Tim Tebow’s attempt to play Major League Baseball (MLB) was obstructed recently when he broke a bone in his hand while swinging a bat. An injured minor-league baseball player wouldn’t normally make national news. Tebow, however, is not a typical case. Tebow’s fame comes not from baseball but from football. His dramatic victories, combined with his public demonstrations of his Christian faith, created a media sensation. The development of “Tebowmania” included speculation that God might be providing Tebow some type of on-field assistance. Accordingly, this latest twist in Tebow’s unique career provides a fresh opportunity to consider whether God influences sports.
Surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) indicate that roughly a quarter of U.S. residents believe God plays a role in determining sports outcomes. Athletes and fans sometimes express similar sentiments. Ray Lewis has suggested that God helped his team win the Super Bowl. Sister Jean, chaplain for Loyola’s men’s basketball team, implied that her faith might have helped Loyola-Chicago during the 2018 men’s NCAA championship tournament.
The claim that God influences sports tends to follow a particular pattern: God assists faithful athletes, typically Christian athletes, at particularly important times. People do not usually see God’s influence during benign events in meaningless games. Rather, God exerts some type of influence at pivotal moments in especially important competitions (for example, the Super Bowl). Perhaps not surprisingly, this claim reflects the nature of God’s influence as depicted by the Bible. God doesn’t help David with mundane tasks such as transporting grain and bread; God helps David defeat the mighty Goliath. The claim that God assists Christian athletes is also consistent with Christian prosperity theology, which suggests that God shifts life events to reward those who behave faithfully.
Tebow is almost certainly the best-known contemporary example of a Christian athlete possibly receiving God’s assistance, at least in the United States. Tebow was a gifted college football player, but the notion that God might be helping him arose primarily during the 2011 National Football League (NFL) season. Tebow led the Denver Broncos on a six-game winning streak with late-game heroics provided by Tebow himself. He was also transparent about his Christian faith; he would frequently respond to big plays by placing one knee on the field, sometimes with hand to forehead, in faith-based observance. This posture became known as Tebowing. Paradoxically, the appearance that God was helping Tebow was probably enhanced by the fact that Tebow looked like a relatively ineffective quarterback except when the game was on the line. One Broncos victory occurred despite Tebow completing an exceptionally low number of passes (just two). Tebow’s winning streak was followed by three losses to end the regular season, but Tebow’s magic seemed to return with a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers—a game that ended on a Tebow touchdown pass.
Tebow’s NFL career subsequently fizzled. The Broncos lost their next playoff game. Tebow was traded to the New York Jets, where he served as a backup quarterback and was eventually cut. Tebow played in the 2013 pre-season for the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest head football coach of all time. Tebow was released before the beginning of the regular season.
Tebow’s inability to continue playing in the NFL would seem to imply that God inexplicably quit helping Tebow, if God had been helping him at all. Some people suggested that teams did not want Tebow because of his religious faith, a speculation that seems dubious given Tebow’s immense popularity and team owners’ general interest in winning football games.
It is this context that makes the broken bone in Tebow’s hand so interesting, at least in terms of Tebow’s athletic exploits being used as evidence for God. Tebow’s injury occurred while he was poised to create a second chapter in his remarkable story, a chapter that theists could have easily used as evidence that God was still at work. There was mild speculation that Tebow could be called up to the New York Mets before the end of the 2018 baseball season. Granted, the context of this story would have been considerably different than Tebow’s exciting victories as a starting quarterback. Tebow’s baseball achievement would have involved simply making the team. Plus, the Mets’ interest in Tebow would have been viewed by many as a publicity stunt. The Mets’ 2018 record was terrible, and calling Tebow up from a Double-A team would bypass the entire tier of Triple-A baseball. Despite these circumstances, it seems logical that Tebow’s playing for the Mets would have rekindled discussion about God assisting Tebow. It would have even provided some clarity about why God seemed to abandon Tebow during his football career. God didn’t leave Tebow. God used Tebow to demonstrate that faithful Christians can achieve athletic success that most people only dream about—twice.
Tebow’s broken hand ended this possibility for the foreseeable future. The resulting implications for God’s supposed manipulation of sports are easy to miss. A professional athlete sustaining a disappointing season-ending injury is not uncommon. Thus, Tebow’s injury looks like any other injury, but it isn’t. Tebow’s broken hand quietly provides another piece of evidence suggesting that the perception of God’s direct influence on sports is illusory. In particular, it highlights the non-falsifiable construction of the God-manipulates-sports claim. According to supporters, God was helping Tebow when Tebow seemed to be the beneficiary of good fortune, but Tebow’s season-ending injury (like his inability to remain a starting NFL quarterback) does not seem to undermine the claim in the same way. Instead, supporters might suggest that God’s assistance is intermittent, thereby making any outcome potentially consistent with God’s purported influence. In this way, God’s manipulation of sports parallels claims made by psychics, who attribute correct predictions to their psychic powers but incorrect predictions to their powers occasionally being suspended.
The God-manipulates-sports claim is made additionally non-falsifiable by explanations that God’s influence is subtle and therefore difficult to detect. Any God who created the heavens and the earth could easily raise Tebow’s batting average. Forget fourth-quarter comebacks; a God-assisted Tebow could, in theory, throw a hundred-yard pass or hit a 10,000-foot home run. One could argue that God’s influence is intentionally elusive, to allow people to develop faith based on their own volition. I suppose this is theoretically possible, but it seems more like creating theory to fit the data. I don’t know of any compelling reason to believe that God is willing to exert some influence in sports but not too much influence. Furthermore, this explanation doesn’t seem to make sense in the context of Tebow’s hand injury. If God had wanted to reward Tebow or use Tebow to promote Christianity, it seems only sensible that God would have protected Tebow’s hand more thoroughly. Doing so would have allowed Tebow greater opportunity to promote the word of God without anybody, even Tebow, being aware of God’s clandestine influence.
To some, this might seem like a tremendous amount of speculation over a hand injury. I agree. Cherry-picking anecdotes to support or debunk a claim is another form of poor scientific reasoning. However, I did not, um, hand-select Tebow to be a prominent exemplar of the God-manipulates-sports claim. On the contrary, Tebow’s 2011 NFL season represents what might be the best-known piece of anecdotal evidence in favor of God’s sporting influence. In that respect, events that suggest Tebow goes through highs and lows just like any other player are particularly relevant to the debate about whether God influences sports. More to the point, the ongoing secular appearance of Tebow’s athletic career indicates that the God-manipulates-sports claim is based on easily fractured evidence.
Besides, if people who believe that God manipulates sports—or life—want to stop pointing primarily to confirmatory events, I think that would be for the better. Those who wish to promote the claim could instead offer testable predictions and examine a representative set of available evidence. A more systematic analysis would create better discussion about God’s ostensible influence and simultaneously encourage people to separate good scientific reasoning from bad.
Personally, I hope that God is intervening in sports. This would signify that God exists and by extension might grant me and others some type of wonderful eternity after we die. In the meantime, I just don’t see any reliable evidence in favor of the God-manipulates-sports claim, and I am unwilling to withhold scientific reasoning to believe it.