Tim Tebow, Jason Collins, And What It Means For An Athlete To Be A ‘Distraction’

(Credit: Associated Press)

The last time Tim Tebow was in the news was, for some reason, when Jason Collins became the first active male in one of the four major sports to come out of the closet. President Obama called Collins to praise his courage, leading many of the conservatives and Christians who make up the bulk of the unofficial Tim Tebow Fan Club wondering why Obama never called their hero too.

That’s the thing about Tebow: even when he wasn’t in the news, he was, because he’s the maybe the most polarizing force in sports even if he’s never really tried to be. But now he really is back in the news, thanks to the New England Patriots, who Monday signed him to compete for a spot on their roster. The news was shocking at first because it had seemed Tebow’s career was on life support, thanks in large part to the sideshows and media attention that had made him a distraction — and there’s nothing worse in sports than a distraction.

But Patriots coach Bill Belichick has made a career harnessing players whose potential for distractions are more consequential than a religious affiliation or sexual orientation and this seems like it will work the same way. “We’ve already talked about him enough,” Belichick said just minutes into his first Tebow-era press conference. And distractions, quarterback Tom Brady said, “come with the territory” of being a pro athlete. “So I think everyone is prepared to deal with some level of different things that happen on a daily basis and to be mentally tough enough to push through and still be able to do your job at a high level is most important,” he added. “That’s really what you owe the team — to show up every day and do your job the best you can.”

Maybe that previous link between Tebow and Collins makes some sort of odd sense, then, because Brady’s quote reads an awful lot like what many athletes have said about playing with a gay teammate: “show up every day and do your job the best you can,” and nobody will care what happens on your own time. And there are undeniable similarities between the two athletes.

They are, in their own ways, both different than the stereotypical male athlete: one not just an outspoken Christian, but someone who does international missionary work, the other an openly gay man. They are, in their own ways, fighting the notion that a male athlete’s masculinity is inherently linked to his sexual prowess: one doing so as a committed virgin, the other as a man who sleeps with men. They are both activists, one appearing in ads for conservative causes and speaking at religious events, the other marching in Pride Parades and pushing to change both sports and culture forever. And they both have committed followings that will adore them no matter their successes or failures on the field. That has earned each attention, and contributed to the idea that each may become a locker room distraction, a notion that neither really deserves.

But the “distraction” label isn’t necessarily equal. Tebow, after all, isn’t the first openly Christian athlete. Plenty of players have worn their faith on their sleeve, talked openly of that faith in the locker room and in public, participated in Christian events and advocated for Christian causes. Nor is Tebow is the first “openly virgin” athlete. Former NBA player A.C. Green was for years known more for his virginity — he was waiting for marriage — than for his athletic exploits. And it’s hard to compare belonging to an outsized majority — more than three-quarters of Americans identify as Christians — to belonging to a minority group American society and sports have ostracized for years.

Much of what has made Tebow a distraction isn’t Tebow himself, and it isn’t real oppression either. Instead, it’s the belief of his devotees, many of whom are Christian conservatives, that an American society that is more open and tolerant is also an American society that is more discriminatory toward their beliefs. Tebow, to many of them, is a symbol of what they believe to be the marginalization of Christianity, even if there is little reality supporting that notion. That such a devoted following will consume every bit of news around Tebow is appealing enough to media outlets who need something to cover. But by propping up Tebow at every instance, by assuming that every critique of his football abilities is rooted in criticism of his religion or his lifestyle, they have only helped turn him into an even larger media spectacle, and it is that spectacle rather than Tebow himself that has become a distraction.

So perhaps in Tim Tebow there is a lesson for the supporters of Jason Collins and other openly gay athletes. There is, of course, real oppression of gay athletes and their advocates in sports, real pressure to stay in the closet and avoid an open life. But there is also perceived oppression, and attempting to turn that perception into reality can have harmful consequences. When we suggest that advocates like Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were cut from their teams because of their advocacy even amid evidence that they were legitimate business decisions, we risk turning them into media distractions they otherwise were not. Likewise, if Jason Collins doesn’t find a team for the 2013 season, it might not be because he’s gay, but because he’s a 34-year-old journeyman center who teams might judge as simply not good enough. Pretending otherwise might get attention, but not all attention is good.

Real homophobia — the type displayed by Chris Culliver and NFL teams who asked if potential draft picks “like girls” — should be called out and judged accordingly. Ignoring facts and converting all of the perceived oppression into definite reality, though, risks turning every gay athlete into Tim Tebow. And that may ultimately harm efforts to make sports more open and tolerant far more than it helps.