Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tebow Draft Day: Renewed NFL Fandom

Let's start with a confession: I enjoy the NFL -- though not nearly as much as college football -- but I don't have a particular NFL team I root for. I mean: I have my fantasy team. But that isn't the same thing.

This is strange. Everyone should have a favorite NFL team -- it's the most popular sport in the country. It just feels... wrong. I envy the folks with a strong NFL allegiance -- feels like almost everyone has one.

I used to have a team...

The onset of puberty and fan identity happen at roughly the same time. Immersion into your favorite team – into sports more generally – helps to offset the awkwardness of a cracking voice or unsettling sight of hair in weird places; hormones dictate that girls get more interesting – but still socially awkward, you throw yourself into love of your team.

For me, that was the unstoppable 1985 Bears. Growing up in a die-hard Redskins town, I was a Bears fan. On its surface, that was because my dad was a Bears fan – there was an early and powerful father-son connection to be made there. But looking back, there was a deeper interest for me: Displaced fandom made me unique, gave me an identity as a fan. I could be a Skins fan like the rest of ‘em… or the only Bears fan in the school.

At this age, I was an outlier: The more typical path of the emotionally and physically awkward 13-year-old fan is to find a new community – commonality – with other fans around them. Fan identity is incubated in a safe environment – not so for me.

And so I was a Bears fan. I suffered through the Redskins' success (often at the Bears' expense) and reveled in the 1985 domination. When it came time to go to college, I was headed to Northwestern, just outside of Chicago. To be able to root for my favorite football team up close seemed like the best kind of bonus.

As it happened, it didn't quite turn out like I expected. I actually became less of a Bears fan once I got to Chicago -- in part in my immersion into a town of crazy Bears fans. It was like I lost the "unique" part of my fandom that was such a big component of my fan identity.

From there, things atrophied further. In 1997, I actually went to go work for the NFL, and if it wasn't seriously eroded by then, upon the conclusion of my one season with the league, the dissolution of my NFL fandom was complete.

Very briefly, I found a new spark of interest -- the emergence of Kurt Warner, which I think is the most interesting story in NFL history. Once I started writing the Daily Quickie, I obviously was immersed in NFL news, but that didn't do anything for my individual NFL team fandom. I was still lost.

In 2006, I tried an odd experiment: Given the assignment from Deadspin to write the Jacksonville Jaguars season preview, I adopted the Jaguars as my own. They seemed an interesting fit: There aren't many of them out there, and the north Florida location seemed like a pretty good fit with my then-5-year-old Florida Gators fandom.

I tried. I really did. (I also recognize if "real" Jaguars fans were offended by my bandwagon-hopping.) But it just didn't take. I couldn't watch them every Sunday -- hell, even fans in Jacksonville can't watch them on TV every Sunday -- and I just didn't have a passion to keep up with them. I certainly wished them success, but it felt forced -- even fake.

But around the same time -- fall of 2006 -- I recognized almost immediately that Tim Tebow was my favorite football player of all time. That only grew in 2007 -- as I'm sure it did for many people. It compounded in 2008, and -- obviously -- my interest in the subject intensified in 2009.

It was sometime after that first season with the Jaguars -- and first season with Tebow -- that I decided that, ultimately, I was going to end up rooting for whatever team Tim Tebow was drafted to.

If you thought it was odd that my fandom for Florida came when I met my wife -- who was a "real," born-and-raised Gators fan -- it might seem even more odd that I would pick an NFL team based on a specific player.

Maybe that's not the case. I know a lot of fans -- particularly Florida ones I see on message boards -- who care about their college team but don't have a particularly strong NFL allegiance, who root for their favorite college players on whatever NFL team they end up on.

Now, that's not the same as being a fan of that team -- whoever is on that team. It is actually the opposite: You are a fan of a team precisely because of who is on that team. This can cause complications.

For example: If Tebow is drafted by the Vikings, I will definitely root for the Vikings and want to watch the Vikings play -- as a function of being a Tebow fan. If things go awry and Tebow ends up on the Patriots in four years, I presume I would stop rooting for the Vikings and pick up rooting for the Pats.

This cannot possibly do anything but make Vikings fans cringe -- I'm not even sure they would want me. Then again, this is the fan base that went from loathing Brett Favre to cheering him in the span of a week; they hardly can claim a problem with someone else's bandwagon fandom.

And so in addition to the next phase of Tim Tebow's career beginning tonight, I look forward to the next phase of my own career as a sports fan -- I'm ready to pick up and root for the team that Tebow plays for, whether the fans of that team want me or not. I will buy the jersey. I will read the coverage. I will watch the games.

Does it matter that my interest is focused specifically on Tebow? I don't think a team's existing fan bases are in a position to be turning away new converts.

Obviously, fandom is not just fundamentally social but also intensely personal.

To that extent, the team's existing fans are hardly in a position to judge the level or intensity or focus of my fandom. (Although I'm sure there will be plenty of judging going on -- much of it not positive.)

But they should count me in.

My transformation -- or, I guess, evolution -- continues tonight. And I get the feeling that there are many folks out there who root for Tebow who will be joining me. He presents a cult of personality unlike any athlete in sports right now. I'm not sure any team's marketing department or existing fans understand that yet.

But they will.


  1. I have never watched a draft with the interest that I have this year. I have read so many articles and info that my eyes are going cross. All for the reasons that you outline above--Tebow's new team will become MY new team and that is pretty exciting!

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  3. College football is my true love. It's what my dad cared about and that's what we watched every Saturday. I actually went to school at NU, too, and that's when I became a Bears fan. Not sure how I handle rooting for a Viking (maybe I'm not the Bears fan I think I am) but I have to root for Tebow.

  4. Very similar to me -- I am a bit of an NFL Whore due to fantasy football with the three Florida teams slightly ahead and living in Tampa now the bucs are probably my team now but YES when Tebow goes to the NFL I am jumping on whatever that team is as well Excellent Post.

  5. cried at 15 when the giants won the super bowl in 86. became a gator in 88. have had no interest in the nfl since. live in los angeles now, so the nfl really has dropped off the map completely. don't know if i will root for them, as the nfl isn't all that interesting to me, but i will be watching the broncos. i don't know what it all means.

  6. I have been a die-hard Patriots fan since '83, but was instantly converted into a Broncos fan Thursday night.
    Like you, my allegiance to Florida far overwhelms my childhood attachment to New England. (My family is from Rhode Island but I grew up in Florida and went to UF.)
    And one of my best friends lives in the heart of Denver ... and I have business connections at the NFL ...
    I couldn't be happier for Tim.

  7. Interesting post. It's funny that you question the legitimacy of rooting for a team precisely because of who's on the team, because to me, nothing else makes any sense. I started rooting for the Spurs because of David Robinson and stayed for Tim Duncan, rooted for the Dodgers because of Orel Hershiser (1988, baby!), and started watching football for the first time in my life because of Tim Tebow. I'm not knocking anyone who prioritizes team loyalty over personal loyalty, but to me that's inconceivable. To root for a team, I have to at least not dislike the players. I have to feel they're decent people. I've never rooted for my (very successful) hometown basketball team precisely because I couldn't like the players and coaches very much.

    Well, there are different ways to be a fan, but I think we all get some enjoyment from it.