Commentary

The Tim Tebow paradigm

It doesn't matter where the truth lies in his story, as long as we get to keep telling it

Originally Published: December 20, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Some fast thoughts today on sports and fame and nonsense, on Tim and Tom and the Brothers Grimm, on the habits of story and the horrors of war, on the limits of witness and the business of celebrity and the cult of personality. On salesmanship and statesmanship and the global manufacture and marketing of stardom.

Note first that reason, speech and self-awareness are what separate us from other, nobler animals. In that way, we are and always have been the stories we tell. Beowulf to Tebow, we unspool ourselves and these human stories as warnings or reminders or to strike in one another the spark of occasional inspiration. To do so, we make heroes. And we make villains. And since long before the days of old Phidippides, storytelling -- but most especially sports storytelling -- has relied upon exaggeration and embellishment to do so.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe man, the myth, the legend … Tim Tebow is one of those three. But which one?

Witness the rocket launch of Tim Tebow as a cultural avatar. What exactly he's meant to symbolize, no one seems quite sure. Piety? Courage? Purity of purpose? His works to date -- the winning of several football games -- are presented to us as extraordinary. Miraculous. Heroic. And while there's no denying he runs the single wing as effectively as anyone since the heyday of the League of Nations and the Decatur Staleys, that antique proficiency accounts in almost no way for the breadth and depth of our fanatical obsession with him.

By comparison, Tom Brady is just a football star.

Part of the difference lies in how we've told -- and sold, make no mistake, because that's what we do down here at the paragraph factory -- their stories. Young Tebow is so far all adjectives and adverbs. He is a mystic. A dragon slayer. Mr. Brady is a spreadsheet to which we add a couple of numbers every week. And it is the central truth of sports and heroism and our sentimentalizing humanity that we can never be fully or even satisfactorily explained by our numbers alone. Transcendence cannot be quantified. We make our heroes from fire and from language and from narrative, not regression analysis.

And having finally lost a football game this past Sunday only guarantees that Tebow must now Overcome Adversity in his next chapter. So no matter what, he'll blaze a brighter arc across a darker sky.

I was put in mind of all this effortful star-making last week when the story broke that the Marine Corps might have exaggerated or embellished the combat circumstance under which Dakota Meyer showed such bravery and selflessness as to later receive the Medal of Honor. The Marine Corps denies doing so.

[+] EnlargeDakota Meyer
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesDakota Meyer, Medal of Honor recipient, can be a hero whether the Marine Corps embellished his story or not.

The more honest response would be to say, "Of course we did -- but only to the extent that every act of storytelling requires infinite editorial decision-making, an inventory and reconciliation of unreliable testimony and disparate timelines, of narrative inflation and compression and illumination, of addition and subtraction, conflict and resolution and erasure, rising action and climax and the fall of denouement, a trim here and an elision there, a smoothing of edges and truths and confusions, of place names and faces and a reckoning of what may have been lost or forgotten in the shock of events. How can we tell the story of Dakota Meyer without recourse to the necessities of storytelling?

"He saved a lot of lives. By every measure this young man is a hero."

That's what I would have said, anyway. Is the Marine Corps not entitled to the same tools as the sporting press corps?

Whole parts of literature, after all, are devoted to the fog of heroism; the (un)intentional misunderstanding; the brave little tailor and the count that never quite adds up.

"Seven with one blow?"
"Seven with one blow."

I ran into Sgt. Meyer last fall while I was working on a baseball story. In the company of a bird colonel in dress blues and a brush-cut public relations team, he was out at Citi Field to visit the Mets. This was late September, two weeks after he'd been on every front page in America. The stop was part of the grand tour, the recruiting drive, the promotional lap of the United States. Near as I could tell, he was delighted by the access, embarrassed by the attention and tired right to the soles of his feet.

[+] EnlargeA statue of Pat Tillman
Gene Lower/Getty ImagesThe late Pat Tillman is worthy of his statue in Arizona, even if the Army wasn't immediately forthcoming about the circumstances of his death.

He looked to me, as all soldiers and athletes now do, impossibly young. He is 23, with salad bowl bangs and a barrel chest and in his unguarded moments the worried look of someone who knows The Truth. The ballplayers deferred to him, held his handshake a little longer, talked a little lower, searched in his eyes for something and stopped swaggering in the clubhouse and the dugout when he was standing there. Each of them appeared to understand the difference between heroism and the metaphors of heroism, and the power of it overwhelmed them all.

Sports are a simple thing we pretend to be important and complicated. War is important and complicated, but because it exceeds our capacity for horror, we pretend it to be simple. "In war, truth is the first casualty," Aeschylus said; and even if you hadn't heard it from him, you'd know it from Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch.

Because our truth, after all, lies not in what we've seen, but in what we can tell of what we've seen. Which, to bend Twain, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Between the hero and the idea of the hero. Between Dakota Meyer and Tim Tebow and the rest of us.

So we tell our stories. We tell our stories on the way to becoming what our stories tell us of ourselves.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

MORE COMMENTARY