It was a super controversy before the big game: Should CBS have accepted a Focus on the Family TV ad featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mom, Pam, to run during the Super Bowl?
"Our news release said clearly that it was about celebrating family and celebrating life. People who oppose us said it was hateful," said Gary Schneeberger, vice president of communications for Focus on the Family, in a recent phone interview.
The nonprofit organization is well-known for promoting conservative Christian values. So those words "celebrating life" were equated with "anti-abortion" and set off a firestorm of criticism, especially by feminist groups such as the National Organization of Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Women's Media Center. Others wondered why CBS would accept this ad yet turn down one that promoted a gay dating Web site.
"This ad is frankly offensive," said Erin Matson, vice president of NOW, speaking before the Tebow ad aired. "It is hate masquerading as love. It sends a message that abortion is always a mistake."
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"This is clearly a thinly veiled attempt to undermine a women's right to make decisions about her reproductive health decisions," said Jehmu Greene, president of the New York-based Women's Media Center, also before the ad was seen.
"We didn't start the hubbub," Schneeberger said. "We said all the time it wasn't controversial, that you wouldn't have to cover your kids' eyes. It wasn't."
In fact, news reports across the country agreed that the two spots aired -- four times in the pre-game show and once during the Super Bowl -- were understated, falling way below the hype. Tebow's mom comes on screen holding a baby picture of Tim and says, "I call him my miracle baby. He almost didn't make it into this world. I remember so many times when I almost lost him. It was so hard.
"Well, he's all grown up now, and I still worry about his health. Everybody treats him like he's different, but to me, he's just my baby. He's my Timmy, and I love him." Tim appears, hugs his mom and says, "Thanks, Mom, I love you, too."
The second ad includes a humorous touch, with Pam Tebow saying, "With all we've gone through, we have to be tough," and Tim Tebow fake-tackling his mom before she lovingly scolds him.
NOW President Terry O'Neill took issue with that one. "I am blown away at the celebration of the violence of women in it," she said after it was shown.
Both ads end with the words "Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life," and tell people that they can see the whole Tebow story on the Focus Web site (www.familyonthefamily.com). There, Pam and her husband, Bob, tell of deciding to have a fifth child while they were serving as missionaries in the Philippines.
Doctors advised Pam the pregnancy could be dangerous, but 22-plus years later, that threatened life is her handsome Heisman Trophy winner son, who wears Bible verses on his cheeks during games, freely admits he's still a virgin and spends vacations traveling to Africa and elsewhere helping orphans and poor people.
Schneeberger refused to say how much Focus paid for the package of ads, but industry experts have said the Super Bowl 30-second spots alone cost about $2.3 million or more, and that similar packages were about $4.5 million. Schneeberger said all the money was donated by a few of Focus' biggest supporters and did not come from the organization's general fund.
Modesto pastors on both sides of the abortion issue mostly agreed that the ads were not offensive.
"I don't know what all the fuss is about over the commercial," said the Rev. Chuck Adams, pastor of The Carpenter's House in Modesto. "The word 'abortion' is not even mentioned. The reality is when we see what could have been an aborted baby, and when that baby has grown with all the positive influence Tim Tebow has brought to so many, we are forced to ask ourselves questions about abortion that we don't like to ask. It's easier to think of an aborted baby as tissue and not a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, not to mention a world-class person who is almost universally praised for his high character and ethical lifestyle."
The Rev. Grace Simons, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, said she missed seeing the ad, which ran in the first half of the Super Bowl.
"I only got to watch the last part of the Super Bowl -- as it turns out, the exciting part," Simons said. "I saw a lot of advance fuss about it, however. My concern is that CBS refused ads that advocated for a woman to make her own choice -- which, of course, is what Tebow's mother did.
"I fear that pro-life advocates distort any message about the freedom and responsibility of making choices about reproduction and parenting, stating or implying that anyone who supports the right to make those choices is actually promoting abortion. That just isn't the case. Pro-choice means the belief that the decisions are so significant and difficult that no one should be told what they have to do."
The Rev. Wade Estes, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Modesto, said he "was looking forward to seeing it, knowing some of the story already. But, not recognizing Tim Tebow's mom, I didn't know what I was watching until partway through it, and then it was over. I later watched it a few times on the Internet. I thought it was very well done -- a tender, life-changing story from the mom who went through it.
"I also went to the (Focus on the Family) link shown at the end of the ad. At that site, the full story of a very difficult pregnancy was told by Tim's dad and mom. Their conviction regarding life in the womb being fully human was clearly and compassionately explained. This Christian couple held onto their Lord and their convictions, knowing full well that her pregnancy could end any moment."
The Rev. Russ Matteson, co-pastor of Modesto Church of the Brethren, said he didn't see the ad during the game, "but I viewed it online. I thought the ad was fine, nothing inflammatory about it. I do think the public is capable of seeing ads that deal with pressing social issues like war, abortion, gay marriage, poverty or racism, without it destroying our society. If the ads are done well, they will stir thoughtful consideration by all who view them.
"As a country, we need to get better at talking with and trying to understand one another, realizing that none of us has full knowledge and understanding, and we can learn from one another."
Schneeberger said the ad has been successful in terms of promoting the Focus Web site.
"We've had about 1.6 million unique visitors to the Web site since (Super Bowl) Sunday. That's 16 times the usual traffic," he said. "The full interview with the Tebows has been watched by more than 11 million people. The ads have been seen 1.2 million times on YouTube."
To see the Tebows' interview, visit www.focusonthefamily.com.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.