[UPDATE: It's now being reported that the New York Jets have acquired Tim Tebow. More chatter about that will undoubtedly follow.]
The story of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning is, in part, about picking between two reasonable causes for nervousness: a young quarterback whose tendency to come back in the fourth quarter made it easy to ignore his tendency to get behind in the fourth quarter in the first place, or a 36-year-old veteran coming off a missed season and a bunch of neck surgeries.
The Denver Broncos, who spent most of last season watching Tebow turn into a charismatic celebrity, decided to go with Manning after he was dropped by the Colts. Manning himself acknowledges that this decision is about the short term, not the long term: "This is a now situation," he said at a news conference.
Because Tebow's faith — or, more precisely, the way he expresses it — hasn't always sat well with everyone, there are those who see him as a victim of unfair treatment. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times writes today: "I don't want to face the truth that a quarterback can engineer four consecutive game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime and still get canned because he wasn't pretty enough. I don't want to believe that if this same quarterback makes religious gestures and references afterward, everyone forgets his victories and focuses on his beliefs." Plaschke laments the response of the NFL, not to Tebow's faith, but to the idea that perhaps faith is how he wins games, saying that "most NFL personnel people don't believe that games can be won with the sort of higher powers that Tebow's presence seemed to summon."
But in fact, Tebow's personal appeal, both because he's handsome and likable and because his faith strikes a chord with a large chunk of the fandom of the NFL, may be as great an asset as his dramatic comeback victories as he goes on to his next assignment, which he will.
While there have always been football players who were entertainment-style celebrities, particularly in the case of quarterbacks — think of the Joes Namath and Montana, for instance — the NFL needs them now more than it ever has. Its players excel on Dancing With The Stars (the Packers' Donald Driver performed a sweet cha-cha in this week's season premiere), they make adorable commercials, and they generally work to cultivate a deep sense of personal loyalty. This was evident when Brett Favre left the Packers, and a certain number of his fans essentially swore to abandon their loyalty to the team to follow him wherever he went. Other Packer fans, of course, felt somewhat differently.
That personal loyalty is an important tool for the NFL in an environment marked by circumstances like those depicted in America's Parking Lot, a documentary that screened last week at the South By Southwest film festival. The film, from director Jonny Mars, follows the super-tailgaters who had established a community in the parking lot at the old Texas Stadium, only to find themselves displaced — in more ways than one — when the team moves to the glitzy, pricey new Cowboys Stadium. Just keeping a single season ticket, they explain, will require them to buy a Personal Seat License (PSL) for many thousands of dollars, and that doesn't even buy any tickets. That just buys the right to buy the tickets, and the film explains that to keep your seat, you must buy season tickets, often at upwards of $300 per game, at eight home games and two preseason games every year for the next 30 years. If you don't keep buying your season tickets every year, your PSL reverts to the team and you lose all your money. (You can also sell your PSL, subject to various restrictions set by the team.)
So for one seat — not in a box, just a regular seat in the stadium — you pay potentially tens of thousands of dollars (some of the guys in the film have longstanding season tickets that would require a $50,000 PSL to duplicate), plus a commitment of between three and four thousand dollars a year for the next 30 years. For a good seat, it's essentially like buying a small second home, except that you don't own anything, and you can only sit in it for about 40 hours a year, and instead of a house, it's a chair.
At the same time, these longtime tailgaters were booted from their spots in the parking lot and exiled to a whole new layout where their ability to find places to set up their parties was subject to the new security rules at a much fancier, much more formal, much more rich-person-friendly stadium. One Packer fan in the film (captured during a road trip) points out that huge super-stadiums with sky-high ticket prices even affect people watching at home, since if the team starts to stink, they can't fill the stadium and the game gets blacked out.
It's sad to watch the shifting relationship the tailgaters, who are such Cowboys superfans that one of them named his daughter Meredith Landry after having her labor induced early so he wouldn't miss a game, have with their team. They're still Cowboys die-hards, but they seem to feel cast aside in favor of people with more money; they enjoy the games less, and they speak of quitting the games as something they can't do, almost like people would talk about being stuck in a bad relationship. The film presents the relationship between NFL teams and their fans as both a dysfunctional romance and a story of economic inequality fracturing social bonds.
In that environment, players fans can love as human beings become all the more important. If you feel disenchanted with your team as an entity because you're being treated shabbily in favor of zillionaires who don't even really care about the game, it helps to at least have individual guys you admire for some reason. And if you have made that kind of investment in a seat — if you've practically taken out a second mortgage — the team had better give you something to feel good about, even if it's not the win-loss record. A Tim Tebow, with his potential appeal to fans who admire his bearing in general and his public displays of his faith in particular — or substitute Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers, or obviously Peyton Manning — may become a better draw than even the team itself. Being a Cowboys fan (for example) is complicated when it feels like being a fan of a large, wealthy company that's trying to take you for every dollar you have. Being a Tim Tebow fan or a Peyton Manning fan is easy if you believe the worst thing the guy is going to do is play badly.
Far from being a handicap, Tebow's star power — which is considerable even if, like most very famous people, it comes with a certain amount of derision in opposition — makes him even more important for whatever team happens to end up with him. Regarding the eternal question of whether it's better for leaders to be loved or feared, a team might reasonably prefer that you be loved by fans rather than feared by opponents.