By Jonathan Gurwitz
Charles Barkley may have said it best: "I am not a role model." Anyone who looks to famous athletes for moral guidance is almost certain to end up disappointed.
There have been notable exceptions - athletes whose success in sports was matched by personal and professional integrity and decency. But behind every amazing dunk, every game-winning touchdown, and every spectacular home run is a fallible human being just like the rest of us, prone to make mistakes, break laws, and sin.
Few athletic stories are more inspiring than that of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, who fulfilled an improbable dream of playing football at Notre Dame with faith and perseverance. This month, the Securities and Exchange Commission indicted Ruettiger in an alleged scheme to deceive investors in his sports drink company.
Maybe all the good reasons for cynicism explain the phenomenon of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
Throughout his youth, Tebow worked with his missionary parents helping the poor in the Philippines. In college, he created a student society for charitable giving. As an NFL player, he's used his notoriety to raise money for a number of worthy philanthropic causes. He looks and acts like a role model.
And oh, yes, Tebow is not shy about professing his faith, for which he has become a Rorschach test in our nation's culture wars.
For the record, Tebow has never said he is God's quarterback, that the Broncos are God's team, or that their string of six straight victories - including four seemingly miraculous fourth-quarter comebacks - was the result of divine intervention.
In his book, Through My Eyes, Tebow echoes Abraham Lincoln in expressing his hope that he is on God's side, not that God is on his. "When it comes to making our decisions, the key that God is concerned with is that we are trusting and seeking Him," he writes. "God's desire is for us to align our lives with His Word and His will."
Regarding his public professions of faith, Tebow asked an ESPN reporter if a man should tell his wife he loves her only on the day they get married. "Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up, and every opportunity? That's how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ."
That kind of relationship isn't for everyone. It's also not hellfire-and-damnation proselytizing.
So it's interesting that in a society in which tolerance is supposedly a virtue, and a profession that isn't awash in role models, a man who seems to get the important things in life right is so widely ridiculed. You can be sure some of the same people mocking Tebow defended former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf when he refused to stand for the national anthem, saying it symbolizes oppression and conflicts with his religious beliefs.
Speaking of Tebow, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is Jewish, told Yahoo Sports recently, "It's a great thing that people are talking about faith and values that are important. We need that in society."
Of course, that was right after his team had ended the Tebow winning streak by handing the Broncos a 41-23 loss. But it was also a thoughtful, gracious response - the kind you'd expect to hear from Tebow.