Tim Tebow Goes for the Conversion
The real meaning of the quarterback's pro-life Super Bowl ad.
Also in Slate, William Saletan documents the grisly truth about Tim Tebow’s Super Bowl abortion ad. To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss Tim Tebow's pro-life Super Bowl ad and NFL prospects on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 10:40 mark:
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"Grind on me, test me," Tim Tebow recently told Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "I feel I've prepared my whole life for this." He was talking about the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where Tebow's been huffing his way through brutal workouts before an audience of NFL scouts. The University of Florida quarterback could have just as easily been talking about his upcoming Super Bowl commercial. During the big game on Feb. 7, the doe-eyed, block-chested football star will appear alongside his mother, Pam. Together they'll tell the story of Tim's birth: how Pam's pregnancy was threatened by a tropical disease (the family was living in the Philippines, as missionaries), doctors told her to abort the child, and she refused. And now look at her kid: Heisman winner, preacher, Christian heartthrob. At a press conference last week, Tebow said that he's "always been very convicted" about the wrongness of abortion "because that's the reason I'm here."
Ponying up the estimated $2.5 to $2.8 million for the 30 seconds of airtime is Focus on the Family, the evangelical ministry led until last year by abortion foe and SpongeBob SquarePants hater James Dobson. Judging by the protest pages on Facebook and outbursts on Twitter, some are surprised that the Tebows would partner up with such an organization. The truth is that Tim Tebow's appearance in this ad shouldn't be surprising at all: He's spent his life preparing for this commercial the same way Ben Bernanke spent his preparing to run the Fed in a post-bubble economic contraction.
Tim Tebow is a messenger. His name is "Timothy" because 23 years ago Bob Tebow was out preaching in some hot and dusty part of the Philippines, and he asked God to give him a preacher son. (Timothy is the name of a biblical preacher.) "Timmy has it built into him that he is on a mission from God to affect people's lives," Bob has said. And to do that, Bob Tebow's son needs an audience.
The Tebows have been clear about this mission. Decisions about Tim's career are motivated by a search for an ever-larger soapbox. Tebow didn't choose to return to Florida to finish his education—"I'm a football player this semester," he explained before the season commenced. So, why did he come back? "I believe that I have a big platform here," Tebow told me last spring in Gainesville, Fla., "and I have an opportunity to help a lot of people here and influence a lot of people here." So he stayed. Tebow's success in college allows him to spread the good word in a way he might not be able to if he gets moved to H-back in the pros. (Perhaps this is why he's so adamant about going to a team that will give him a shot to play quarterback. Nobody wants to hear Frank Wycheck talk about Jesus.) And now he's set to reach the biggest audience in Christendom. The commercial isn't a means; it's the end.
What is the end? It's not just stopping abortions. Tebow wants to convert people, like his father does in Muslim areas of the Philippines. Until now, he's been subtle in his outreach, pushing his message gently, painting "PHIL 4:13" and "JOHN 3:16" and "MARK 8:36" in his eye black—an ingenious touch that prods even the most degenerate couch potato into Googling Bible verses out of curiosity. This Super Bowl commercial represents a new strategy for Tebow Inc.—one that's more confrontational and also much more in keeping with the family's ultraconservative roots.