The Maile Gaze (Delayed); Tebowmania Talk in the Midwest
Before discussing the significance/history/symbolism of uniforms and how sports fans talk about unis, I have to address a slightly more pressing matter. In two weeks I am going to Rockford College, a private liberal arts college outside of Chicago, to talk about the rhetoric of religion in Tebowmania and the Penn State scandal. Here’s the extended abstract:
With God on the Sideline:
The Rhetoric of Faith and Football in Tebowmania and the Penn State Scandal
Perhaps the two biggest sports stories of 2011 have concerned college and professional football respectively: the first being the allegations of child rape against former defensive coordinator for Pennsylvania State University’s Nittany Lions, Jerry Sandusky, the second being the media frenzy brought about by the play and public persona of Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos. What connects the two is not merely the sharing of a particular moment in American sports history, but how religion and religious rhetoric have been at the forefront of both. After the Sandusky case began making national headlines, NBC’s Brian Williams made a statement, which at least in sentiment if not exact terms, had also been expressed in The New York Times. Williams asserted that a “lot of people watching this scandal unfold at Penn State, watching the human damage pile up, watching an institution get badly soiled, can’t help but think of the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in America.” While this analogy is born from the way a powerful institution was complicit in covering up the abuse of young boys by a respected and prominent figure in the local community, this is not where the religious rhetoric ends. The other central figure in the case, former head coach Joe Paterno, has been rhetorically positioned as a fallen deity; in a Sports Illustrated article about the scandal, an alum mentioned a run-in with Paterno where she felt like she had been “scolded by God.” (Paterno’s nickname, “Pa,” also has a religious connotation that is difficult to ignore.)
At the same time as the Sandusky case unfolds and provides ongoing material for media punditry, Tebowmania, shorthand for the incredible amount of attention given to Tim Tebow, shared the media landscape with the Penn State case. Ever since his rise to national prominence as a Heisman Trophy and national championship-winning quarterback at the University of Florida, Tebow’s religious faith has been part of not only his own rhetoric—he famously had Bible verses on his eye black during games—but is also central to his polarizing effect on audiences. Although his incredible popularity could be due to leading a spate of dramatic comeback wins for the Denver Broncos, it also has to do with his constant and prominent profession of faith, the kind of rhetoric that has appealed to a wide spectrum of Americans. Yet Tebow’s references to his faith have not been universally endorsed: responding to Tebow’s pronouncements, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said that, “with all due respect, we don’t need God on our sideline.” This paper puts Tebowmania and the Penn State scandal in conversation via the religious rhetoric present in both, and explores how this is part of a larger intersection between sport, faith, and American identity.
In The Holy Trinity of American Sports (2007) Craig A. Forney argues that football, baseball, and basketball “produce a daily way of life and provide acts of nonstop guidance, particularly by way of devotion to spoken and written words. Beyond the everyday, the game action inspires gathering of fans at certain times in the week, congregating actions in expression of common faith” (25). What Forney calls the “devotion to spoken and written words” is the central element of this paper, particularly as these words reflect the fan’s identity and his or her relationship to other fans. Moreover, sport generates a wide-ranging and sophisticated discourse that goes far beyond the discussion of the game and its minutiae of points scored, penalties given, and winners and losers identified. While this paper focuses on what (for want of a better term) I will refer to as case studies that demonstrate interconnected rhetoric of faith and football and how this rhetoric consists of much more than what occurs on the gridiron, this chapter is also an attempt to speak to the wider interplay of faith, sports, and fanaticism in the United States.
There are a number of issues I will address:
* Fanaticism, of course, and how it played out in both the phenomenon of Tebowmania and the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. How much is too much? (A silly question, perhaps, but one that pertains to both cases.) Tebowmania, after all, was as much about those who looked at his public pronouncements of faith with distaste as delight. How did Tebow go “too far”? Aaron Rodgers is a quarterback who is vocal and open about his Christian faith, but he has few (if any) critics on this matter. Perhaps we can locate the disdain felt by many observers in the way that it was part of the Tebow commodification: that Tebowing, for example, was part of the larger “sales drive” of the Tebow brand. (I am sure I am not the only one to think this, but if only Roland Barthes could write an essay on those devoted “Tebowers,” captured by digital photography in a pose that has no fixed meaning.)
As for the Penn State scandal, another question that was part of its discourse is “what’s too much?” In this case, I think the question of degree concerns what, for want of a better term, one could call “the line”: How do we read the actions of the students who rioted (gently in that good night) over Paterno’s dismissal? Acolytes who are unleashing anger and dismay after the deposition of a beloved, divinely-appointed monarch? Or acts of devotees who are willing to forget/wilfully ignore the effect such visible support for Paterno might have on those who were (allegedly) raped by a member of Paterno’s royal family?