There have always been athletes who believed their job is to hit baseballs or run fast, not be interviewed about it, or be an inspiration, or get along with teammates, management, media, or fans. ”What you do on the field, that’s what matters. All that other stuff is nobody else’s business but mine.” I think it was Charles Barkley who created some controversy over a decade ago by declaring “I’m not a role model. Your parents should be your role model. Your minister, your teacher, somebody in your community.” It’s something of a convenient value, brought out when needed, buried when it flows the other way. That’s entirely reasonable, because it is both true and not true. The rules and skill set of sports are rather arbitrary, so the whole point is the mythology we create around the games. On the other hand, once the rules are in place and we are keeping score, the athlete’s job is to maximise the number of yards gained or shots blocked within that arbitrary framework. Paradoxically the silent hero, the Charlie Gehringer or Steve Carlton, is a legitimate variant.
It comes up within each sport as well, whether someone leads by example or by getting in teammates’ faces; whether someone is disruptive to team chemistry; whether a player is creating a distraction with too much visibility versus not being available to the fans and media. Emotion matters, even myth matters, to the actual players. They have all been exposed to guys who are complete jerks, but have to be put up with because of their talent; they have all known guys who bring something extra to a team in motivation or inspiration.
The sports shows this morning just couldn’t get off the topic of the New England Patriots signing a third-string quarterback. A television programmer two years ago noted that while people complained about the wall-to-wall coverage, no one changed the channel. “I could put on a show called Two Guys Argue About Tim Tebow and run it every night.” The emotion and the type of argument, at least from the callers, is fascinating. People will stay on hold for an hour to be able to say. “Tim Tebow is not an NFL quarterback. Period. No further discussion. Everyone should just shut up about Tim Tebow.” Meanwhile, the next guy, who has also been on hold an hour just wants to say. “He’s a winner. He’s got determination. This kid has a drive to succeed.”
This is the whole athlete-as-myth, athlete-as-player divide played out in extreme. Or not quite an extreme. Tebow is apparently good enough on overall skill set alone to at least not be laughable. He passes worse than a quarteback should and runs better than a quarterback needs to. Reading defenses, he is apparently off to a reasonable start. There is argument about the aggregate of that. As for his embodying an athletic myth, that is also not entirely clean. He is a recognisable type of Chip Hilton hero, and among people who actually have the talent to play his game, rather an extreme of that type. But that extremity includes his faith, which complicates things. If he were just one of the players, it would be no issue. But he’s the quarterback, so he has to be a leader, and people want their leaders to come from a short list of hero-types. If he is seen as polarising, then that detracts from his intangibles, as they say.
An additional complication: if a lot of his value is in those harder-to-define winner/leadership/inspirational qualities, then that mostly works only when you are the starting quarterback. A team doesn’t get much of that benefit, certainly not at first, from their second- or third-string quarterback.
He is not intrusive about his faith, but millions of other people – for or against - are intrusive about his faith. He doesn’t seek to be a distraction, but millions of other people get distracted by him. People want to make statements about their beliefs by talking about his. These also often take similar form to the guys waiting on hold for the sports call-in. Declarations, not analysis.
So. My declarations, then.
Part of Belichick’s motivation may be to show in yet another way that he is a better coach than Ryan, or anyone else. Supposedly, no one can figure out how to make use of this talented player. Bill wants to show he can.
If he can’t, Tebow’s career is over.
Tebow has practice value when the Patriots are playing a read-option quarterback.
I don’t know what Tebow’s special-play, trick-play, change-of-pace value is. Presumably Belichick thinks he does. If Tom Brady gets hurt, you want Mallet to replace him. But then all that special, change-of-pace stuff from Tebow becomes more important for the Patriots. The concept of a Relief QB doesn’t make much sense with Brady. But it might with Mallet. High-risk, high-payoff stategies look better as the score gap widens.