I couldn’t help but take a step back and think about what we’ve seen this week in sports with two people that say a lot about the sports media and the way we view athletes. Both have seen the entire spectrum of athlete superstardom. They’ve been at the absolute top of their sport, and they’ve been kicked around with glee. Those people are Tiger Woods and Tim Tebow. The way these two athletes have been covered this week in particular has spoke volumes for the way the media covers superstar athletes and the way we view superstar athletes as fans. Simply put, there’s nothing we love more than the vicious cycle of building up and tearing down…
Let’s start briefly with why these two are in the news. Tiger Woods made another return after a lengthy layoff, this time from injury, at the WGC event at Firestone in Akron. Firestone is where Woods has seen the most success in his career, but through the first two days of the tournament Tiger is a so-so (-1), seven shots out of the lead and tied for 36th.
Presumably, Tim Tebow was going to be given the keys to Denver’s offense going into the 2011 season as Kyle Orton was going to be traded to Miami (producing bizarre chants in Miami of “We Want Orton,” wrap your minds around that). Orton wasn’t traded and outplayed Tebow in practice, creating the awkward situation where Tebow isn’t exactly the starting QB anymore. On top of that, Merrill Hoge woke up one morning and decided it was his mission to destroy Tebow, ripping him with a series of Tweets and subsequent interviews.
The changing narratives of Tiger and Tebow are stunning. Take a look at their respective careers and where they are now. They symbolize more than anyone else this manipulative and cynical need to continually build up and tear down athletes. This shouldn’t be a mystery to many of you, but it has truly flashed like a bright neon sign with sirens this week. And we as fans should be able to see through it…
Again, let’s look at Tiger first. For years and years, Woods was the most popular athlete on the planet. After Jordan, it was Tiger that became the most transcendent athlete in the world with ability that we’ve never seen before. Perhaps nobody but MJ has seen the overwhelming positivity in endorsements, coverage, and popularity.
Then the scandal came that brought down Woods’ empire. All of a sudden, he was late night fodder as Perkins waitresses, porn stars, and divorce reports replaced Augusta, major wins, and swing changes. The media reveled in the sensational story of the fall from grace of the world’s most recognizable athlete. Woods went from being one of the most revered athletes in the world to being one of the most reviled.
However, with his struggle to find form again on the golf course and his search to overcome his personal demons… a redemption narrative has emerged for Tiger Woods. Now, the same media that fell in and out of love with him is openly rooting for his return to success. “We want to see the old Tiger” they say. “We want to see Tiger win again.” Heck, Michael Wilbon was openly rooting for Tiger Woods to get in contention at Firestone on PTI and encouraging us to do the same.
But why? Why should I root for Tiger Woods now, especially after all the scandal and divorce and what we know about his personal life. Should folks on television be telling me as a sports fan who I should and shouldn’t be rooting for? I’m confused. Should I buy into this largely fabricated redemption narrative? Who or what is being redeemed anyways? Does Tiger Woods even need redemption in the first place? Are we cheering for the same guy that dominated the sport, became a national laughing stock, or some sort of Tiger 3.0? How are we supposed to reconcile being told for a year and more what a horrible person Tiger was and then turn on a dime and support his comeback efforts?
And what about Tim Tebow? No other college athlete has ever been as highly covered as Tebow. The media fell in love with Tim Tebow during his time at Gainesville. The style of smash-mouthed football he played, the intangible on-field leadership, and his success at Florida (2 national titles and a Heisman) played a role in Tebow’s rapid ascension as one of the “it” superstars in sports. And if that all wasn’t enough, Tebow recieved praise for his off-field character. In an age where fans and media continually cry out for athletes that can be role models and behave well, Tebow is that golden boy next door.
But in the end, that’s what has created a turn in the media against Tim Tebow. If anything, he was too good, too nice, too wholesome. So, as he transitioned from the college game to the pro game, we had to find something wrong with him. We had to tear him down. The wide majority of NFL analysts have questioned Tebow’s ability to play the pro game (albeit with 82 career passes). But at the same time, analysts and players alike have decried the “hype” that Tebow received entering the NFL. Merrill Hoge said as much in comments explaining his Twitter assault on Tebow’s game.
That’s puzzling, because if anything, the wide majority of the “hype” surrounding Tebow going to the NFL centers on his eventual failure. And now, with Tebow admittedly fighting through adversity in this Broncos QB competition for perhaps the first time in his career, we can all rejoice with sadistic pleasure in this fact…
Tim Tebow is human.
Just like Tiger Woods.
Tebow is now going through what Woods did after his fateful accident, albeit from a much different angle. After being built up as invincible, we can now take some bit of twisted satisfaction in the tearing down of Tim Tebow, just as we did in bringing down the impenetrable wall that Tiger Woods established over his image. Some have disappointingly taken the opportunity to mock Tebow’s religious faith as well, which honestly, is a central reason for Tebow’s polarization… and is pathetic. God has forsaken Tim Tebow? Really? Over a quarterback competition? Please. It’s not like Tebow is the first openly religious athlete. Countless athletes thank God on Twitter, Sandy Koufax famously refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf took a principled stand on the national anthem, and so on. But Tebow’s stardom and intentionality combine to create a polarizing star athlete/evangelist. In the religous revival era of the Second Great Awakening, this would be a culturally accepted smash hit. In a postmodern 2011 society where public discussion of religion is largely taboo, it’s a strike against him in the eyes of many. And, it can be one more tool in the destruction of the myth of Tim Tebow.
So in truth, Tiger Woods and Tim Tebow are on the same continuum… just at different points. And in truth, we feed into this neverending cycle of building up and tearing down athletes. Why are we still so succeptible as fans to this predictable storyline arc? We always know it’s coming and yet we continue to buy into it. Now that there are so many options for us to consume news, shouldn’t we be less likely to buy into this same old song and dance? Do we really need to be told which athletes to love or hate, who we should root for in their “redemption,” or who we should see as just a paper lion? Even which NFL team is or isn’t a “Dream Team” is a subject for a made up debate. Can’t we see beyond this silliness in 2011?
In the end, I’m just tired of this constant merry go round of doom. I’m tired of seeing outlets like ESPN create a national crisis and milk a week’s worth of stories out of one of their analysts “making news” by criticizing a player. I’m tired of the constant yo-yo of when an athlete is supposed to be a hero and when he’s supposed to be a villain. I’m tired of falling victim to this trap time and time again.
I don’t know if I’m supposed to hate Tim Tebow because he’s overhyped or love him because he’s being victimized. I don’t know whether to admire his off-field character or despise him for being told he’s better than I am. I don’t know if I’m supposed to cheer for Tiger Woods to be Tiger Woods again or want him to never win another tournament because he’s the worst person in the world.
This phenomenon of course goes beyond athletes into every part of celebrity, politics, reality shows, and anyone in the public eye, really. The media will hype certain people and then turn around and complain about the hype. They will extoll the personal virtues of certain people and then use it against them. They will be in awe of a well-built image and then circle like vultures when the first chink appears. And then when it’s all over and there’s nothing left but broken bones of our fallen heroes, we will come along to build them back up once again.
Perhaps that should be a lesson to the people criticizing Tim Tebow right now. Little do they know that they will soon take part in his redemption story later this season. You know, the same one being told right now with Tiger Woods…