Tim Tebow at the 2012 ESPYs. (Getty Images)Tim Tebow's never been shy about showing his Christian faith, whether on the field of play or in interviews. Some have applauded him for his openness, some have mocked him, some wouldn't care if he worshipped Zeus, Cthulhu or Voldemort if he could just run an NFL offense.
But faith forces you to make choices, and if you're a public figure, sometimes those choices don't sit well with some of your fan base. Tebow has agreed to speak before the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas on April 28. However, the church's pastor, Rev. Robert Jeffress, has taken polarizing social stances, fanning flames of controversy in exactly the kind of way that the NFL works tirelessly to avoid.
In a 2011 interview, for instance, Jeffress declared that Islam and Mormonism were religions that are "heresy from the pit of hell," took a hard line against Judaism, and claims that America is being "brainwashed" into accepting a homosexual agenda. (Despite his criticism of Mormonism, Jeffress supported Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in the 2012 election.)
Also in 2011, he criticized the Catholic church as "the genius of Satan" and "corrupted" by cults. Say what you will about Ray Lewis, but his public displays of religion were inclusive and inspirational, not exclusive (well, except for the ones that excluded everyone who wasn't Ray Lewis).
Jeffress is, of course, perfectly free to say and believe whatever he wishes, as is Tebow himself. But freedom of speech isn't freedom of consequence from that speech. Jeffress has plenty of believers who subscribe to his message. The trouble, for Tebow, comes in the fact that he surely has more than a few fans who fall into at least one of the categories condemned by Jeffress. Will Tebow agree with Jeffress' views? Take issue with them? Remain silent? That's the position he's now in by agreeing to speak in Jeffress' church. Hardline stances may win you true believers in the church, but they tend not to sit so well with the general public.
But consider this: perhaps Tebow isn't much worried about what the vast majority of NFL fans might think of his views. Perhaps he's not overly concerned with maintaining a viable public image and nurturing the Tebow brand, or whatever. Perhaps he believes what he believes, regardless of how well it will play in the public eye.
Those around Tebow, though, may have some more explaining to do. The Jets still haven't figured out what to do with Tebow on the field, much less how they'll handle his off-field exploits. Tebow is under multiyear contracts with sponsors such as Nike, TiVo and Jockey, and most brands shy away from social controversy. The NFL's got its own hands full of social-issue headaches like the anti-gay comments of Chris Culliver and the defiant progressive stances of Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo. And ESPN, which never saw a Tebow story it didn't ride straight into the turf, will have to figure how to spin this one to keep Tebow looking good while not offending a huge chunk of its viewership.
All too often, we look at Tebow as a symbol, not a man; he's either what's wrong with or what's right with sports, regardless of what he says and does. But soon enough, it'll be time for him to step up and speak on his own behalf. When he does, it'll be interesting to see just how far his faith goes.
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