Kurt Warner knows the challenges Christian athletes like Tim Tebow (upper l.) and Lolo Jones (lower r.) face. (AP)
The New York Times' Jere Longman is under fire for criticizing American sprinter Lolo Jones, seen competing Aug. 6, 2012, in a women's 100-meter hurdles heat at the London Olympics.AP/New York Times
March 26, 2012: Tim Tebow holds his first news conference with the New York Jets in Florham Park, N.J. Tebow, who led the Denver Broncos to the playoffs last year, will serve as the backup quarterback to Mark Sanchez. (AP)
EXCLUSIVE: Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones and New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow draw as many detractors as die-hard fans for wearing their faith on their sleeve, but that comes with the territory, former Super Bowl-winning quarterback and devout Christian Kurt Warner told FoxNews.com.
Warner told FoxNews.com the recent criticism of Jones — a New York Times article on Aug. 4 compared her to former tennis star Anna Kournikova, claiming her fame is based “not on achievement but on her exotic beauty” — was off-target and unfair, especially considering Jones’ impact on the track.
“She’s accomplished more than most of us ever will,” Warner said. “But we must understand in this day and age that there are people who are media darlings, people who gravitate to the media or the media gravitates to them because of who they are, what they stand for or how they look. And you don’t apologize for that.”
“There’s no question in my mind that religion is a hotbed issue and you’re going to have people on both sides of the coin."
- Kurt Warner, former NFL quarterback
Part of Jones’ allure, Warner said, is undoubtedly her outspoken faith, which “generates different things” for two very distinct fan bases: one that celebrates Jones for her devoutness and another that perhaps looks for her “to fall,” or not live up to lofty expectations.
“There’s no question in my mind that religion is a hotbed issue and you’re going to have people on both sides of the coin,” Warner said. “In sports, the primary way that you grab attention is by accomplishment and she’s done that.
"But I will never say that faith isn’t a hotbed issue in our culture," Warner added. "That’s one of the reasons why Tim Tebow got so much attention last year. He’s had some success last year, but the amount of attention he gets compared to other guys who have accomplished more is because of who he is, because of his uniqueness.”
When an athlete or any other media personality finds themselves thrust into a position of prominence, whether or not it’s due to religion, the best plan is to “run with it,” Warner said.
“It’s the blessing of the era that we live in,” he said. “You can be a personality and you can gain success. In my opinion, you don’t apologize for that. You know going in that everyone is not going to agree with you.”
Three days before Jones finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles last week, New York Times sportswriter Jere Longman charged that Jones — who has touted her virginity and admiration for Tebow — is a media-driven spectacle who has “decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim.” The Aug. 4 story generated a firestorm of criticism from outlets like Slate, Sports Illustrated and Reuters, and the Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, said Longman was “particularly harsh,” even unnecessarily so.
Add Warner to that huddle of disapproval.
“It’s the world we live in,” Warner said. “Our culture has become a culture of, instead of looking at the positives, we’re always looking for the negatives. How do you disregard somebody who goes to the Olympics, especially someone who goes to the Olympics from the United States?”
Part of the appeal of sport, whether it be football or track and field, is its unpredictability, Warner said. And although Jones trained hard for four years, just like her counterparts, nothing is guaranteed once the gun goes off.
“The thing about sports is that you just get one shot,” he said. “Any given Sunday, as we say in football, can be anybody’s day. That’s the great thing about sports, you just never know. You can be great at what you do and have a rough day and not get a medal or win the game. In regards to Lolo, this was it.”
And Jones’ critics were already “waiting in the grass to pounce,” Warner said.
Warner — who played 12 NFL seasons, winning a Super Bowl and two MVP awards in the process — said he tried to win the respect of teammates and fans alike by both setting a Christian example and succeeding on the field. Jones, who has now failed to medal in the 2008 and 2012 Games, has not been as lucky.
“They could never deny my success based on the fact that I accomplished so much during that period of time,” Warner said of his years with the St. Louis Rams. “It’s part of the business, both good and bad. And as an athlete, you have to understand that that’s an aspect of it. People will look for you to fall or look for you to not live up to certain expectations.”
Warner — who, with his wife Brenda, runs the First Things First Foundation, a Phoenix-based organization promoting Christian values — retired after the 2009 season with the Arizona Cardinals. He will be eligible for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, and Warner’s 208 career touchdowns and 65 percent completion rate make him a formidable candidate. But it’s not something he’s thinking about much, he said.
“What a tremendous honor it would be, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said. “I understand the argument for and the argument against me going into the Hall of Fame, but I’m very comfortable in my own skin. It would be icing on the cake.”