Five years since Tim Tebow and “Tebow Mania” flooded mainstream media, electoral politics, and religious discourse, the genuflecting born-again Christian is relevant in American sport culture once again. Though Tebow no longer throws fluttering passes in the NFL, the barrel-chested southpaw now crowds the plate at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida for the New York Mets in spring training. On September 5, 2016, the Mets signed Tebow to a minor league contract that included a $100,000 signing bonus.
The Denver Broncos drafted Tebow 25th overall in the 2010 NFL draft and signed him to an $11.25 million contract despite signs that Tebow was not an NFL caliber quarterback. The scouting report leading up to the NFL draft provided clear suggestions that Tebow may struggle. Even when he performed relatively well, pundits maintained, “he just can’t play,” with some suggesting he was worse than notoriously bad NFL quarterbacks Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell. Tebow is now a 29 year-old “prospect” who signed with the Mets despite not having played organized baseball since high school. Wandering in left field and stiff at the plate, in his 2016 fall league debut Tebow hit under .200 and struck out in 20 of 62 at-bats. Longtime baseball analyst Keith Law described him as a “farce” and “imposter pretending to have talent.”
Many have suggested that the Mets are “shamefully” employing Tebow’s athletic talent, or lack thereof, in so far as he continues to bring reliable merchandise sales and valuable branding to the club. After proving incapable at quarterback, Tebow bounced around the NFL as a backup with three different teams from 2012 to 2015, received very little playing time, yet still managed to lead the league in jersey sales. Tebow’s Mets jersey, selling for up to $119.00, is already a league leader.
Tebow’s particular branding is part of a broader history of Christian fundamentalist media and marketing that Steinberg and Kincheloe (2008) call Christotainment. Christotainment refers to the commercialization of Christianity, particularly in television and radio entertainment, that spreads conservative Christian ideas and American recovery narratives (e.g., “Making America Great Again”), and serves white supremacy. Since the 1960s, Christotainment has been dedicated to remaking the image of Jesus into a hero for white men and boys. This new symbol of Jesus represents conservative ideals, American nationalism, and the masculine strength to “recover” what, it is perceived, has been “lost” in America such as patriarchy, “nuclear” family values, and white dominance in the economy and electoral politics. Tebow’s public image is not intolerant or explicitly in service of white identities in these ways. Rather, Tebow is a “softer” face, and sporting spectacle, of this recovery heroism.
Branding is meant to bolster private entities’ appeal to consumers and generate income. Tebow’s brand appears as a non-brand, if you will, because it is of God’s image, good will, and giving back to communities. This brand and public image is about “giving” rather than “receiving” from consumers. The meanings of Tebow’s brand are exemplified in his non-profit Tim Tebow Foundation, a globalized community outreach charity with a mission “to bring Faith, Hope and Love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need.” Making money off this kind of brand might seem antithetical, if not unethical, but it is crucial for Tebow to 1) become a professional football and baseball “prospect” who gets offered lucrative contracts and multi-million dollar endorsements; 2) sell Tebow-commodities, such as two autobiographies and Tim Tebow Foundation jewelry; 3) use sport and the media to evangelize; and, 4) as my research with Josh Newman demonstrates, fit the “pro-life” Super Bowl commercial message in which he was featured, and promote conservative Christian recovery, persecution, and white-male victimhood narratives.
Tebow’s brand has been built upon a lifetime of opportunity and privilege in social life and in sport. If anyone was meant to succeed in sport, it was Tebow. This is not a rags-to-riches story by any means. According to his autobiography, Tebow was homeschooled by his mother, which afforded him the leisure time to develop his large physical frame. He routinely worked out and consumed protein shakes plus other supplements that contributed to his physical strength and athleticism. His born-again parents are also land-owners whose finances and Christian networks afforded Tebow the opportunity to experience foreign cultures where he became privy to public relations practices. Ultimately, in order to play quarterback as a homeschooled athlete, Tebow lived in a spare apartment owned by his family in another county, allowing him to play football at a Florida public school. Tebow eventually parlayed this upbringing into a full-ride scholarship to the football powerhouse University of Florida. He now compounds this privilege, rife with opportunity, into an over-extended, deeply commercialized career that combines a supposedly not-financially-motivated innocence with dogmatic, conservative Christian commentary about society.
Yet when he was released by the New England Patriots in 2015, Tebow’s commercial and ideological opportunism became apparent. He turned this new chapter into more media exposure, another lucrative autobiography, a six-figure contract, and a well-worn American Dream trope. Consider his message in a recent interview with ESPN about people who doubt his latest baseball pursuits: “It is unfortunate in society,” Tebow explained, that people just “live with the status quo….live by all these rules, and….just accept [the] average nine-to-five rather than striving for something” more.
In this statement on American society, Tim Tebow, a millionaire, is ironically recasting himself as a symbol of hardship and perseverance, as a surrogate for new conservative responses to structural inequality, diversity, and lack of opportunity. Which is to say, “if Tebow can do it, anyone can.” Tebow’s version of the American Dream works for privileged people like himself in Trump’s America, and against many underprivileged populations including people of color, members of the working class, and, in this case, non-Christians, as well as the actual baseball prospects who have been stripped of opportunity because of how Tebow’s brand provides value for team owners.
In short, Tebow’s privileged background gives him ample access to professional sport where he builds a conservative Christian brand. This brand possesses economic value for professional sport franchises, presents Tebow with more (undeserved) opportunity, and has cultural value in, and for, contemporary conservatism in American society.
Matt Hawzen is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University in the Sport Management department. He is interested in media representations of sport celebrities, conservative politics in sport and physical culture, and labor relations in the sports industry.