In our 5,000-channel, tweeting, shouting culture of constant distraction, there are precious few annual events that unite the national gaze. In fact, there is really only one: the Super Bowl. Over the last two decades, ratings for everything from the World Series to the Olympics have stumbled - but the NFL championship gets stronger with age, with Super Bowl Sunday becoming a de facto national holiday. The cultural power of the big game cannot be overstated, and that's exactly why CBS' decision to air an anti-abortion ad funded by Focus on the Family was so terribly wrongheaded.
The ad features Heisman award-winning Florida quarterback and staunch evangelical Christian Tim Tebow alongside his mother, Pam, speaking out against abortion. Pam tells the world how she ignored a doctor's advice while on a missionary trip in the Philippines and decided to have her fifth child, Tim. She was suffering from a serious tropical illness, the story goes, and doctors thought that having the child would kill her, but she "chose life" for her child and the result is an All-American quarterback.
There is something sketchy about this story - given that abortion is illegal in the Philippines, carrying a six-year prison sentence. It seems highly unlikely the procedure would be recommended to an evangelical missionary. But this isn't about truth in advertising. It's about Tim Tebow continuing his self-proclaimed goal to use football as a "missionary." After a college career wearing eyeblack with Bible verses stenciled in, it's the next step in raising his platform as the most outspoken evangelical this side of Sarah Palin.
To be clear, we should absolutely support Tebow's right to state his political beliefs loudly and proudly and we should soundly reject the concept that jocks should just "shut up and play."
But there are other things we should soundly reject as well. We should reject the utter hypocrisy on display by CBS in airing this ad. The network has long stated that it has Super Bowl rules against "advocacy ads." In 2004, the network rejected a Super Bowl ad from the United Church of Christ in which a church is shown opening its doors to a gay couple. The network has also refused ads from PETA, MoveOn.org and many others. This year, it even rejected a humorous commercial from a gay dating site called mancrunch.com. And yet, the network takes money from Focus on the Family - which, according to People for the American Way, is "anti-choice, anti-gay and against sex education curricula that are not strictly abstinence-only."
Focus on the Family's guru is the infamous and recently retired James Dobson. Dobson is a frightening fellow, choosing the second night of Passover last year to say, "The biggest Holocaust in world history came out of the Supreme Court" with Roe vs. Wade. Dobson's other pet project, the Family Research Council, has connections to white supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens. In 1996, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list.
The idea that this organization is acceptable to CBS - while MoveOn or PETA or the United Church of Christ are too radical - actually adds up to a right-wing assault on free speech. We could also point out the irony that this year, like all others, ads for the U.S. armed forces will be omnipresent, but that's not considered advocacy, either. I doubt there would be equal time for Iraq Veterans Against the War, even if it could pony up the millions.
The other thing we need to reject is the sports media's love affair with Tim Tebow's "courage" in being a part of this ad. People like CBS' Jim Nantz and Sports Illustrated's Peter King are like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert when it comes to Tebow, with King recently writing, "What I heard from Tebow was the voice of a kid with convictions, who doesn't shrink from what he believes - even if it might hurt his draft prospects."
Wrong: The fact that Tebow has massive accuracy problems and can't take a snap from center without fumbling is what is going to hurt his draft prospects.
Moreover, it rankles that Tebow is being extolled for his courage while athletes who have spoken out against militarism (Carlos Delgado and most famously Muhammad Ali) or racism (Josh Howard) are called crazy and tiresome.
Let's hope that the next time an athlete speaks out - even if it's in the service of a left-wing cause - the media remember their praise of Tebow and cut him or her some slack. And let's hope that the next time CBS gets an ad query from a group with an agenda diametrically opposed to Focus on the Family's, it gives it equal time.
Hosting the Super Bowl ought to be considered a privilege. And CBS has already failed the test.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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