The once ubiquitous--then all but forgotten--sign is making a comeback at sporting events, even as its original proclaimer sits in jail.
During the pregame warm-ups for last January's BCS National Championship game between the University of Florida and theUniversity of Oklahoma, television cameras zoomed in tight on the face of Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, giving viewers the first of many shots of what was written in white lettering on his eye black: John 3:16.
For ardent Christians like Tebow, the verse from the Bible's Gospel of John--"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"--is the foundation of faith.
For sports fans of a certain vintage (read: over 35), seeing the text may have spurred a flashback to the age of parachute pants, Synthpop and laissez-faire economics.
Throughout the 1980s, seeing a John 3:16 banner or sign held in the stands during a major televised sporting event was as inevitable as Gary Coleman's Arnold character uttering "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" in the 1980s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. The only question was when it would happen.
In Depth: John 3:16: Where Is He Now?
The signs were primarily the work of a man named Rollen Stewart, who was known as "Rainbow Man" for the multicolored wigs he wore as he held up the John 3:16 signs. Stewart had an uncanny knack for being in the perfect spot for the television cameras--and the viewers' eyes.
At NFL playoff games, he stationed himself between the goal posts and held up the sign just as a kick sailed through the uprights. At baseball games, he appeared behind home plate. At the Masters, he held up the sign over the right shoulder of Jack Nicklaus as the Golden Bear teed off.
Rollen was active from the late 1970s until 1992, when his journey came to an unsavory--and very un-Christian--end that involved a hostage situation and a Los Angeles SWAT team. (To see what happened to Rainbow Man, click here). With his departure from the scene, the tradition of holding up John 3:16 signs at major sporting events went into hibernation for almost two decades.
Until this year.
Tim Tebow, one of the most prominent athletes in American sports, may have singlehandedly recharged the movement. In 2009, the signs have appeared at the NCAA basketball tournament, a prominent PGA Tour event and became so prominent at a Georgia High School that they were recently banned. Are four events the making of a trend? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, 2009 has been a banner year for John 3:16.
During the 2008 college football season, Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner, had stenciled "Phil 4:13" in his eye black, a verse from Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." According to NCAA rules, "Anything on the uniform other than a player's numbers; a player's name; NCAA Football logo; memorial recognition; the American flag; or institution, conference or game identification. No other words, numbers or symbols are permitted on a player's person or tape."
This would seem to prohibit messages in eye black. NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford admits the rule is murky, but says, "individual institutions deem what's appropriate." Apparently, Christian messages make the cut. One wonders if a message from the Koran would be as warmly received.
Before the Jan. 8, 2009, national championship game, Tebow announced that he would change his eye black message to John 3:16, much to the chagrin of his superstitious teammates. Asked about the change, Tebow told the media: "I knew there would be a lot of people watching, and this verse represents Christianity in a very good way. ... Hopefully, some people will look at it."
They did. In droves. Tebow and the Gators won the game and the national championship. And "John 3:16" was the most searched term on Google that day.
The verse made another appearance in March during the NCAA Basketball Tournament. At the end of regulation play in a tie game between Siena College and Ohio State University in Dayton, Ohio, a fan standing behind the Siena bench held up a yellow John 3:16 sign as the cameras panned to the Siena players. A quick-handed security guard snatched the sign out of the fan's grasp, then rolled it up nonchalantly. What's OK for Tebow is not OK for fans in the stands: NCAA rules prohibit signs in the stands at NCAA Tournament games.
In June, at the Jack Nicklaus Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, a fan holding a yellow John 3:16 sign followed the golfer Jonathan Byrd, an outspoken Christian, during the final round. (Two John 3:16 events in Ohio? Could they have been the work of the same person? Maybe. Unfortunately, neither the screenshot nor the Youtube video provide a clear shot of the sign holder.)
And last month in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., a local school district banned the display of Christian verses on cheerleaders' banners at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School football games. Among the verses used: John 3:16.
(Forbes even got into the act in March, using the sign as a prop in its golf "mockumentary"--see it here.)
Spreading the Word
Joseph Price, a religion professor at Whittier College, says holding religious banners up at sporting events for TV is a thoroughly modern phenomenon.
"Even in Rome, most of the fans in the Colosseum were not literate," he says, so signs with any words wouldn't have made sense. (That may explain why no "Strength in the thunder of Jupiter" stone tablets have been found by archeologists.) Television has made the modern practice what it is: a method of getting a message out to a wide and captive audience. Sporting events, because of their immediacy and the fact that they air live--so the signs can't be edited out--serve as the perfect platform.
But Price points out that sports and religion have always gone hand in hand.
"Sports are competitive. You strive for victory in a game," he says. "In religion, you strive for victory in life or victory in Jesus." He notes that there is crossover in the metaphors used in both sport and Christianity, like "running the race" and "the fight for faith."
But why this year's resurgence of signs? Price thinks the proliferation of sports channels on TV is one reason, and the long afterlife that an impression can have (like the Siena sign) on YouTube and Internet video sites is another.
Everlasting life, indeed.
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