The God Squad: Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, And Religiosity Of Sports

By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard

Among the virtual saturation of Jeremy Lin online has been a poster of him with the words “We are all witnesses.” At Monday’s New York Knicks game, fans donned “black T-shirts that read “The Jeremy Lin Show” on the front” and “We Believe” painted on the back.

Encapsulating the hoopla and hype, while referencing the similar promise that LeBron James brought to Cleveland and the NBA (how’d that work out?), not to mention the spectacle of his meteoric rise, “the witness” iteration illustrates the religious overtones playing through the media coverage.

Since Lin emerged on the national scene while at Harvard, he has made his faith and religious identity quite clear. While refusing to abandon the “underdog” story, Cork Gaines focuses readers attention on his religious beliefs: “But there is more to Jeremy Lin than just being an undrafted Asian-American point guard out of Harvard. He is also a devout Christian that has previously declared that he plays for the glory of God and someday hopes to be a pastor.” Noting how post-game interviews often begin with Lin announcing his faith – “just very thankful to Jesus Christ, [his] Lord and savior” – Gaines uses this opportunity to deploy the often noted comparison that Jeremy Lin is the NBA’s Tim Tebow.

While making the comparison through the Cinderella/overlooked narrative, the media celebration of their faith and evangelical beliefs serves as the anchor for the Lin as Tebow trope. “Tebowmania? That was so 2011. It’s time for a new cult-hero phenomenon: Linsanity,” writes Ben Cohen in “Meet Jeremy Lin, the new Tim Tebow.”

Then there’s their shared religious values. ‘I’m just thankful to God for this opportunity,’ Lin said in an on-court interview Saturday before tweeting, “God is good during our ups and our downs!” His Twitter avatar is a Jesus cartoon. Tebow’s, for the record, is his autobiography’s cover.

Described as Taiwanese Tim Tebow, as resembling “Denver Broncos Quarterback Tim Tebow,” as filling the mold that Tebow “patented,” Lin’s identity (meaning/significance) is ascribed by his connection to Tebow. Tebow defines him.

In “From Unknown To Phenom In 3 Games: Harvard Grad Jeremy Lin Saves The New York Knicks,” Les Carpenter makes the comparison clear: “He is a Christian, vocal in his belief. And because of this and because he is a flawed player proving the experts wrong, people are comparing him to Tim Tebow.” According to Gaines, “Lin and Tebow are not the first athletes to make their faith a key component of their athletic persona. But if Lin, another unconventional player fighting an uphill battle against haters and doubters, continues his spectacular play in The World’s Most Famous Arena, the NBA may soon experience their own Tebowmania. And the fans are already calling it “Linsanity.”

While dismissing the links beyond the uber-hype afforded to Tebow (and now Lin), Bethlehem Shoals furthers the comparison: “Tim Tebow, whose religious views are no secret, probably considers luck the pay-off for faith; Lin is also an enthusiastic Christian. Whether you feel like pushing things in that direction is your business. The bottom line is that, thus far, Lin has been a welcome surprise, a Cinderella story that no one wants to see end.”

The comparison is instructive on multiple levels (see here to understand problems with comparison in a sporting context). Each exists in juxtaposition to blackness. The “underdog” narrative, the focus on hard work and intelligence, and the claims of being overlooked and discriminated against all elucidates the ways in which their bodies are rendered as different from the hegemonic black athletic body.

Religion, thus, becomes another marker of difference, as a means to celebrate and differentiate Lin and Tebow. Whereas black athletes are seen within the national imagination to be guided by hip-hop values rather than religious values, Lin and Tebow practice an evangelical ethic on and off the field/court. Tebow and Lin operate as “breath of fresh air.” Writing about Tiger Woods in Sports Stars: The Cultural Politics Of Sporting Celebrity, C.L. Cole and David L. Andrews argue that Woods’ emergence as a global icon reflected his power as a counter narrative. As “a breath of fresh of air,” his cultural power emanated from his juxtaposition to “African American professional basketball players who are routinely depicted in the popular media as selfish, insufferable, and morally reprehensible.”

The Tebow-Lin narrative reflects the centering of whiteness. In making the comparison, religion in sports and even Lin’s ascendance becomes all about Tebow. While black athletes have long given “thanks,” the efforts to construct Tebow as the source of a religious revival within America’s sports world is a testament to the wages of whiteness. “Black athletes who give a shout out to God aren’t seen as being evangelical but when someone like Tebow (i.e. white) does it, there’s a different ‘purpose’ being read into it,” notes Oliver Wang. “With Lin, I’d argue that because Asianness is coded as closer to white than Black, the Tebow comparison becomes almost automatic.” Wang highlights the profound impact of the comparison as it not only elevates Tebow as leader of the religious revolution of sports, but also furthers the coding of Lin as white body.

Through the comparison, we witness the profound ways that the media erases race by denying Tebow’s whiteness all concretizing Lin’s whiteness (of a different color). Represented through a dominant white racial frame despite his being subjected to racist taunts throughout his career, the comparison denies the power of race. It erases the ways in which whiteness serves as an anchor for the media sensationalism and celebration of Tebow; it erases the ways in which race and identity functions with the source of pride Lin’s has delivered for Asian American community or the ways in which Lin operates in relationship to narratives of whiteness; and finally it ignores the profound ways in which the celebration of their religious ideals and practices is overdetermined by the meaning of blackness within contemporary sports culture.

So while the varied meaning of race, their experiences, and their identities render a Tebow comparison null and void, making one wonder why Lin isn’t the new Avery Johnson or Hakeem Olajuwon, the ubiquitous conflation of Tebow and Lin illustrates its power and appeal. With Jeremy Lin we are all witness to a post-racial fantasy amid the racial spectacle of contemporary popular culture. Within American sports media, the God squad remains one defined and contained by race.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PPDXZBVPSQRBPON7I4Z564O6CE atl9

    Eva has a good point… many black NBA players are evangelical Christians. Maybe it’s because so many in the American black culture are evangelicals with a long historical tradition that we tend to overlook those religious blacks in the NBA or other sports – as just being a part of “that” culture. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

    I am not lumping with Lin with Tebow, but in fact trying to disconnect him from the media narrative that continually links them together.

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  • Jerry

    I believe you make several poignant statements in your
    reflection about Tebow and Lin and how the “religious revival within America’s
    sports world” is being attributed to Tebow at times and how sports figures of
    other colors who are vocal Christians about their faith and are being
    overshadowed by the media hype of Tebow and Lin. I agree with the point that is
    being made Lin’s story being made about Tebow and believe that Lin’s story
    should stand on its own (and I believe that it will) without comparison to
    Tebow;  however, I have to disagree with
    you about it being about a “testament to the wages of Whiteness.” While I’m just
    now beginning to know about Lin and his history, you also have to consider what
    has contributed to the narrative surrounding Tebowmania who came from a
    missionary family who chose to not to abort him despite a life-threatening
    condition, his public and firm stance on several Christian values, and
    continued public affirmation of the Christ as Savior and Lord. These are all
    factors that have fed into the new phenomenon. Yes, Tebow is white but when a
    comment is made about him being white while excluding these other elements,
    part of the story is being majorly overlooked. My guess is if these weren’t
    part of his story, Tebowmania, the current media sensationalism, and the “religious
    revival within America’s sports world” wouldn’t exist as it does now.
     

    • dersk

      Well, I think you have to put the whole Tebow phenomenom and attempts to pull Lin into it into the context of the recently reignited culture wars. Gingrich, Romney and Santorum are trying to force their version of Christianity down people’s throats, the Catholic church is trying to hold government policy hostage by threatening to go out of business if we tell them their tax-exempt status requires them not to be bigots, evangelicals don’t want insurance to pay for contraception, even though they’re paying the salaries that are already paying for contraception anyway, and so on, and so on. The stories about Tebow and Lin fit the narrative (especially Tebow, who’s oh so bravely breaking the rules to evangelize  – not affirm – his religion inappropriately).

      I still find it amazing to think that anyone would believe a god worth the name could possibly care about the outcome of a game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Matsushima/11706756 Paul Matsushima

    David,

    Fantastic article!!!! I, as an Asian American, have been feeling a lot of hesitancy towards blindly giving praise to J Lin. I’ve felt extremely uneasy about the amount of media attention he’s received. In response to someone else’s post about Lin, I tried articulating my feelings and came out with this:

    “I
    think your post somewhat pits Asians against other groups in sports,
    especially African Americans. I understand that you’re trying to give
    Asian American youth (esp. boys and young men) hope in role models such
    as Lin. But the way you went about it could imply Asian American youth
    to get resentful at “naturally athletic” Blacks, for Asians need to try
    extremely hard while Blacks are just “born that way.” Blacks are not the
    opposition for Asian Americans to break into professional sports. In
    many ways, American sports have been a strong site of cultural
    resistance for African Americans because they don’t have the same
    structural opportunities as whites in other areas (such as education,
    politics, the corporate world, etc.). For Asians such as Lin to begin
    breaking into this area would again infringe upon what the African
    American community has fought so long and hard for. I think there needs
    to be a constructive dialogue between the two communities (esp.
    Christian communities) to figure out how to give good role models,
    instead of giving surreptitiously divisive ones.”

    But I think the way you articulated Lin/’Tebow’s religiosity in juxtiposition with AfAms’ “hip-hop” ethics/values and its centering of whiteness is just spot on!! I look forward to your future posts!

  • Rda za

    Exactly, this meme Leonard is tacitly promoting that “Jeremy Lin is basically White” downplays how Asian folks have taken to Lin because he is ASIAN–and neither White nor Black.

    This Lin- is-White meme denies agency to Asian Americans and reiterates America’s tired Black/White racial binarism, where one must choose between only these two points of identifications.

    With the increasing demographic changes of America, this Black-White straightjacket is not tenable to not only Asians but other non-Black minorities like Latino, Indigineous, Arab, etc. 

    It’s archaic racial paradigm that cannot address the interests of these “other* groups living in a country that will only grow more MULTI-racial and cultural in the future.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

       Rather than respond to your mischaracterization of my argument (no where to I argue Lin is white and this is not a meme), I will simply quote from the article: “Through the comparison, we witness the profound ways that the media erases race by denying Tebow’s whiteness
      all concretizing Lin’s whiteness (of a different color). Represented
      through a dominant white racial frame despite his being subjected to
      racist taunts throughout his career, the comparison denies the power of
      race. It erases the ways in which whiteness serves as an anchor for the
      media sensationalism and celebration of Tebow; it erases the ways in
      which race and identity functions with the source of pride Lin’s has
      delivered for Asian American community” — the article argues against the claims you make above

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

       Rather than respond to your mischaracterization of my argument (no where to I argue Lin is white and this is not a meme), I will simply quote from the article: “Through the comparison, we witness the profound ways that the media erases race by denying Tebow’s whiteness
      all concretizing Lin’s whiteness (of a different color). Represented
      through a dominant white racial frame despite his being subjected to
      racist taunts throughout his career, the comparison denies the power of
      race. It erases the ways in which whiteness serves as an anchor for the
      media sensationalism and celebration of Tebow; it erases the ways in
      which race and identity functions with the source of pride Lin’s has
      delivered for Asian American community” — the article argues against the claims you make above

  • Ike

    A quick read through some (racist/stereotyping) nicknames and memes shows that Lin is definitely not coded as White.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Matsushima/11706756 Paul Matsushima

       but one could argue he is sometimes constructed alongside “smart” point guards such as Stockon & Nash…(who are both white)

  • STaylor in Austin

    I agree with Wang’s assessment that Lin is being coded as closer to Tebow’s brand of spirituality and race than he is to the race that makes up the vast majority of the NBA. 

     I agree with Eva and David J Leonard that their are plenty of religious black players in the NBA whose style of play is a lot closer to Lin’s basketball skills  than Tebows.

    Media is lazy and rarely makes comparisons that aren’t lazy. Cam Newton is almost always compared to Michael Vick   even though he’s 6 inches taller and plays like the amazing love child of Ben Rothlisberger and Aaron Rogers.

    There aren’t any asian players for the media to reference that look like Lin, so instead of referencing players in the NBA who have similar beliefs and play basketball rather than football and who are possibly black, they immediately go to the tired and trite Tebow card

    I thought Ricky Rubio would have been the person the media would try to elevate as the next star ( he has game, but he has an ethnic name even though he’s a white Spaniard). Every sport wants a Tebow, because it makes them and media tons of money

    As Wang mentioned I wonder if the media really is trying to cast Wang as a version of a  Model Minority version of Tebow ( not white, but close enough). I hadn’t thought of this before, but it makes sense

    Media rarely wants to hear about black and hispanic athletes who are more times than not, with or without the grand religiosity, great people and citizens. That narrative runs counter to the typical branding that  NBA players ( and to a lesser extent NFL players)  are all “THUGS” which is something  I hear in almost every sports bar

    Point in fact: On the CBS list of 2012′s most hated athlete list you have get to number ten before the first non-person of color
    http://miami.cbslocal.com/2012/02/09/lebron-6th-most-disliked-athlete/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

     One more additional thought, your desire to differentiate between the “white underdog narrative” and the narrative that highlights “that Lin has been consistently underestimated because of racial preconceptions” is exactly the point because the constant efforts to link/entangle Tebow and Lin erases those distinct histories, narratives, and identities.  The media framing, as you note, imagines them both as “underdogs” where race doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

    As many have written within the NBA, race functions in ways that centers blackness.  Media representations juxtaposes whiteness, Asianness, and all international players in opposition to blackness (see work of grant farred).  The white “underdog narrative” is thus connected to “underestimation narrative.”  Model minority discourse operates within this space as well.  Wrote more on this elsewhere – http://newblackman.blogspot.com/2012/02/pride-and-prejudice-jeremy-lin-and.html

    • OriginalPoster

      David, I have no problem with your analysis of race centering on blackness in the N.B.A., which I think is valid insofar as dominant media representations, model minority figurations, etc. are  concerned. However, when you say “Tebow defines him”, you forget to ask “according to whom?” and “for whom?”. In other words, you neglect Asian American narratives which are neither “white” nor  ”colorblind” racial underdog narratives. If you read what “everyday Asian Americans” are posting on their blogs or facebooks, it has nothing to do with TeBow and only sometimes to do with religion. Most of it has to do with the distinctiveness and challenges of growing up Asian and American at the same time. There are other points of comparison than U.S. blacks and whites in this distinctive discourse, including Asians from Asia. I just read a few comments by an Asian American male about why Jeremy Lin is easier to identify with than Yao Ming. So I stand by my original critique. You need to incorporate more Asian American voice and opinion in this piece.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

        I am writing about the media’s representation.  Again, your point fits with my argument.  The critique is of the media that wants to define him through his relationship to tebow, thereby erasing all of the things you note.  I agree with everything you say, but my analysis is how the mainstream media has framed his emergence in relationship to Tebow, thereby centering whiteness.  

    • OriginalPoster

      David, I have no problem with your analysis of race centering on blackness in the N.B.A., which I think is valid insofar as dominant media representations, model minority figurations, etc. are  concerned. However, when you say “Tebow defines him”, you forget to ask “according to whom?” and “for whom?”. In other words, you neglect Asian American narratives which are neither “white” nor  ”colorblind” racial underdog narratives. If you read what “everyday Asian Americans” are posting on their blogs or facebooks, it has nothing to do with TeBow and only sometimes to do with religion. Most of it has to do with the distinctiveness and challenges of growing up Asian and American at the same time. There are other points of comparison than U.S. blacks and whites in this distinctive discourse, including Asians from Asia. I just read a few comments by an Asian American male about why Jeremy Lin is easier to identify with than Yao Ming. So I stand by my original critique. You need to incorporate more Asian American voice and opinion in this piece.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

     BayanIzumi: I actually wrote about this on others sites, but yes that is a class part of the narrative

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

     BayanIzumi: I actually wrote about this on others sites, but yes that is a class part of the narrative

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561088424 David J. Leonard

     Eva: Great point.  As a Lakers’ fan, I can’t believe I thought about AC Green.  This is further evidence of the absurdity that Tebow is being contructed as some “pioneer”

    • A-Omega Forever

       Are you seriously comparing AC Green to Tim Tebow?? AC Green was a role player on a superstar Lakers team. Tim Tebow had one of the greatest college football careers of all time. And Tebow has been ripped to shreds by numerous outlets who felt he was overhyped based on his skill level. I just don’t see how you can point to AC Green as an example of racial bias. The simple fact that people still know today that Green is a Christian shows that it was covered in the media.  Whereas Tebow, one of the most controversial figures in sports (based on his PLAY) repeatedly uses his platform to give thanks and credit to Jesus Christ. It’s 2 different media eras and 2 guys (Green and Tebow) who had WAY different levels of hype. AC Green = role player. Tebow =mega-hype/media lightning rod. God bless.

  • Richard Roe

    I think that while there has been a lot of Tim Tebow connections, it is not how the media defines Jeremy Lin at all. Rather, the natural reductionist tendencies of the media, and the love for easy analogies and pointing out amusing coincidences is leading media outlets to conflate the two. This does not remove the distinctiveness of Jeremy Lin. It simply shows off one facet- like Tebow, they are both underdogs who are religious.