of the move has become rampant, thanks mostly to a Jewish real-estate marketer in New York, Jared Kleinstein, who launched late last year. People from all over the world are posting pictures of themselves and their loved ones in the pose.

The idea of mixing religion with sports seems to have polarized folks all across the United States. There are those who admire Tebow for embracing his faith and keeping football second place to his religion. Others see him as a role model – “God’s Quarterback” as some have called him.

Those against Tebow’s actions have stated that whatever his beliefs, they should be reserved for the pulpit.

Just how seriously are people in the US taking Mr. Tebow? Suffice it to say that he’s reportedly turned down endorsement requests from several Republican presidential candidates.

How everything will play out now that the Broncos are out of the playoffs and we won’t see Mr. Tebow play until next season is irrelevant at this point. The episode has touched a nerve and will discussed for many months to come.

I believe the US media has gone way overboard with the amount of coverage Tebow is getting, but the fact is his actions have brought a very sensitive subject to the forefront of the American public’s agenda.

While reading up on the debate, I started to wonder what would happen if a similar case popped up in Israel given today’s charged public discourse on religion, equality, civil rights etc.

Let’s say a top Jewish basketball player signs for a big team and starts doing something similar. What if that player became an overnight sensation in the sports pages and beyond? There’s no doubt in my mind that the story would be a hit with the press, but what would the reaction be? I can see the headlines now.

There would be many Israelis who would applaud such behavior, just like in the US. They would feel it’s appropriate for a Jewish athlete in the Jewish state to be praying courtside after a victory. On the other hand, that same athlete would be criticized by many religious groups who would claim his version of the Jewish faith is wrong.

Our athlete would be commended or condemned for the rabbi he consults with or the types of prayers he cites. Heaven forbid if he had to travel on Shabbat to get to a game. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews might spit in his face and maybe even call him a swine.

How about the secular majority? There would certainly be those demanding a ban be slapped on the player’s behavior. Would the civil rights groups then pounce on the case saying that in a democracy a person should have the right to pray anywhere they want – with the same zeal they defended the rights of the ultra-Orthodox to use Holocaust symbols in their recent demonstrations?

Let’s not forget the importance of the ethnicity of our imaginary player. He will be praised or scorned by people like Shlomo Moaz. Maoz, the former head economist of Excellence Nessuah came out and said last week that the country is divided into Black and White people, and that the Whites (i.e. Ashkenazi Jews) are the ones in control. These racist remarks he made at a lecture last week got him fired.

There seem to be plenty of people out there defending his right to express his opinion without losing his job.

Also, based on the recent protests by Ethiopian Jews who say they are tired of being treated as second class citizens, if our player were of Ethiopian decent would all hell break loose?

Finally, would there be Israeli politicians seeking his endorsement come election time? There have been some celebrities who have backed political parties but I can’t recall any that made a big splash in the polls. Is it a good idea for a political party, seeking to win over a wide electorate, to be validated by a polarizing figure? Probably not, unless our player’s behavior is 100 percent in line with that party’s platform.

On the surface, the ruckus surrounding the “Tebow Effect” might seem absurd but it has brought out some very interesting aspects in American society and the media has played an important role in mediating the various opinions.

I believe the debate is a healthy one for any democracy grappling with the never ending question of religion in public life.

If such a can of worms were to be opened here, I have a feeling, based on the present atmosphere of intolerance, that there would be more than just debate and things would quickly turn ugly. It seems so many groups of Israelis, including some in the media, are so convinced they’re right, they’re looking for a “knockout punch.”

This goes against the true calling of living in a free and democratic society – the need to reach a compromise and build a consensus, and that’s something we need to change. Quickly.

The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York. [email protected]

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