Concerning the prayers of Tim Tebow

Moments after the New England Patriots smashed his Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow stood before a wall of reporters and said exactly what anyone who has been paying attention already knew he was going to say. The Patriots, he stressed, "came out and they played well and they executed well and you've got to give them a lot of credit."

Then Tebow interrupted himself to deal with a higher matter: "But before I talk about that, I just want, you know, to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and thank my teammates for the effort that they put forth, not just tonight but this whole season."

Please note one crucial detail in this thanksgiving statement.

In a recent Poll Position survey, 43.3 percent of the respondents said they believed divine intervention played some role in Tebow's roller-coaster season, including that stunning Broncos playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, 42.3 percent said God was not helping Tebow out.

This schism is one reason Tebow critics enjoyed asking some obvious questions after the Patriots loss: So what happened? Did God tune out all of Tebow's prayers?

People can laugh all they want, noted the leader of a Denver-area megachurch that has long had its share of Bronco players in the pews. The key is that Tebow -- as is the norm for athletes who are believers -- always offers prayers of thanksgiving after losses, as well as victories.

"If people have been listening to anything that Tim Tebow has been saying, then they know that he never prays to win. He has said that publicly many times," said the Rev. Brad Strait, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Englewood.

"The key is that many people who keep commenting on this situation don't know very much about why believers pray. It seems that they think the main reason, or even the only reason, that people pray is to ask God to give them things. ... It's that old Santa Claus equals Jesus thing. You mix all of that up with football and this is what you get."

In this case, what you get is controversy about a hunky missionary kid who continues to confound his critics on and off the playing field. Meanwhile, choirs of Tebow fans -- saith an early January ESPN poll -- have made him the America's most popular athlete.

His life began, of course, in a dangerous pregnancy and his mother's decision to reject doctors' advice to abort provided the hook for a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Tebow's drive to excel in high-school football -- while being home-schooled -- fueled headlines long before his two national championships and Heisman Trophy win as a Florida Gator. Then there was the 2009 press conference in which he cheerfully answered a question about his sex life, pledging to remain chaste until marriage. This put Tebow on the radar of every comic with a microphone.

This recent blast by liberal talk-radio star Mike Malloy hit all the crucial notes.

"Tim Tebow, of course, is a massive irritation," he said. "God, I hate crappy-ass displays of public religiosity, especially, especially, in a sporting event. This to me is vile, just vile, for these fundamentalist Christians to find divine intervention -- in a pass for a football game, in Denver, Colorado? Oh well, it's their religion, not mine."

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Tebow doesn't believe God is pulling strings for him, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, where the student body includes Tebow's brother, Peter.

The fact that Tebow gives thanks after a game doesn't imply that he prayed for victory before the kickoff, said Groothuis.

"He always says that he is giving thanks to 'my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' which says, to me, that he is thanking God for his salvation. Then again, he could be thanking God that he is a professional football player and that he has a national platform. He could be thanking God that he didn't get hurt during the game," he said.

"If you look at this logically, it doesn't make sense for him to thank God after a loss if he has been doing what people seem to think he has been doing -- which is praying to win. ... There's one other point that's important. Tebow isn't cursing God after he loses, that's for sure."

God, Tebow and the NFL

Once upon a time, there was this controversial quarterback. Even his strongest defenders admitted that he was a fiery field general, not a conventional pinpoint passer. He made lots of big plays with his legs, dodging tacklers and creating havoc until he could unload the ball.

His throwing motion wasn't much to look at, either. Purists said he brought the ball way too low while winding up to fire it deep.

On top of all that, he was devoutly religious and very conservative. He was especially vocal about social issues, such as his belief that sex should be reserved for marriage -- period.

Talent scouts were divided. Many were sure he would never succeed in professional football, even though he was a Heisman Trophy winner. Besides, Roger Staubach had to serve as a Navy officer before he could start his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Wait a minute. You thought this was some other quarterback?

Week after week, the experts who dissect events in the National Football League have been struggling with the whole question of whether or not Tim Tebow -- an even more outspoken version of Staubach -- has a future with the Denver Broncos, other than as a third-string quarterback carrying a clipboard on the sideline.

The problem at the local level, of course, is the choir of Tebow supporters chanting his name in the stands. The problem at the national level is that it's rare for a backup quarterback to be so popular that his NFL jersey was last year's third highest-selling -- which is up in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady territory.

The big problem is that it's hard for fans to separate Tebow the inexperienced professional quarterback from Tebow the experienced missionary and evangelical superstar. Journalists are struggling with the Tebow culture wars, as well.

"Tebow had to be himself, which means letting everyone know exactly where he stands, consequences be damned," noted columnist Deron Snyder of the Washington Times. "Essentially he drew a line that separated him from everyone else -- not in a better-than-thou sort of way, but a marked distinction nonetheless -- and we've been picking sides ever since.

"Along the way, we've had difficulty in keeping our opinions unencumbered. Thoughts on Tebow the Christian get mixed with Tebow the Quarterback. Tebow the Hyped is entangled with Tebow the Great Guy."

Over at the sports Vatican called ESPN, veteran scribe Rick Reilly has had enough of what he called a "stained glass window" quarterback controversy.

In particular, Reilly is tired of getting waves of emails that sound like this one from West Virginia: "You only bash Tebow because he is a Christian and he does not fit into your pop culture mold of great athletes."

Actually, noted Riley, Tebow is not the first muscular Christian to take the field.

"Whose god Tim Tebow worships has zero to do with my criticism of him. It's his business," he wrote. "Like I care. Tebow is about the 1,297th-most outwardly Christian athlete I've covered. He doesn't stick his god down my throat. Doesn't genuflect after touchdowns. Doesn't answer every question with, 'Well, first, let me thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and, yes, I think I did pull my groin in the third quarter.'

"And even if he did, it wouldn't affect what I write about him. I've covered openly devout athletes for 33 years. Lord knows I'm used to it."

Yes, there have been plenty of other traditional believers in professional sports and most of them managed to avoid controversy. However, they were safe precisely to the degree that they remained silent on issues that linked their faith to hot-button moral, cultural and, in this age, political questions.

Snyder, for example, stressed that quarterback Kurt Warner was a strong believer who avoided controversy. That's true -- sort of.

The only problem is that Warner did get caught in a media firestorm during the 2006 World Series, when he appeared in an advertisement opposing a Missouri bill supporting embryonic stem cell research.

The bottom line: Athletes who speak out can expect media fallout.

"The accelerant in this debate is religion, which along with race and politics forms our trinity of third-rail topics," concluded Snyder. "Tebow isn't a litmus test for faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ, but that won't stop the saints and the aints from issuing grades."

Golf as religion, spiritual discipline

If golf is a religion, then the smell of freshly mown Bermuda grass is the incense that drifts through its rituals. For golfers this is the smell of "eternal hope" that they can start over, according to the stressed-out young pro whose story drives the novel "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days in Utopia," by sports psychologist David Cook.

"Each time a golfer steps to the first tee surrounded by this tantalizing fragrance he stands at even par," muses Luke Chisholm. "We all own par on the first tee. Hope is eternal. It's on the 18th green that one has to face the music."

Death, of course, is the ultimate 18th green.

Which is why Chisholm ends up -- now in a mainstream movie -- kneeling at an empty grave in Utopia, Texas, trying to decide what epitaph he wants on his blank tombstone. Viewers who know anything about cinematic tales of redemption will not be surprised to learn that Robert Duvall plays the wise Southern sage who, with seven days of wisdom, helps save this young man's soul and his golf game.

It's the kind of scene that would have occurred in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" -- if the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had made that golfing parable.

The bottom line is that the independently produced "Seven Days in Utopia" represents another stage in the development of a faith-friendly branch of the movie industry. The film even features the talents of two Academy Award winners, with Duvall and actress Melissa Leo.

In the pivotal graveside scene, Chisholm tries to say thank you to the elderly Johnny Crawford, a golf pro who escaped into ranching. Duvall's character simply points skyward.

"Don't thank me," says Duvall's character, on a Sunday morning that just happens to be Easter. "Thank him, because God is in all of us. Inside each of us, if you listen, there's a still, small voice of truth leading us, talking to us, and telling you that you can see God's face, feel his presence, trust his love."

The novel's version of this scene is even more blunt, complete with a multi-page sermon on the fateful biblical encounter between Jesus, a proud fisherman named Peter and a large school of fish that had evaded the future apostle's nets all day. Chisholm ends up confessing his sins, including that golf had been his god, and being born again.

It's hard to be that blunt in mainstream theaters. The movie also added some new action scenes, a father-son feud and a hint of a love interest for Chisholm -- a lovely horse whisperer whose story may drive the sequel.

"We wanted a big net in the movie," said Cook. "We wanted this to be safe for everybody to go see without being hit on the head with something really explicit."

It's safe, but The Hollywood Reporter noted that the movie still managed to steer its audience toward an altar call -- in cyberspace. The team behind "Seven Days in Utopia" must, noted the lukewarm review, be "given full credit for coming up with something new in movies: To learn what happens at the end, you've got to go online. After carefully building up to a climactic scene in which the underdog hero must sink a long putt to win a sudden-death playoff, the camera looks away, narration intones to the effect that the protagonist now has a higher calling so it doesn't matter much in the big picture whether he won or not and, if you actually want to know who came out on top, you must go to"

That twist may sound corny to film critics, but it's not, insisted Cook, who now lives in Utopia, a real town in the Texas Hill County.

During his professional career, including his time as president of the National Sports Psychology Academy, Cook said it was rare to meet an athlete who wouldn't own up to spiritual struggles in life. Most struggle with fear.

"What I have found is that whatever helps you conquer fear only makes you stronger," he said. "If sports is your god, it's easy to be afraid when everything is on the line. But if you have faith, you can say, 'The sun's coming up tomorrow and God loves me. Why should I fear whether this little white ball goes in the hole or not? Why be afraid?' "

Super Bowl holy wars -- 2011

The ill-fated "Feed Your Flock" ad is, without a doubt, the most famous 30 seconds of video that no one will see during Super Bowl XLV. For the few who didn't catch it online, the ad features a worried pastor -- in a clerical collar -- who has empty pews and too many unpaid bills. Thus, he prays for inspiration and God responds with the sound of crunching chips and fizzing soda.

Soon hungry souls -- Jewish, Amish and Hare Krishna included -- are lining up in church for Doritos and Pepsi MAX in a way that suggests Holy Communion.

The brands are no surprise, since Media Wave Productions of Philadelphia produced "Feed Your Flock" for PepsiCo's annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which flocks of folks hope to win $1 million if their creation finishes No. 1 in USA Today's Ad Meter rankings. The chips-and-soda communion entry didn't qualify for a Super Bowl airing and has since vanished from YouTube and other sites after waves of protests by Catholics and others.

"It's hard to imagine such an ad being created only a few decades ago," noted Shane Rosenthal of the White Horse Inn weblog. "The trivialization of the sacred in this piece is nothing less than astounding. And that's just it. There isn't anything sacred anymore. Everything's a joke."

This offering, however, wasn't the only attempt at a Super Bowl ad built on religion or politics or both. Controversies of this kind have increased in recent years, with video activists on the cultural right and left doing their share of poking and protesting.

If professional football has become a form of religion, then it isn't surprising that America's Christmas Wars over faith in the public square are now followed by Super Bowl Culture Wars in the marketplace.

This year, "Feed Your Flock" wasn't even the only "Crash the Super Bowl" entry that used a dash of sacrilege. In "Party Crashers," another entry now on YouTube, God and Jesus make a scene at a party by eating all the Doritos. They are asked to leave and, with a snap, Jesus miraculously refills the empty snack bag. "Let's go, Dad," he says.

Several other ads rejected by the Fox Sports Media Group this year featured religious and political content that was too hot to be allowed into the Super Bowl ad wars with the heavyweights like Bud Light, and Snickers.

* In one, two curious football fans turn to the Bible after spotting "John 3:16" written in the black patches under a star player's eyes. The network said the Fixed Point Foundation video contained too much "religious doctrine."

* Self-proclaimed "conservative comedian" Richard Belfry also failed in an attempt to air a commercial for his "Jesus Hates Obama" online store that sells T-shirts and other items with his trademark slogan. Belfry said a circle of private investors agreed to purchase a 30-second Super Bowl slot -- which usually sell for about $3 million.

* Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry is attempting a novel approach, going so far as to register as a Democratic Party candidate for the White House so that he could insist that networks air his graphic video because of a campaign advertising loophole in existing FCC regulations. Few other opponents of abortion have taken his side.

This is not a new story. Before the 2009 Super Bowl, failed in an attempt to air "Imagine," an ad featuring a sonogram video of an unborn child matched with text offering thanks that the difficult family circumstances surrounding the young Barack Obama did not prevent his birth. Last year, Focus on the Family was successful with "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life," an ad focused on missionary Pam Tebow and her decision to endure a risky pregnancy before giving birth to Tim, the future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

These media conflicts are not connected with the tough Constitutional issues that drive the church-state conflicts that have become so common in recent decades, noted J. Brent Walker, head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Nevertheless, these faith-based controversies about Super Bowl advertisements -- whether silly, satirical or dead serious -- seem to be stirring similar public emotions.

"If we lived in a culture in which no one cared much about religion," he said, "then people wouldn't get so passionate about these things. But that wouldn't be America, would it?"

John Wooden, a faithful man

As the decades passed, the coach got used to hearing people call him a hero, an icon and even a saint -- even though he reminded them that only God knows the truth about any man. It was common to see the former English teacher reading the classics. But he also read his Bible daily and rarely missed church, so some friends called him the "reverend." That was probably for the best, since he disliked his other nickname -- the Wizard of Westwood.

John Wooden's own list of heroes was short and symbolic. At the top was his father, Joshua, followed by Abraham Lincoln. Among those who lived during his 99 years of life, he greatly admired the selfless service and deep faith of Mother Teresa.

It's hard to find heroes in a world wracked by scandals, corruption, infidelity and greed, Wooden once told me, during a 1990 telephone conversation just before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament ended in Denver. But these painful realities only raise the stakes for people whose callings can lead to fame.

"When anyone is in a profession that is constantly putting them in the public eye, then they have to feel that they have a unique responsibility," he said. On the other side of this tricky equation, he added, some "people want you to be perfect. But we're not perfect. We're all fallible, flawed people. That's the reality of life."

Wooden had planned to come to Denver and take part in an event he rarely missed, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four. However, he decided it was too soon to return to a setting he had always shared with Nellie, his wife of 53 years, who died on March 21, 1985. He was still grieving.

After the coach's death on June 4, waves of media tributes focused on his stunning final years at UCLA -- when his teams won 335 games and lost 22, while winning 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. But Wooden was also an outstanding student at Purdue University and the first three-time consensus All-American in history. He was the first person enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.

Many Americans also learned poignant details about the marriage of Nellie and John Wooden, including his ritual of writing a love letter to her on the 21st of every month after her death, producing stacks of envelopes wrapped in ribbons on her pillow.

Wooden's favorite scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 13 and it guided his relationships with his wife, family and players. That chapter ends with these famous words: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life's great lessons -- which led to his famous "Pyramid of Success" image, built on common virtues such as "skill," "enthusiasm," "industriousness," "patience" and "faith." Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as, "Be quick, but don't hurry," and "It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts."

But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: "Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere."

In the 1990 interview, the coach stressed that sports are important and can be used to build character. However, sports can also "tear down character" if twisted into a win-at-all-costs brand of faith.

Sports are like politics, business, the arts and organized religion, he said. All of these callings require people to make hard decisions and people are free to make good choices and bad choices. People are also free to admire and follow bad leaders, as well as good ones.

"You see, the truth is somewhere in between. It's wrong to turn people into idols. But it's also wrong to lose hope, to believe that we can't find good examples to inspire us," said Wooden. "We need role models. … Maybe role models are getting harder to find, these days. That doesn't mean that there aren't any worth finding."

Faith on the Blind Side

In the beginning there was "Big Tony" Henderson, whose dying mother urged him to pull his son Steven from a public school on the bad side of Memphis and take him somewhere to get a Christian education. But there was one big complication. Steven didn't want to abandon his buddy Michael Oher (pronounced "Oar"), a street kid who slept on their floor most nights. "Big Mike" was afraid to return to the bleak foster homes he knew after police tore him away from his mother, her crack pipe and her 13 children.

So Henderson took both boys to Briarcrest Christian School on the rich side of town, hoping for scholarships that would make a grandmother's dream come true. School officials were impressed by Steven's grades. Coaches were impressed that Oher was 6-foot-4, weighed 340 pounds, could dunk a basketball and looked like God's gift to quarterbacks who needed a left tackle to guard their "blind side."

The rest is a long story, one that weaves together themes of race, sports, money and education. But a key player in the real-life version of "The Blind Side" stressed that this is also a story about faith.

"We're convinced that faith guided and controlled this whole thing," said Leigh Anne Tuohy, the steel-magnolia matriarch of the rich, white, evangelical family that finally embraced Oher as a son, after providing food, shelter and clothing. "We absolutely believe that none of this was a fluke. ... This was God-driven from the start."

Author Michael Lewis didn't hide that faith element while writing "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," a bestseller that mixed Oher's story with information about how the left-tackle position evolved into a crucial, and lucrative, slot in any National Football League offense. Then writer-director John Lee Hancock included religious details about the family in the new movie, while avoiding heavy-handed sermons. "The Blind Side" grossed $34 million at the box office on its opening weekend, while scoring a rare A-plus CinemaScore audience rating.

On screen, the Tuohys attend plenty of sporting events. After all, Sean was a University of Mississippi hoops star and Leigh Ann was an Ole Miss cheerleader. Their daughter Collins is both a cheerleader and volleyball star, again at Ole Miss, and their young son, Sean Jr., seems to have inherited his father's gifts as a tireless sports entrepreneur.

The movie does skip the ritual when everyone heads to Grace Evangelical Church, a growing congregation the family helped start. Oher began attending soon after the wet winter night when the family first spotted the shivering giant in shorts and a floppy shirt, walking back to the shelter of the warm Briarcrest gymnasium.

Leigh Anne Tuohy said that "from day one," Oher was the first person ready to go on Sunday mornings. Church was part of everyday life, like homework, piano lessons and trips to sports events and practices.

The key is that expressions of faith were a natural part of this true story, said actress Sandra Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne. No one was faking anything.

"This family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return," she told reporters, after a press screening of "The Blind Side." Bullock said that, while making the movie, she regained a little "faith in those who say they represent a faith. ... I've finally met people that walk the walk."

While Tuohy stressed that she can now see God's work in the events that changed Oher's life, and their family, that doesn't mean the details were clear at the time.

The family had reached out to others before, but not to the same degree. Now, it's impossible not to think about how many other talented, gifted children are, literally, on the run in America's cities, she said. What is the family supposed to do now? What should Oher do, now that he plays for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens?

After one of her Southern chuckles that Bullock had to master to play her on screen, Tuohy said that it's hard to talk about the future when she is still trying to understand the wild changes that have changed her family forever.

"A miracle is what this is," she said. "Childbirth is easier to explain than all of this."

The Word according to Tim Tebow

After being knocked halfway to kingdom come, Tim Tebow knew that millions of college football fans would be paying close attention to his eyes the next time he led the Florida Gators into action. Viewers would be looking for signs that the quarterback was OK after a nasty concussion. Many would also want to see which Bible reference would be written in the patches of eye black that would be visible whenever television cameras focused on the face of America's most famous muscular Christian.

Tebow was wearing Isaiah 40:31 when he got hurt against Kentucky: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

This biblical commentary continued when he returned against LSU, with a reference pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."

The Palm Beach Post put it this way: "Give thanks in all circumstances."

Not exactly.

You see, it's hard to avoid quoting the Bible when you're writing about an athlete who refuses to stop quoting the Bible.

Viewers who used an Internet search engine could find the full scriptural reference. Those who relied on news reports, however, tended to find language scrubbed clean of the fervent, conservative and, for many, offensive faith that shapes the lives of Tebow and his missionary parents and siblings.

Bob and Pam Tebow already consider his life a gift from God. During that pregnancy, his mother slipped into a coma after contracting amoebic dysentery. Doctors in the Philippines, where the Tebows are evangelical missionaries, feared that the strong medications she received had damaged her unborn child. Doctors advised an abortion. She refused, the family prayed and Tim Tebow survived.

Thus, Bob Tebow told Sports Illustrated, "I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback."

The son has done his share of preaching and missionary work, both overseas and in U.S. prisons. Meanwhile, he has refused to retreat during the many media marathons he endures as a superstar. This is, after all, the guy who seized the podium when he won the Heisman Trophy and, after taking some nervous gulps, immediately gave thanks to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave me the ability to play football." In his rush, he said almost exactly the same thing moments later. The news reports that followed steered clear of these references.

While Tebow has been outspoken about his beliefs, he has avoided making openly evangelistic remarks while in the hot spotlight at a secular university in a highly diverse state. The closest he has come to giving an altar call was when he put John 3:16 under his eyes during the 2009 BCS championship game.

For those who have never seen Billy Graham in action, that verse proclaims: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

But that was a mere tremor compared with the quake that followed Tebow's candid response when asked during a press conference: "Are you saving yourself for marriage?"

Laughing, he said, "Yes, I am."

While another reporter struggled to ask a question, Tebow continued. "I think ya'll are stunned right now. Ya'll can't even ask a question. Look at this. The first time ever. Wow. I was ready for the question. I don't think ya'll were, though."

Thus, a simple Google search for "Tebow, virgin" yields 70,000-plus hits. Journalists and commentators can't seem to decide if they were more offended by the question or by Tebow's unapologetic answer. Was this a victory for the religious right or for crass, "gotcha" journalism?

The columnist who pushed that button has refused to apologize, noting that Tebow considered it a logical question in light of his highly public faith.

"Tebow demonstrated that he lives his life according to his own religious principles," noted Clay Travis of the website.

"I asked because I believe it's newsworthy and because, believe it or not, I thought Tim Tebow would answer the question by saying: 'Yes, I am.' ... Why did I believe this? Because Tebow lives his faith. And I believe that living his faith is not artificial, he's not pretending to be something he's not."

God and the NFL giants (again)

One of the big questions during last year's National Football League playoffs was whether Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears would make it to the final game.

It was the stuff of headlines. After all, it would make history if two African-American head coaches reached the Super Bowl. However, both men went out of their way to stress that it was also symbolic that two devout Christians were poised to compete, as friends, on their sport's biggest stage.

"I?m so happy for Lovie, who does things the right way, without cursing and shows that things can be done differently," said Dungy, in a pre-game report by Baptist Press. "We give God all the credit."

Dungy and Smith talked the talk and tried to walk the walk, while armies of mainstream journalists responded by ignoring most of the Godtalk.

Sportswriters never know quite what to do when athletes and coaches turn into preachers and evangelists. It's an old tension, one that been around since the birth of what historians call "muscular Christianity" in mid-19th century Victorian England.

Then, in the early 20th century, the "flying Scotsman" Eric Liddell proved that -- with the right blend of skill and charisma -- a superstar athlete could hold his own in the pulpit. The Olympic champion, whose story was later told in the Academy Award winning movie "Chariots of Fire," inspired legions of athletes to dare to be evangelists, especially in youth rallies organized by Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups.

So what are journalists supposed to do when gridiron giants start holding hands and forming prayer circles at midfield? It's one thing to point in thanksgiving toward heaven after a touchdown. Most journalists think it's something else to mention Jesus Christ a dozen times a minute on live television.

Take, for example, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida. The first words he uttered in his nervous acceptance speech was: "I'd just like to first start off by thanking my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who gave me the ability to play football."

This quotation didn't appear in any mainstream news reports, wrote sportswriter Kathy Orton at Her "On Faith" column ran with this blunt headline: "Tebow Talks God, Media Ignores Him."

Orton noted that columnist Michael Wilbon offered this explanation for why journalists ignored Tebow's testimony.

"People are entitled to express their religious beliefs whenever and wherever," said Wilbon, known for his work with the Post and ESPN. "But a newspaper (or network) has an obligation to serve a community of people that have all kinds of religious beliefs. ... There are times when we explore the relationship of competition and spirituality ... but I know I'm not going to be hijacked by those feelings, to let someone preach their beliefs when they're not important to what's going on."

In other words, one person's bold "evangelism" is another's pushy "proselytizing."

There are also political implications lurking in the background, in an age in which recent U.S. elections -- decided by razor-thin margins -- have pivoted on moral and religious issues. Thus, it was controversial when the late Rev. Reggie White and other black superstars began speaking out on issues of marriage, family and sexuality. Dungy has made similar, but more graceful, remarks rejecting same-sex unions.

Finally, any mixture of rhetoric and hypocrisy is sure to repel many sportswriters who study locker room realities year after year. After all, it was quarterback Michael Vick who -- when facing jail time -- suddenly announced that "through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. ... I will redeem myself. I have to."

Nevertheless, Orton has decided that her colleagues need to realize that faith is a crucial element in many dramas and, thus, it's wrong to edit that out of the new. It's appropriate to ask an athlete like Tebow hard questions and then quote his answers.

"I've also seen plenty of athletes who say one thing and do another, and it's hard for me to be anything but skeptical," she said. "Maybe that is why so many sportswriters shy away from writing about religion. Because the moment we do, it comes back to haunt us when that athlete is discovered to be less than a man (or woman) of God."

Saving the Baylor brand name

WACO, Texas -- Looking out his window, athletic director Ian McCaw has been watching workers tear up the turf in Baylor University's football stadium one more time.

The environment is brutal in there, and not just because the Bears play Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and other Big 12 powers. Central Texas offers searing heat and then its share of ice. Since 1950, Baylor has tried grass, various brands of fake grass, real grass again and now Prestige System artificial turf.

"We're committed to making changes," said McCaw, a young sports management professional who arrived in the midst of Baylor's recent siege of scandals and woe. "We're moving forward. We think this is going to work out fine."

McCaw was talking about the grass, but he could have been defending his own turf. The environment has been brutal for months, with the world's largest Baptist school facing a searing media spotlight and the cold reality that when many fans hear "Baylor" they now think of death, drugs and dirty dollars, not dedication to Christian principles.

Surely the grass was greener at the University of Massachusetts, where McCaw had done his graduate studies and returned to direct a 23-sport athletic program. But after one successful year, and two weeks before moving his wife and four children into a newly constructed home, he answered the call to help resurrect Baylor's reputation.

"From a branding, marketing standpoint, we know what we have to do," he said. "We have to position ourselves to the whole Baptist and Protestant community as the flagship, much as Notre Dame always has been for Catholics. ... To compete at the highest level, we're going to have to have that kind of brand.

"We certainly can't try to hide what Baylor is, or what Baylor is supposed to be."

But that brand name also raises questions in an era when schools with small markets and high academic standards face brutal pressures to cut corners. Meanwhile, this is a boom time for Christian colleges and universities, along with their athletic programs. Many are now asking: What does it mean to have "Christian" athletics?

It doesn't mean all of the school's athletes have to be Christians, said Grant Teaff, a Baylor coaching legend and, for the past decade, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But dedicated Christian coaches are a must.

"You can't say, 'Find me the best Christian defensive back you can and go sign him.' You can't compete like that," he said. "But that doesn't mean that, if one of the top defensive backs in the country is a strong Christian kid, you can't look him in the eye and tell him Baylor is where he would feel right at home."

It's also time for these coaches to admit that larger schools will sign almost all the top blue-chip recruits. However, Teaff noted that most of these phenoms -- in basketball and perhaps soon in football -- linger only one or two years in college. At some point, teams led by experienced, loyal juniors and seniors may start winning more games against the freshmen and sophomore superstars.

"The world says to these young men, 'Get as much as you can as soon as you can. Get your hand out -- right now,' " said Teaff. "Schools like Baylor can't compete in that game. ... But a school like this has other strengths and it can't be afraid to use them."

Schools that emphasize academics and spiritual values will also need stronger ties to national networks of ministries, home-school families and Christian high schools that stress athletics, noted McCaw. The evidence is strong that schools emphasizing faith are especially attractive to top female athletes.

Another trend may help. As Third World churches grow in power, global recruiting efforts will increasingly affect sports such as soccer, track, baseball and basketball. Missionaries often packed sports equipment with their Bibles.

But earning the trust of parents remains the key.

"There is a growing percentage of parents that want their children to go to a Christian college, yet they also want to see their children compete in Division I athletics. If you want a quality, Christian education and you want to compete at the highest level in athletics, how many options do you have? Where are you going to go?"