NFL Discovers Character Matters

The 2010 NFL draft showed that it's not enough to be a star football player anymore. Character counts now too.

Tim Tebow, and the Denver Bronco's drafting him as first-round pick, was the big story out of the NFL draft. Despite a phenomenal college career in which he won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, led the Florida Gators to two national championships, and lived out his Christian beliefs, many expressed doubts over Tebow's ability to compete on the professional level.

For publicly stating his Christian beliefs, Tebow has been called a “religious fundamentalist, lightning-rod misfit,” told he “has a long way to mature from a business perspective,” and his family and friends were compared to “Nazis.”  

Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels defended his pick. “There are a lot of things he has that you can't coach. And that the things that we would like to improve … those are the things you can coach,” he reportedly said of Tebow, according to an April 25 Minneapolis Star Tribune article.

One of the things that can't be coached is character, and Tebow's remained exemplary during his college career, despite the myriad traps and temptations that come with big-time NCAA stardom. That character caused him to be picked up in the draft before Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, thought to be a better gamble for NFL teams but who carried with him an oversized ego.

Tebow wasn't the only character pick for McDaniels. He also chose Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas over Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant as well. Bryant was expected to be a top-five selection, but concerns over his off-field behavior, including an NCAA suspension for contact he had with former NFL player Deion Sanders and his lax attitude toward team workouts, worked against his chances with Denver. Thomas, on the other hand, has worked hard to stay out of trouble.

“I didn't want to be that guy that is always talked about that he's a bad guy and so, I just put myself around the right crowd,” Thomas told the National Football Post on April 23.

Fox News claimed on April 23 that “unless [Tebow's] religious lifestyle takes a 180-degree turn, McDaniels knows he won't have to worry about Tebow getting into a bar fight like Clausen did last November at Notre Dame.”

Still, Tebow isn't immune from criticism. But unlike, say, Michael Vick or Ben Rothelisberger with their near criminal or criminal behavior off the field, the criticism of Tebow stems from his willingness to stand up for his Christian beliefs. The pro-life Super Bowl ad he and his mother made for the conservative Focus on the Family organization earlier this year upset many on the secular left.

During the controversy surrounding his Super Bowl ad, sports marketer John Rowady claimed that Tebow's “'belief system' has built a perception throughout the league that he has a long way to mature from a business perspective, especially in the fast lane of the NFL.”

Sportswriter Dan Graziano wrote in the lead-up to the Super Bowl that Tebow's decision to appear in the Focus on the Family ad “doesn't say a lot about one aspect of Tebow that people cite when they argue that he might be able to make it as a quarterback in the NFL: His judgment.”  

Well-known sportswriter Frank Deford labeled him a “religious fundamentalist, lightning-rod misfit,” during an April 21 appearance on NPR's “Morning Edition.”

Bashing Tebow for expressing his Christian beliefs has gone on for a while. columnist Gregg Doyal complained in January 2009, “Tebow's religion is seen as good because it is the religion of the majority. But it's not the religion of everybody. It's exclusionary, and just because you share Tebow's faith, that doesn't mean you're right.”

Tebow's penchant for wearing game-day eye-black with Biblical citation written in it

 led USA Today's Tom Krattenmaker to complain last fall that Christian athletes like Tebow are “leveraging sports' popularity to promote a message and doctrine that are out of sync with the diverse communities that support franchises, and with the unifying civic role that we expect of our teams.”

In December 2009 Huffington Post blogger Mark Axlerod found it “disturbing” that Tebow “has to bring that religious faith onto the playing field as a way of testifying to it, as a way of letting people know just how deeply religious he is.” Axelrod continued, “The irony of making faith a kind of religious highlight reel is that belief in God isn't a spectator sport nor is a football field a venue for religious politicking.”

And when attacks on Tebow's beliefs don't work, there's always the tired accusation that he's a racist.

Boston DJ Fred “Toucher” Toettcher told his listeners on April 23 that Tebow's draft party to “looked like some kind of Nazi rally … so lily-white is what I'm trying to say. Yeah, Stepford Wives.”

But none of those criticisms appeared to resonate with McDaniels, who is well aware of the problems caused by lack of character. Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted that McDaniels had previously “dumped” problem athletes, including “moody 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler” and “Brandon Marshall, a 26-year-old Pro Bowl receiver and pouty pain in the neck.”

Of course, it's not just McDaniels noticing that character matters but also NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell suspended Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Rothelisberger for six games after the Steeler allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct. No charges were brought against Rothelisberger, but Goodell, leveled the punishment anyway for “conduct detrimental to the league's image.”

Drew Sharp, sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, praised Goodell for raising the standard of behavior of NFL players. “The wide approval of his handling of Roethlisberger despite a clean criminal record suggests that now the standard for player conduct will be much higher than simply avoiding criminal investigation,” wrote Sharp in an April 25 column. “And it should.”

Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote earlier this year, in the lead up to Tebow's Super Bowl ad, that we “need a lot more” athletes like Tebow. “Athletes who believe in something other than themselves, and are willing to put their backbone where their mouth is,” she elaborated. “Celebrities who are self-possessed and self-controlled enough to use their wattage to advertise commitment over decadence.”

Tony Barnhart of the Atlantic-Journal Constitution implored current college players to look at the 2010 NFL draft as a warning. “This commissioner (Roger Goodell) ain't fooling around. You may be talented but if you engage in stupid and self-centered behavior it will cost you more than your reputation. It will cost you millions of dollars,” he wrote on April 26.

Tebow and Thomas's cases are the flip side of that. Work hard, live clean and that may be enough to trump raw talent.

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