01.13.12

Why Tim Tebow Is the Sarah Palin of Football

The harder the Broncos quarterback and the Alaskan governor fall, the more convinced their supporters become that they are modern messiahs.

To many, Tim Tebow is the quarterback that God built. The “mile-high messiah” is an end-zone Cinderella, coming off the Denver Broncos bench to win games and pursue Super Bowl glory in only his second season in the pros. He is America’s favorite professional athlete according to an ESPN poll that in 18 years has honored only 11, among them legends Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

But many feel that his incredible celebrity has overshadowed his actual talent and viability. Tim Tebow is the Sarah Palin of football. Inspiring, galvanizing, great on paper. Just don’t look too closely or you’ll see all the ways that the two of them flat-out fail.

Palin and Tebow stumble relative to the size of their stage: the larger it is, the harder they fall. As Alaska’s youngest governor, Sarah Palin was tough, with a reputation for rooting out corruption and preserving her state’s natural resources. “She’s exactly who this country needs,” said John McCain when he added her to his presidential ticket. But as a national political figure, Palin began to trip left and right.

When America dug deeper, it found she lacked basic map skills and knew frighteningly little about American foreign policy for a person one heart attack away from running the country. She also wondered aloud exactly what one did in the vice-president job that she was applying for and bumbled the mechanics of policy, health care, and tax code.

Likewise, Tebow was untouchable in college: he was the first sophomore in history to win the Heisman Trophy, and he led the Florida Gators to a national championship. College football is much slower and sloppier than its professional twin; in that forum, Tebow’s valiant efforts concealed his lack of polish. In the NFL, he has nowhere to hide. Since being promoted to starting quarterback, he regularly completes less than half the passes he throws in a game. He has been accused of slow and ugly throwing mechanics (one sports writer said you could time his release with a sundial). Critics say he can’t read the field after the snap and that at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds he is the wrong size for his position, and shouldn’t play it at all. 

“If Tebow were black, it’s unlikely that he would ever get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL,” Bleacher Report’s Mike Frandsen wrote recently, citing his “awkward and inaccurate throwing motion.” He noted that “historically, black quarterbacks who are unconventional players get converted to other positions,” then rattled off many examples. Tebow is white, popular, and still throwing the ball.

“The national nightmare continues,” Charles Barkley said in a radio interview of Tebow’s recent win. “He had a great game. He’s supposed to have a great game.” Barkley was referring to idea that professional athletes are paid to do a job.

But Tebow has set records, his followers will argue—and it’s true. He now owns the postseason title for most yards per completion. At times, he has led both his team and the entire NFL in jersey sales. But he’ll never break records that are real and meaningful, the go-down-in-history kind. He’ll never hold the most passing yards in a season like Saints star Drew Brees. Instead, he is predicted to continue to struggle, just as Palin has. She broke records, too—like first woman and first Alaskan on a Republican vice-presidential ticket, but she’ll never be the first woman president, and that’s the one that counts.

The more Palin and Tebow falter, the more rabid their supporters become. Despite her many missteps, Palin’s grizzly moms flocked to her, while their husbands thought she was “hot.” “Sarah Palin bleeds American,” gushed a poster on Redstate.com. Supporters launched the “down-to-earth” and “homespun” Palin into a fame reserved for sitting presidents and royalty—when she had done little more than stand and wave. Today, her Facebook page is overrun with pleas for her to enter the presidential race: “Ms. Palin, we love you!” it says, and  “Run, Sarah, Run!” These appeals just may foreshadow a political second act.

Tebow fans speak of him with staggering hyperbole—even for the exaggerated, aggrandized world of professional sports. Saturday’s dazzling overtime win against the Steelers birthed this Bleacher Report headline: “Tim Tebow’s 2011 Denver Broncos: The Most Incredible Team Season in NFL History.” Tebow “faced more pressure than any NFL quarterback has ever faced and responded with his best game yet,” said ESPN’s Tebow superfan, Skip Bayless. “I’m not sure any quarterback in football can do what Tim Tebow keeps doing in the 4th quarter,” he said. His colleague Stephen A. Smith disagreed, and nearly tore apart their desk.

Tebow and Palin do have detractors who use the Internet as a boxing ring. Palin-Tebow blooper and parody videos are as inextricable from YouTube as salmon is from Alaskan streams. Palin and Tebow make intellectuals, nonbelievers, and the liberal left squeamish with social conservatism, evangelism, and deeply held faith. Tebow wore Bible passages in his eyeblack on the field during college, and thanks Jesus at every press conference following NFL games. Pam Tebow disobeyed a doctor’s order to terminate her pregnancy for safety reasons, and Tebow’s worldview has been unquestionably shaped by his surviving his own birth. Mother and son recounted this story in a pro-life Super Bowl ad for Christian ministry Focus on the Family in 2010.

Palin, for her part, is known to be vehemently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. Her youngest son, Trig, was diagnosed with Down syndrome before he was born, and Palin has said that ending her pregnancy was never an option. They chart their inspiring and difficult paths to glory in bestselling memoirs, the titles of which—Palin’s Going Rogue and Tebow’s Through My Eyes—position them as outsiders, and challengers of established norms.

Palin and Tebow stumble relative to the size of their stage: the larger it is, the harder they fall.

Perhaps they are so loved because they emerged from the populist fray in the vein of reality-TV stars. Tebow’s parents homeschooled him in northern Florida, then got an apartment near a high school so that he could play football there. Palin homeschooled her kids, too. Tebow is the most desirable celebrity neighbor, ahead of Brangelina, real-estate site Zillow found, while Sarah Palin has had a long run as the girl next door. Their chosenness seems self-evident, but rooted in their start as underdogs. Now they draw celebrity endorsements with relative ease. Oprah and Adele said they can relate to Palin, and rocker Ted Nugent labeled the former governor morality’s Robin Hood. Lady Gaga has tweeted her fierce love for Tebow, and Rick Perry invoked him as a fellow dark horse who doesn’t quit until he wins.

Palin captured a high-school-basketball state championship and the nickname Sarah Barracuda, though her coach told the Associated Press that young Sarah Heath was far from a natural athlete. Sports and politics have a lot of crossover. Perhaps Tebow is fancying a run for office. The verdict is still out on these two, but it’s clear that they are hardly the visions of perfection and transcendence foisted upon them by their dearest fans.

One thing is certain: if they team up for a presidential run, Barack Obama is in trouble.