Tim Tebow, be careful about ads

This has nothing to do with Tim Tebow's beliefs, or his intentions, or his vision of himself as a missionary for Christ. However, it's worth saying: Tebow should be careful. For his own sake.

It's difficult to imagine an athlete as susceptible to manipulation and exploitation as Tebow. Why? Because this isn't about something as transparent as crass commercialization; this is about causes and political battles and the prospect of saving souls. Tebow represents certainty, fortitude, resolve. There does not appear to be any visible gray area in Tebow's world, and there are times when those of us who see the world through shades of gray would trade places. It's got to be far easier to be so sure.

And so it is instructive to note that Tebow's first venture into the world of endorsements does not involve shoes or phones or video games. It involves a controversial Super Bowl anti-abortion ad funded and sponsored by Focus on the Family, which was founded and anchored by former leader James Dobson. The die has been cast.

The anticipated plot of the commercial seems simple and straightforward: Pam Tebow, living in the Philippines at the time, was told her fetus was in danger because of drugs she had taken to relieve amoebic dysentery. An abortion was recommended and rejected out of hand. In the end, the world got a Heisman Trophy winner with charisma, charm and a proselytizing bent. Presumably, the ad doesn't mention how many women chose Pam Tebow's path and ended up with different results, or that abortion was illegal in the Philippines at the time.

Focus on the Family is a far-right, fundamentalist organization that does many good deeds and holds many views that are outside of mainstream thinking. Dobson's advice on child-rearing sometimes borders on the absurd: He believes in spanking kids as young as 18 months old, but not with your hand. Oh, no -- the hand should remain guilt-free, an "instrument of love." Instead, use a strap or paddle.

In one of his books, he relates a bizarre story of "the most vicious battle ever waged between man and beast." The two combatants were Dobson and his pet dachshund, Siggie. In an effort to train Siggie -- or, in Dobson's words, "threaten him with destruction" -- Dobson fought the pup "up one wall and down the other." Dobson used a belt -- keeping that hand clean and blameless, apparently -- while Siggie was forced to rely on his lapdog-like reflexes and Germanic teeth. In the end, Dobson won out, another victory for the forces of certainty. Siggie's great adventure was employed as a preface to Dobson's book on raising children, and you can almost see the devoted reader's knuckles whiten as he grips the paddle.

And in the spirit of Super Bowl hyperbole, Dobson once said gay marriage will "destroy the earth."

What does Dobson have to do with Tebow? In much the same way that Michael Jordan shouldn't have been able to plead ignorance on child-labor charges against Nike, Tebow shouldn't be able to distance himself from the seamier aspects of Focus on the Family. He is, after all, representing them on the biggest advertising stage in the history of man's epic quest for hyperbole. There's some responsibility there.

Tebow is not an innocent, and he does not appear to be deluded. He may agree with everything Focus on the Family represents. But he's still a young man, still breathing the fumes of a home-schooled background with two parents who believe in the inerrancy of every single word of the Bible. Now, they could be right and I could be wrong on the Bible thing -- although it's going to be hard to convince me the whole belly-of-the-whale thing wasn't allegory -- but he could be setting himself up to be associated with causes and beliefs that may not be his own. All the qualities that make him admirable -- earnestness, devotion, a willingness to expound on his beliefs -- make him vulnerable.

The furor over Tebow's Super Bowl ad takes me back 15 years, when Joe Smith was chosen by the Golden State Warriors with the top pick in the NBA draft. Before his rookie season, he appeared in a Nike commercial with Jimmy Jackson, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett and Eddie Jones. The commercial featured grainy black-and-white footage of the five players while a narrator talked about a revolution "to fulfill the unfulfilled promise of Hank Gathers and Ben Wilson."

Gathers is self-explanatory. Wilson was a fantastic Chicago high school basketball player who was murdered before he could play college basketball. At the time, working in the Bay Area, I was curious if Smith had any link to Wilson. So I went to a practice and asked him.

"What's your connection to Ben Wilson?" I asked him.

Smith gave a shy shake of his head and looked up at the ceiling. Embarrassed, he said he didn't even know who Ben Wilson was until the commercial came out.

And yes, I know what you're thinking: Lay off Tebow. There are athletes carrying guns into the locker room and smoking weed before games and spending thousands at the strip club and meeting mistresses on the road and driving drunk and beating up pregnant girlfriends and shooting themselves in the thigh at the nightclub.

Tebow, to this point, is none of those things. (That is refreshing and preferable, of course, but if all athletes were like Tebow we might pine for a Ron Artest or two, just for variety.)

There are zealots on all sides, of course, from the women's groups who are wrong-headedly demanding that CBS refuse the Tebow ad to the fundamentalist groups who are undoubtedly salivating at the thought of putting a face as wholesome and striking as Tebow's on their cause. There are countless extreme-right fundamentalist groups that would love to trot him out as their hood ornament. Does he want to be held accountable to all their various beliefs and actions? Is a young man whose stated goal is to promote Christ's message equipped to sift through the offers and choose wisely?

Tebow's father, Bob, is one of the zealous. He also seems to be compassionate, generous and truly devoted to helping those less fortunate. He is also an absolutist. In the statement of beliefs on the Web site for the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association, it is stated: "We believe that at the end of the Millennium there will be one final rebellion of man ending in a last battle and victory of God. The universe will be destroyed, followed by the judgment at the Great White Throne."

Tim Tebow has grown up with this type of indoctrination the same way some athletes grow up with the single-minded obsession of a domineering father. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and this isn't an attempt to infantilize him. He appears to be as devout and honorable as his press clippings indicate, but an image is a personal thing. Tebow's is both well-cultivated and well-received. The challenge is to keep it that way.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.