There's a very good essay in Religion Dispatches by TF Charlton that points out that Tim Tebow built a huge public following not around his athletic ability, but his piety. Meanwhile, in all the hoopla over Jason Collins coming out of the closet, his very deep religious faith is almost completely ignored. Charlton explains this blind spot as a combination of politics and racial typecasting.
Collins and Tebow are a study in contrasts, perhaps especially when it comes to their faith. Tebow is known for game-saving theatrics and an equally performative profession of faith politicized by the culture wars. He’s positioned himself as an all-American poster child for the pro-life movement and homophobic groups like Focus on the Family. Collins, on the other hand, is a career role player who keeps his head down on the court and his devout Christian faith, rooted in family and community identity, private.
Where Tebow’s religiosity has been endlessly analyzed by the media and championed by the white religious right, the centrality of Collins’ Christianity and faith community in his decision to come out has been ignored. Collins’ faith hasn’t gotten the attention that his race has—apart from ESPN’s attention-grabbing decision to put Chris Broussard, a sports journalist with known, religiously-motivated homophobic views, on air to directly question him about his personal opinion of Collins’ Christian witness—in the process playing into popular narratives about black homophobia.
Charlton points out that Collins comes out of a very different religious heritage that may have encouraged him to come out instead of keeping him closeted.
...Collins pointedly mentions that his parents “instilled Christian values” in him. He credits “the teachings of Jesus… particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,” for helping him to accept others (and ultimately himself) unconditionally. In his behind-the-scenes proﬁle of how Collins’ historic interview came together, Jon Wertheim writes that the “deeply religious” Collins found spiritual validation for his plans to come out in a “daily prayer manual” that was a gift from his grandmother—speciﬁcally a passage he read just days before his announcement:
"The clarion call of freedom sounds within my soul, trumpeting the truth that the love of God liberates me from unhappiness, hurt, or fear. I bid farewell to any emptiness from the past, and open myself to realizing my heart’s deepest longing and aspiration."
Collins’ now famous opening lines—“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay”—allude to the inseparability of blackness from sexuality in a culture that often expects black gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to choose one identity over the other. Collins makes the point, however, that his religious upbringing is just as integral to his identity as his race and sexuality. He discusses his faith and belief in acceptance in the same breath as he does his “close-knit” and supportive family, the Civil Rights Movement, and his “[celebration of] being an African American and the hardships of the past that still resonate today.” Collins’ statement of faith, like his coming out generally, is grounded in his black identity, community, and history.Both athletes come out of peculiarly American forms of Christianity. Tebow comes from an evangelical tradition rooted in the white South with strong ties to right wing politics. Collins from the tradition of the Black Church and the Civil Rights movement with historic ties to progressive politics.
I've never been a sports fan, and to be honest, I've never thought much of Tim Tebow. I've always thought of him as a religious showboater and a mediocre athlete. I'm glad Jason Collins is out. Indeed his coming out is as historic as Dan Savage and so many others claim (though no one seems to remember Dave Kopay anymore).
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes was never my cup of tea.
If the Christian faith was indeed the very thing that Tim Tebow, and all the right wingers who claim a copyright on the Bible say it is, I would have left it behind long ago and shaken its dust off my feet. The whining of people who once dominated everything and who now suddenly find themselves marginalized annoys me no end.
The Christian faith tradition whose testimony still wins my allegiance is the one formed in the crucible of the Labor and Civil Rights movements; people who never enjoyed any kind of dominant position in the world finding their dignity and their freedom in a God who shares their sufferings and their struggles, and who opens the path of Liberation to all.