[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the second in the series.]
How two of the more controversial recent American athletes can help us analyze fault lines of religion, patriotism, and communal identifications.
As I wrote in this post from last summer, one inspired by the success of the American women’s soccer team at the World Cup, one of the most inspiring aspects of sports—it’s ability to connect people across a community through their shared embrace of a team or athlete—is also a double-edged sword, helping to amplify “us vs. them” communal identifications that are as exclusionary as they are inclusive, as divisive as they are unifying. Perhaps exhibit A in the case for those downsides would be the hate mail and death threats that Hank Aaron received as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record, and thus the ways in which (presumably) white Americans identified with Ruth’s race in direct opposition to Aaron’s. Yet in their own ways the recent and ongoing responses to Tim Tebow’s NFL successes and unique identity and perspective are even more illustrative of the complex communal identifications prompted by American sports.
Ever since his national championship and Heisman Trophy-winning days at the University of Florida, Tebow’s fame has been due to a complex combination of athletic prowess and personal identity/perspective; similarly, his rapid return to prominence during this past NFL season (as evidenced by his ascension to the top of an ESPN poll focused on the most popular athletes) depended both on the late-game heroics through which his Denver Broncos continued to win and the religious celebrations with which he greeted those victories. Yet while it’s impossible to quantify which of those aspects was more inspiring to each fan or even to communities as a whole, there’s no question that Tebow’s overtly and centrally Christian identity and perspective were at the heart of many Americans’ identifications with him. It was to amplify and benefit from such connections, after all, that the Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family (with which Tebow has been connected for many years) aired a television ad in which kids recite the words of John 3:16, the scriptural verse that has frequently adorned Tebow’s eye black.
While an American Studier might connect such identifications to a number of complex national histories and narratives, I think it’s particularly interesting to do so by considering a very different case of a prominently religious athlete and the responses to him: Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nuggets basketball player who famously refused to stand during performances of the national anthem. As Abdul-Rauf argued, his stance (for which he was suspended by the NBA) was due first and foremost to his Muslim faith and his perspective on how that faith forbids “nationalist worship”; but he also made an explicitly political secondary argument, one focused on the Iraq War and other American engagements with the Middle East and Muslim world. That explicitly political stand might seem to differentiate Abdul-Rauf from Tebow, and similarly one could argue that the much more consistently critical communal responses to Abdul-Rauf were due to that political perspective and the kinds of patriotic responses it prompted; but I would push back a bit on both of those claims: arguing first that the responses to Tebow’s religious displays would be very different if he were producing a Muslim prayer mat and praying toward Mecca after each victory; and second that there is indeed a political component to the responses to Tebow, one connected to communal identifications of America as a “Christian nation.”
Plenty more to analyze with these complex athletes and cases, of course—so what do you think? Next sports post tomorrow,
PS. Again, I’d love to hear your takes and thoughts. How would you analyze these cases? Other divisive athletes you’d highlight?
2/1 Memory Day nominee: Langston Hughes, one of America’s most talented poets and writers, and the only one equally adept writing about himself, entire communities, racial and historical issues, the more humorous and human side of relationships, music, and America’s most defining ideas and identities (among other things).
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