In 2007, in the wake of the Duke-lacrosse case and baseball’s and cycling’s drug scandals, I coined what I call “the Nancy Grace Rule.” The rule is, simply: When a sports story crosses over to the non-sports cable-news channels, it immediately loses all interest to devout sports fans and, in fact, becomes excruciating to even discuss. Sports may have long ago become mass entertainment, but fanatics continue to treat it as a niche to be jealously guarded. Anything that threatens that niche makes those fans feel the way indie-rock aficionados feel when their mom asks them, “Who is this LMFAO?”
Which brings me to Tim Tebow, New York Jet. I am a professional sportswriter, and I love my job. The world of sports provides me with infinite material; it’s self-replenishing. I know how lucky I am. But I’m telling you: I hate the Tim Tebow story.
Now, I have nothing against Tebow personally. As a player, he is appealingly unusual, a stirring left-handed quarterback who runs (and throws) like a fullback. And I find his piety and religiosity refreshingly honest and forthright. Most athletes who thank God after touchdowns do so halfheartedly; Tebow means it and lives it.
But as a cultural force? As a discussion topic to be bantered about by the televised yakkers of the day? Tebow is the worst. Everyone has an opinion about Tebow, even if they’ve never watched him play football. Right-wing “family” groups hype him (Tebow is the rare athlete who is part of the national abortion debates). Atheists and skeptics cheer against him. Even within sports Tebow has become a referendum on everything. Anti-Tebow? You’re a number-crunching stat nerd who doesn’t understand the magic of the game. Pro-Tebow? You’re a foolish “believer”! Haven’t you seen him throw? He’s a psychological test, not a football player. This magazine’s website last week asked Jay McInerney and Chuck Close for their thoughts on Tebow coming to town. That sentence just made every actual Jets fan bang their heads into something. (Fortunately, they’re all wearing firefighters’ helmets.)
Sportswriters and sports fans love narratives. They love comparisons, they love context—they love stories. But Tim Tebow, man, Tim Tebow is too much story. It turns everything we like about sports into a talking point, one person on television yelling at another person on television. (There is a reason ESPN, more self-aggrandizing every year, has a particular obsession with Tebow.) It turns sports into a morality play, set in the same ceaselessly contentious key as politics. It makes sports not fun. I thought I was safe, with him all the way across the country in Denver. But now he has found me. Now he is a Jet. And he’s all my mother is going to want to talk about.