The Catholic University of America

Jan. 2, 2012

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Tim Tebow is living a life that most young boys only dream about. He played football for four years at the University of Florida, winning a Heisman Trophy his sophomore year. He led the Gators to two national championships. After college, he was drafted by the Denver Broncos as a backup quarterback.

When Denver began the year 1-4, Tebow became the starter. He came from behind in his first game (the score was 15-0 with three minutes left) to beat the Miami Dolphins. Since taking the reins, he has led Denver to a 7-2 record and a real shot at winning the AFC West.

The home-schooled son of American Baptist missionaries, Tebow was born after a medically difficult pregnancy. He survived a doctor's recommendation that he be aborted.

Today, he is outspokenly pro-life and a devout Christian. He has a habit of kneeling and praying after his team wins games. (In pop culture it's called "Tebowing.") When he was a college player, he would write Bible verses (John 3:16) on his eye black, a practice the NCAA has since forbidden (the "Tebow Rule").

In a different era, Tebow would be admired, even envied. Instead, he is a controversial figure. Some sportscasters criticize him. Some players disdain him. Sports agents warn that his flamboyant Christianity will cause him to lose endorsements.

I was tempted to see this as just another example of how the culture looks down its nose at believing Christians. But I think that there is a deeper lesson, though, and a sadder one, in Tebow's mixed reviews: We just don't want to believe in heroes anymore.

My father's generation admired Jesse Owens. My boyhood idol was Roberto Clemente. They were great athletes. They were also admirable people, and that was an important part of the package.

A hero is someone who you want to be able to identify with through and through.

This natural human desire for someone to look up to finds a more sublime outlet in the veneration of the saints.
When our children were young, I would read the lives of the saints at breakfast. The accounts were not always first-rate history. Some veered off into Christian mythology and romance. They rarely mentioned the saints' character flaws, though they certainly had them. But the stories are no less valuable for all that. The lives of the saints are, as Christopher Dawson observed, an expression of our spiritual ideals.

There is a risk in equating sports stars with saints. Most of them, like most of us, won't bear close scrutiny.

Think about Tiger Woods, someone I used to admire until the details of his extramarital escapades came out.

The press seems to revel in exposing the tawdry side of celebrities. The very word "hagiography" (literally "writing about saints") has a negative connotation. It refers to unduly flattering, even sycophantic, media coverage of public figures. The implication is, that's something we shouldn't do.

I think that the explanation for all of this is that we no longer share a common conviction about what counts as a good life.

It's hard to be a hero in this kind of culture.

In this world, the only moral quality that we can insist on is a thin sort of integrity, a requirement that we own up to who we really are.

And the only moral failing that we can accuse someone of is hypocrisy – hence the Tiger Woods scandal. His unforgivable sin was not adultery; it was that he presented himself (or at least his sponsors did) as a family man who liked to kick back with his beautiful wife and kids after winning the U.S. Open on a bad knee. But he wasn't.

And, in this world, the media play the watchdog role of holding people to the only moral standard that still counts. They root out hypocrisy wherever it occurs.

Woe betide Tim Tebow if he harbors some secret vice or took a false step while he was winning those championships at Florida.

I find it all kind of sad. Boys and girls need heroes. It would be great if they picked saints, but there is no harm in admiring athletes, too, if those athletes live virtuous lives.

And if it turns out that they have feet of clay, let's not give up on the idea that we really can, with God's grace, live lives that are worth celebrating.

More Columns by John Garvey