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Tim Tebow outpolls Mitt Romney and the GOP field: All Tebow, all the time

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The hardest part of rooting for Tim Tebow in the playoffs is knowing how much you’re going to hate that guy when he’s the Republican nominee for President in 2036. If you caught yourself cheering when he torched the Steelers defense with an 80-yard touchdown pass to win the game on the first play of overtime — with a lot of help from Demaryius Thomas, sure — then be prepared to have that memory twisted against you as the esteemed Senator from Colorado replays it in every campaign ad to snatch the nomination away from Bristol Palin.

The future is a scary thing sometimes.

In the meantime, you can imagine that every current GOP candidate was on the phone to Jimmy Sexton, Tebow’s agent, wanting to offer their personal congratulations to his client after the overtime win, and just idly checking if maaaaaaybe he’s considered making an endorsement…

After all, Tebow’s poll numbers are higher than any current Republican candidate, and the very fact that anyone thought to poll for this is further proof that the kid isn’t going away anytime soon — even if the magic runs out in Boston next weekend and he goes 3-for-18 for 19 yards and seven interceptions before being benched for Brady Quinn. Nobody’s taken Tom Brady’s numbers among likely GOP voters, and that guy’s been great for a decade now.

 When members of the right wing of the American Culture War see Tebow, they see their ideal avatar: He’s a photogenic dude blessed with a staggering amount of athletic talent who is still somehow persecuted. 

It’s pretty much all-Tebow, all the time, till they’re out of the playoffs, huh?

When there were 32 teams and 32 different storylines to follow in the NFL, Tebow still dominated the discussion in both football and politics. Now that we’re down to eight teams and the primary season has heated up, it’s time to learn to stop worrying and love the Tebow talk. It’s not going away. There’s backlash, and backlash to the backlash, and more.

Why do we find Tebow so fascinating? I mean, I know why I do — I have long been fascinated in the place where football culture meets pop culture meets political culture, culminating in a stew that tells us more about ourselves than we’d ever guess our interest in a game could. But what makes the guy such a big deal?

He is not the first athlete to have fervent religious views that he espouses publicly and unapologetically. Reggie White, Green Bay’s “Minister of Defense,” earned that nickname by being, you know, an actual minister. The number of athletes who pay tribute to their big guy in the sky after doing something great on the field or the court is probably higher than those who don’t.

He’s not the first dynamic college football player with an unconventional style to transition to the professional game in weird ways, either. Austin’s still-favorite son Vince Young was Tebow before Tebow was, and the list of Heisman Trophy winners whose skills didn’t translate directly to the pro game is nearly as long as the list of those whose did — yet there was not such excitement over the pro debut of Troy Smith.

And all of this started long before the winning streak, the playoffs, and the overtime pass to Thomas. Is there any other way that Tebow’s story could have gone?

What we talk about when we talk about Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow is a quarterback, which means he’s immediately more compelling than most NFL players. Occasionally a wide receiver — think Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens — or a linebacker — maybe Bart Scott or Ray Lewis — will capture the public’s imagination, but we usually reserve our passion for the guy who touches the ball every play.

He’s also a good-looking kid, which doesn’t hurt, and a self-professed virgin, which catches the eye of a sex-obsessed culture. And when people look at him, they see a lot of things.

When members of the right wing of the American Culture War see Tebow, they see their ideal avatar: He’s a photogenic dude blessed with a staggering amount of athletic talent who is still somehow persecuted.

He is bold and outspoken in his religious beliefs, utilizing dog-whistles (like his appearance in a Super Bowl ad last year by Christian dominionist political organization Focus On The Family) to signify that they don’t just identify with him — he identifies with them, too, and for this he suffers the slings and arrows of guys like Terrell Suggs and Jake Plummer, and the liberal elite at large.

 The days of Tebow-the-Rorschach-test-for-America may be coming to an end, if he does again what he did so convincingly in Denver last Sunday against the Steelers: Play football well. 

He’s also unfailingly nice — Sports Illustrated’s Peter King frequently refers back to Tebow’s tendency to end conversations with “Have a great day, Mr. King.” It’s hard to imagine any parent who is considering, say, casting a vote in the GOP primary being disappointed with a son who turns out like Tim Tebow.

The rest of us, though? We see a kid who has not proven himself to be particularly good at his chosen profession, who is still somehow granted an opportunity given to only 32 human beings on the planet at any given time — to succeed on the biggest stage in American sports as the starting quarterback for an NFL team.

Despite displaying a questionable degree of competence at passing the football, he continues to hold his position — while most “athletic” quarterbacks (which too often translates to “not-white”) find themselves converted to kick returners or wide receivers, a la Brad Smith of the Buffalo Bills or Joe Webb of the Minnesota Vikings — Tebow is able to enjoy his opportunities despite copious on-field struggles.

We see a scion of privilege whose ostentatious displays of religious fealty carry an aggressive edge developed by years of politicized Christianity. We see the kid’s supporters using this hunky white dude who has been given every advantage in life, and opportunities that his peers don’t receive, and claiming that they’re the ones who are oppressed because we dare find fault with his play.

But the days of Tebow-the-Rorschach-test-for-America may be coming to an end, if he does again what he did so convincingly in Denver last Sunday against the Steelers: Play football well. Oh, he’ll still be an icon of the Right — politicians will still invoke his name as they’ve done with quarterbacks to goose a crowd forever — and still be a figure of derision to the Left, who see his political affiliations as repugnant.

But it’s much easier to project our own interpretations onto an athlete who hasn’t proven much about himself on the field. Tebow as bad quarterback granted undeserved opportunities or Tebow as persecuted Christian attacked by a biased society — those things are going away, maybe before the Playoffs are over. That, at least, is something to celebrate.

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