From Integration to Deification in Big Time Sport

My dad took me to Fenway Park on my eighth birthday. We sat in the bleachers for fifty cents a seat. Most of the men wore suits, ties, and hats. Even more of them smoked. Hot dogs, very good hot dogs, were 25 cents. There were no black or Latino players and few if any, in the audience save the odd maintenance man. There were rumors that the Red Sox were going to pay Ted Williams $75,000, and the Yankees even more for Joe DiMaggio.

Three years later, in 1951, Dick Kazmeir, a white evangelical Princeton kid won the Heisman trophy. It would be fifteen years before the Supreme Court desegregated the public schools, and even longer before the powerful “major colleges and universities” allowed black kids to compete in what would quickly become big time intercollegiate athletics, and who would, ironically, come to dominate in the one arena where who you are, or who you know means nothing, only what you can do against the competition counts.

In 2012 it is difficult to imagine the abuse that great athletes like Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown received in spite of their unequaled skills and talents, and the courage they possessed to overcome and ultimately triumph. Don’t believe there is anyone, even in Alabama, who believes that their university’s monochromatic football teams of the 50’s and 60’s could survive on the same field with the current national champions.

I hope and believe that mega stars like Pele, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, Lebron James, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Ray Lewis realize how much they owe to the pioneers who played before them and those in management who made it possible for them to play.

Happily, big time sport today, both collegiate/amateur and professional, is as close to being colorblind as any global activity, profession, or enterprise. Few people resent the fortunes accumulated by Michael and Tiger, or that Charles Barkley is arguably the most popular on-air personality.

Equally ironic, however, is that few of the same people who willingly forgive Plaxico Burress for shooting himself in the leg with an unlicensed handgun and spending a year in jail, because he can still catch a pass, believe there is no place in our government for a black President. Even more perplexing is the faith based resistance to Mormons, divorced men, and gays.

While teams have been kneeling in prayer, and individual players have been sharing their success or attributing it outright to the almighty for decades, it is only this year, with the emergence of Tim Tebow, a 24 year old white evangelical virgin son of missionaries, that faith has trumped performance in the acquisition of fame and fortune, and by a large measure. On the strength of what could only be called a mediocre on field game in light of modern professional standards for a quarterback, Tebow has emerged as the most popular, admired, respected, and commercially successful athlete in the world..

Tim cannot be compared to Kazmeir, for as a collegian he won his Heisman and two national titles playing for Florida in the SEC where African American athletes dominate. While I don’t want to believe it, and may yet be proved wrong, Tebow appears to be an unusually nice, humble, philanthropic and deeply religious man in a sport comprised of mostly arrogant, self indulgent, reckless, promiscuous, addictive, often criminal and wildly over compensated individuals. Sadly the intellectual acumen of most “student athletes” is sorely lacking.

Rarely a day goes by without some marquee NFL, NBA, or MLB player arrested for abusing a spouse or girl friend, driving drunk, or shooting someone at a late night strip club. From OJ to Big Ben big time athletes often thumb their noses at any behavior most would consider civilized.

How to explain Tebow? – thanking Christ, his Lord and Savior for every completed pass, no matter how infrequent, writing scripture on his eyelids, dropping to his knees, pointing skyward and praying throughout the game, at the same time apparently denying all normal biological urges, which dominate virtually all males from the time they reach puberty.

Sport has forever had the good guys and the bad…McEnroe and Connors – Sampras and Federer – Rodman and Kobe – Stockton and Malone…whether nice or nasty, superstars all. Never before Tebow, however, have organized athletics produced a savior whose messianic approach to life trumps the X’s and O’s.

Of course Christianity has survived the test of time, while Tebow has not. There are many who doubt Bronco’s president and last great quarterback, John Elway, will even keep Tebow, let alone start him in 2012.

Cutting a number one draft pick is one thing, Ryan Leaf and Vince Young come to mind, but cutting the spiritual leader of the whole wide world of sports, is an altogether different proposition. If Christ is responsible for Tebow’s success, who would have the temerity to quantify blame for his failures? In a world where Rick Santorum , who would deny a raped 13 year old girl the right to terminate her pregnancy and still get a third of the votes in the Iowa primary, treading on Tim, casting doubts on his spirituality, is tantamount to challenging papal infallibility.

We have watched the transformation of Lou Alcindor to Kareem Jabbar, Cassius Clay to Mohammed Ali, and most recently the renowned thug and brawler, Ron Artest, to Metta World Peace. If we are to believe Tebow, and most do, he may be the only large, handsome, one would imagine virile male multimillionaire on the planet who is still saving himself for marriage.

Promiscuous heroes have dominated sport for decades. Wilt Chamberlain claimed 25,000 trysts and he is in the Hall of Fame, as well he should be if his estimate is accurate, irrespective of points scored or rebounds made. Supermodel Tom Brady, who trumped the Lord in the AFC playoff game against Denver, became the father of a child with his former girlfriend before marrying another even wealthier supermodel. Tiger Woods, sport’s first billionaire, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, fell out of favor when he became injured, and it was revealed he had, while married to the innocent Elin, at least seventeen liaisons with hookers. Two years without a victory, several major endorsements lost, he won the Chevron World Championship in a tight fight with Zack Johnson, recently signed a mega deal with Rolex, and is confidently predicting he will be the 2012 comeback player of the year.

Tebow appears, except on the football field, to be our first totally flawless superstar. Magic contracted aids, Jordan and Barkley gambled, Michael Vick ran a dog fighting ring, Pete Rose bet on baseball, Roger Clemens took steroids, and more athletes than you can count, squandered their riches and left the IRS holding the bag. To a large extent all have been forgiven. With Tebow we have nothing to forgive. I, for one, hope he at least occasionally relieves himself, as the pressure to remain flawless off the field will increase exponentially if his on field performance doesn’t increase as well. It is only fair, however to remember that less than a year ago Tim was Kyle Orton’s backup, so he made real progress.

Imitation, particularly in sports, is the sincerest form of flattery. For years the young guns in basketball have been trying to duplicate Michael in technique and charisma, yet none have left at their peak to play baseball. No one yet has been able to match Bobby Orr’s prowess on defense, or Wayne Gretzky’s on offense. No man six feet nine has ever ruled a team sport like Bill Russell, but few deny that Lebron is a far superior athlete, but without the team orientation and clutch performances that win titles.

How will the new generation of quarterbacks look to ride on Tebow’s coattails to fame and fortune? It is unlikely that there are any celibate missionaries among the current crop, but would not be surprised to see some new adaptations to Tebowing, perhaps more theatrical, particularly if the evangelical core of the GOP manages to add control of the White House to their large majority in the House.

If Tebow is, as some suggest, a messiah, this could affect a transformation in professional sports that will make integration, in retrospect, ho hum. Potential superstars, everywhere, have to be pondering – “To Tebow, or not to Tebow, that is the question”.