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Tim Tebow and the Problem with Signs

There are certain subjects that are almost guaranteed to cause controversy, whether they are brought up in casual conversation or formal debate—abortion, gun control, the death penalty… and Tim Tebow.

Tom Krattenmaker recently wrote an article whose title provides the question I have about this strange phenomenon: “What is it about Tim Tebow?” In his article, Krattenmaker makes an interesting observation about Tebow’s tendency to cause controversy: “It’s as if he carries the weight of Christianity and its cultural credibility on his padded shoulders.” This got me thinking. The “it” about Tim Tebow that seems to inspire such intense and intractable argument is not so much substantive as it is symbolic.

Specifically, the “it” about Tim Tebow has to do not with who he is or how he plays but what he signifies. Bear with me for a moment. A basic understanding of how meaning works is that words are the signs of things – for example, the word “Tebow” signifies a certain person who currently plays professional football for the Denver Broncos. The word “football” signifies the particular kind of ball used in the game Tebow plays.

However, sometimes meaning works in other ways. There are a lot of “things” that are really abstract concepts. What signifies “christianity”? For some people it is a cross, but that is hardly the only possible symbol. Because abstract concepts like “christianity” involve so many different people, things, and ideas, it is possible for anything associated with christianity to become a sign for the entire religion. In other words, as Kenneth Burke has written, it is possible for things (or people) to become the signs of words.

Tim Tebow creates so much intense argument precisely because he has become a sign for several different abstract concepts, each of which arouses a great deal of passion. For many people, he has become a sign for christianity. For others, he is a sign for the University of Florida’s college football program — and if you don’t think that arouses a lot of passion, I’ll have to assume you’re not from the South. Tebow has even become a sign of white privilege for some observers who argue that he has received disproportionately more attention, support, and NFL-level opportunity than black quarterbacks with similar skill sets.

What’s the matter with making Tebow a sign for ideas and institutions larger than himself? After all, Tebow himself has actively participated in his own transformation into a symbol, at least when it comes to his religion— espousing his faith in public on numerous occasions and even going so far as to inscribe references to Bible verses on his eye black strips while in college. In my view, there are in fact two significant problems with Tebow’s status as a nexus of signs for abstract concepts.

First, the abstract concepts Tim Tebow has become a sign for are, well, abstract. Among other things, this means that different people inevitably have different understandings of what these concepts mean. If Tebow is a sign for christianity, for example, what exactly does that mean? What specific version of christianity is he a sign for? Many people who resent Tebow because of his association with christianity express distaste for conservative policies associated with some forms of evangelical christianity or point to discomfort with the aggressive advocacy of one’s faith in public. Many of those who praise Tebow for his faith, on the other hand, seem to associate Tebow with christianity as a whole. Ultimately, neither group is “right” because christianity is a fluid concept and there’s no way to mandate a particular association between a person and an abstract idea.

The problems with the fluidity of abstract concepts can be seen in the recent controversy over the practice of “Tebowing” (getting down on one knee to pray even if everyone around you is doing something else). At first, the word itself was seen by some as an insult to Tebow’s faith (and, for some people, to christianity in general). After it became clear that the term’s main advocate was staunchly pro-Tebow and pro-prayer, the furor died down until two members of the Detroit Lions performed the pose during their team’s 45-10 drubbing of the Broncos. ESPN writer Jemele Hill, among others, argued that the Lions were mocking Tebow’s faith. Yahoo! sports writer Dan Wetzel countered that the Lions were mocking Tebow himself and not the entire edifice of christianity. Again, neither argument can be pronounced “true” because associations occur in our minds and are not governed by others’ desire to control them. Because Tebow is a sign for something abstract and variable, different people are going to see different things. This is simply how meaning works, and, as a result, there are bound to be disagreements.

There is another problem with Tebow’s status as a sign, however, and this one is a bit more serious. When people becomes signs for ideas or institutions larger than themselves, it is easy to feel like the success or failure of the larger idea depends on the success or failure of the individual. This is why fans from a particular city can feel that their entire community benefits when that city’s football team wins. The team represents the city, so its success feels like a win for all the people of the city.

Raising the stakes for a specific individual’s success or failure can have negative consequences when it comes to arguments about that person, however. Witness the intractability of debates over Tim Tebow the football player. Tebow fans seem incapable of acknowledging the possibility that Tebow’s skills might not be a good fit for the NFL, while Tebow detractors cannot find enough hyperbole in the world with which to declare Tebow a waste of roster space. Why? In part, it is because Tebow is a sign.

If you like Tim Tebow because you see him as a sign for all christianity, it can be hard to admit that he is playing poorly because his failure seems to imply the failure of the religion. If you dislike Tebow because you see him as a sign for the University of Florida, it can be hard to admit that he is playing well because his success seems like a validation of a hated rival. Because the larger ideas with which Tebow is associated are so important to us, it becomes difficult for us to see him as anything other than a sign.

This is a serious mistake on our part. As Burke points out in Language As Symbolic Action, “since language is extended by metaphor which gradually becomes the kind of dead metaphor we call abstraction, we must know that metaphor is not literal.” To forget that Tebow is not, in fact, christianity or the University of Florida or white privilege, is to forget how meaning works. It is also to load Tebow up with more symbolic weight that any single football player should be given to carry, no matter how much that player may want to carry it.

Arguing about sports is as much of an American national pastime as watching or playing sports. It may seem like Tebow’s status as a sign for larger ideas makes him the perfect sportsman, since he is guaranteed to generate a string of controversies. Tebow-the-sign, however, produces arguments that are based on differences in meaning instead of on-field exploits. Furthermore, any possibility of argument about Tebow-the-athlete is ultimately undermined by the enormous stakes raised by Tebow-the-sign.

There isn’t really much any of us can do about Tebow’s status as a public figure, or even about his status as a sign. What we can do is remember that the relationship between Tebow and the larger ideas he signifies is not literal. If he succeeds, christianity is neither vindicated nor refuted. If he fails, white privilege will still exist. Reminding ourselves of these facts not only prevents us from falling into intractable debates but helps us become more mature users of language itself.

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