When my beloved New York Jets traded for Tim Tebow last March, I was deeply annoyed. My concern was not with the football calculations behind the decision: The Jets’ desire to return to a ground-and-pound offense made plenty of sense to me. And Tebow, even if he only plays a handful of snaps per game, is a natural fit for this scheme. No, my objection was more elemental: As both a liberal and a loyal Jets fan, I was filled with dread at the idea of having to root for an anti-abortion activist, relentless religious proselytizer, and all-around conservative icon.
Indeed, in the days that followed, there was a lot of talk about how the Tebow trade would go over in one of the world’s most left-wing cities. “Will Tim Tebow be accepted by New York City’s large liberal and secular population?” wondered CNN. On MSNBC, Nation writer Dave Zirin suggested that many New Yorkers would be justifiably put off by Tebow’s political views.
That was my inclination at first too. But over the next few months, as my anger about the trade subsided, I gradually found myself feeling less and less annoyed at the Jets—and progressively more annoyed at myself for the way I’d initially reacted. Eventually, I came to believe that the arrival of a vocal right-winger on my favorite team wasn’t just something I needed to grudgingly tolerate; it was something I wanted to actively embrace.
Here’s why: It’s become increasingly hard to deny that there’s a tribal sorting process—chronicled by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort—taking place in American political life. That tribalism now goes beyond red states and blue states—and beyond even the depressing reality that we all increasingly read and watch news sources that confirm our already-existing points of view. Lately, perhaps because of the Internet, perhaps for other sociological reasons, these tribal loyalties seem to be bleeding more and more into areas that have no natural connection to politics.
To take some recent examples: As a gay man, I can’t go to Chick-fil-A; meanwhile, the antigay crowd can’t shop at J.C. Penney (ever since it anointed Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson) or go see ParaNorman (a non-political kids movie with a single joke that is sympathetic to gay rights). As a Jew and a Zionist, I’m supposed to be shopping at Trader Joe’s, which has resisted pressure to stop stocking Israeli products. But as a liberal Zionist, I’m also supposed to be careful not to purchase products that were made in West Bank settlements.
I don’t mean in any way to minimize these sorts of collective undertakings. Important issues—in some cases, life-and-death issues—are at stake. I certainly don’t think anyone should apologize for carrying out a boycott of Chick-fil-A on behalf of gay rights. It’s an honorable cause.
But it’s also easy to see the problem here. If being a conservative or a liberal dictates everything from where we eat to where we shop, can we manage to remain a single society? It’s a tough quandary: We don’t want to be apathetic and fail to fight vigorously on all fronts for our beliefs, yet we also know a country where even nonpolitical activities are completely sorted along political lines will be unworkable—and probably deeply unpleasant too.
Which brings me back to Tebow. The world of sports is having something of an existential crisis, or at least it should be. The mounting evidence surrounding football concussions plus the awful revelations at Penn State plus the growing sentiment that all of college athletics may be a completely exploitive enterprise—it’s a grim overall picture. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to justify all the time I spend watching and following and debating and caring about something that is apparently doing so much active harm.
But if there is a case to be made for the social value of sports fandom, it’s that, at its best, it really does manage to transcend class, religion, ethnicity, and politics. That may be less true than it once was (the rise of luxury boxes has physically separated the uber-rich from everyone else at most professional sports events—an unfortunate development). But it’s still true that sports fandom is a world where everyone, at least in theory, meets on both equal and neutral terms: a world where a secular liberal can for three hours find common cause with a religious conservative. There aren’t too many institutions left in our country that can make the same claim. In other words, if we start subjecting the world of sports—like so much else—to rigorous political tests, something valuable is going to be lost.
I don’t want to live in a world where every decision is reduced to politics, and I suspect most Americans, even those with strong ideological convictions, don’t either. That means we have to draw the line somewhere; we have to make sure at least a few zones of American life remain relatively off-limits to political calculations. So while I’ll remain opposed to Tim Tebow’s views on abortion, as long as he helps the Jets, I’m rooting for him.