Tim Tebow, Allen Iverson and Otherness in Pro Sports

2009 College Football All-America Team

Image via Wikipedia

Usually, quarterbacks with 78.4 passer ratings achieve about as much national coverage as the World Kickball Championships. These are guys like Matt Moore or Colt McCoy, who we all kind of have the sense are not very good but not spectacularly awful, but we can’t be sure since we’ve never actually seen them play. They are the Arizona Cardinals of quarterbacks (and, not surprisingly, include the actual Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks) – lurking in the backs of our collective consciousness without us giving much of a second thought to them.

And then there’s Tim Tebow. Oh Lord, there’s Tim Tebow – the most polarizing figure in sports since Allen Iverson made us question the role of the proud, angry black man in a sport dominated by black players and rich, white owners. Of course, it’s easy to see Tebow as the anti-Iverson: white, humble and devoted to good causes and the Church contrasted to Iverson’s swagger, street image and overall blackness. But when you get down to it, Touchdown Jesus and AI have more in common than you would think.

After all, how many people doubted that Iverson could survive in the NBA? A 5’11” (generously) point guard who didn’t particularly like to pass and wasn’t necessarily a great shooter? In the NBA world of the mid-1990s, this was about as radical as a 7-footer who shot three-pointers (this was largely a pre-Euro basketball world, mind you). Iverson seemed less likely to be destined for stardom and more likely to become college stars who couldn’t translate their game to the physical demands of the NBA. Sort of a gangster version of Bo Kimble.

The doubts about Iverson’s ability to translate his unorthodox game to the pro level is eerily similar to how people felt about Tim Tebow after he left Florida for the NFL. Even though he was arguably the most accomplished quarterback in college history, few people thought (and perhaps still think) that his skills would work in the next level. It’s great to be a running quarterback against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. But try that in the NFL and you’ll end up flattened on the turf, like how Wile E. Coyote was turned into a 2-D cutout after falling off a cliff and having a boulder fall on top of him.

If there’s one trait that even the detractors of Tebow and Iverson agree that they share, it’s toughness. Iverson made a career of driving the lane and absorbing a ridiculous amount of punishment to get to the line or score circus-like lay-ins. Teammates and opponents marveled at how someone of Iverson’s stature could take such a physical pounding from guys a foot taller than him and get right back off the floor. Many media stories on this pointed out Iverson’s football background – he led his team to the Virginia state title in high school and was considered by some to be the best local quarterback until Michael Vick came along.

Similarly, Tebow uses his 240-pound frame less like a quarterback and more like a middle linebacker. We’re taught that quarterbacks need to slide and avoid contact after a scramble, in order to avoid having an angry defender blast him into a million pieces and wind up scattered across the field like Lego structure dropped from 20 feet. Instead, Tebow seems to relish contact, lowering his shoulder to deliver the blow to a defender rather than shield himself from it. He’s the quarterback version of Earl Campbell. He laughs at our notions of positional fragility.

Beyond their on-the-field exploits, what bonds Tebow and Iverson and makes them so divisive is how they reflect a certain element of our fragmented population. Iverson was the bane of the NBA front office and traditional advertising campaigns because he represented Ultimate Blackness to Middle America – defiant, angry and thuggish. Today, Tebow represents God, charity and family values. Iverson had his cornrows, Tebow has his spiky, overgelled hair. For many Americans, Tim Tebow represents Ultimate Whiteness.

How you react to Tim Tebow reflects on how you feel about what he represents and how he is portrayed (and portrays himself). My buddy McLane said that the cable system in Phoenix basically went haywire – so many people were calling to add the NFL Network just to watch the Broncos vs. Jets that the system crashed. Meanwhile, my wife (a women’s studies major in college and ardent pro-choice supporter) rolls her eyes at any mention of Tim Tebow, largely because of his equally strident and goofy pro-life commercial that aired during the Super Bowl a few years ago.

In the end, I don’t think there’s a “wrong” reaction to Tim Tebow, just like I don’t think there was a “wrong” reaction to Allen Iverson 15 years ago. Personally, I think it’s hysterical that someone has gone 4-1 as a starter running the same offense that my high school did. The NFL is a copycat league, and fans are sick of it. Much like AI’s freewheeling, streetball-inspired game was a revelation when se against the crunch of a million pick-and-rolls, Tebow’s pseudo-spread option stands out amongst a sea of Cover 2s and West Coast offenses. (One might say he parted the sea of vanilla schemes.) Ironically, it took the most bland and homogenous player to break the NFL out of its cookie-cutter doldrums.


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2 responses to “Tim Tebow, Allen Iverson and Otherness in Pro Sports

  1. Hoob

    As much as I dislike Tebow and all the hype surrounding him, I have nothing but respect for his determination and toughness. However, his four wins have been against three of the worst defenses in the NFL and a team in the Jets that has forgot how to play offense. Also, ask Kordell Stewart, Vince Young and pre-prison Michael Vick how long it takes defensive coordinators to expose single-dimensional quarterbacks for what they are; anomalies that sell tickets for a few games before being relegated to the scrap heap of the glory that could have been.

  2. While the three QBs you mentioned all had running abilities not typically seen in NFL QBs, they also possessed very strong arms. There might have been questions about if they had the vision, accuracy, etc. to play QB in the NFL, but no one questioned their raw throwing ability. They weren’t completely changing how the game was played, just adding a new wrinkle to it.

    It’s one thing to be a throwback to Randall Cunningham (or John Elway or Fran Tarkenton) and other to be a throwback to the Four Horsemen (non-Ric Flair version).

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