It all started with an innocent enough tweet from Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer Sunday, but soon it was all Twitter could talk about. Tim Tebow was back; the mania had begun all over again.
The 27-year-old quarterback likely fighting for a third-string roster spot had signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, walking away from a job with ESPN’s SEC Network and appearances on "Good Morning America." It is entirely possible Tebow could be cut from Philadelphia's roster before the NFL season even begins. Yet the squeaky-clean 2007 Heisman trophy winner demands the sports world’s collective attention -- but why? The answer might just be in our mirrors.
The polarizing quarterback has cultivated an image that puts him dead center in the national conversation. And while Tebow has certainly used his fame as a platform for his beliefs -- namely his Christian values -- there is also impeccable timing to his ascendance and popular culture’s persistence in keeping his relevancy afloat. The lefty’s position in the sports world is smack dab in the middle of contentious issues at a time when contentious issues are debated more staunchly than ever. And while Tebow usually takes relatively benign middle-ground stances when confronted with controversial topics, his prominent religious displays certainly put him at the center of attention.
“Tebowing” is a verb for a praying kneel. He famously told the media he was saving his virginity for marriage during a 2009 press conference and wore eye-black marked with Bible verses. Perhaps his most controversial moment came in a 2011 Super Bowl commercial on abortion.
“If you look at push button issues, religion is a push button issue, sexuality is a push button issue,” said Dr. Richard Lustberg, a sports psychologist. “He seems to be a guy that walks the walk and talks the talk, I suppose he becomes a flashpoint.”
The Center Of Attention
But it could be America’s own inability to agree on much of anything that keeps him so popular. Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades, a 2014 Pew Poll indicated, and the middle ground of those who disagree increasingly is shrinking.
Even within the specific realm of detailed sports analysis, there are staunch disagreements about Tebow-the-football-player, not Tebow-the-larger-symbol. The questions have been debated repeatedly: Should he change his throwing motion? Is he an NFL-level player? Should he switch positions? Is he worth signing?
The more these questions are tossed around -- ESPN debate show First Take is famous for arguing about the quarterback -- the higher Tebow’s profile moves. “I think we create cultural phenomena; ... they emerge from us, not the other way around,” Lustberg said.
“Sports is really just reflection of who we are,” Lusterberg continued, saying we often have an “inability for compromise” along stiff “dogmatic” lines. People might see Tebow’s religious stances and take a negative view of him because of his public “choir boy, sanitized, perfectly clean Christian image,” as Lustberg put it. On the other end of the spectrum, people who want to associate themselves with Christian ideals might latch onto Tebow to push their own moral stances.
“I think he’s used actually, I feel badly for him,” Lustberg said. “There are people who espouse Christian values but don’t practice them, but point to him for their agenda.”
When Tebow signed with the Eagles Sunday, 98,000 Tebow-related tweets were fired off in an hour, ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported. That’s an average of 27.2 tweets per second. When he was in the NFL, Tebow was regularly in the top 10 for jersey sales. That much excitement and engagement with an athlete -- both positive and negative -- is an indicator of Tebow serving as the focal point in a rigid for/against debate. All of this ensued despite his relatively pedestrian 75.3 career QB rating.
“It’s either a yes or no. There’s not a lot of gray area with him,” said Tom O’Grady, chief creative officer of Gameplan Creative, a sports marketing firm. “Fans like their sports meat and potatoes, and this is kind of meat and potatoes guy.”
Tebowmania, Brotherly Love?
If nothing else, Tebow will bring attention to Philadelphia’s offseason, which has already been tumultuous and exciting. High-profile coach Chip Kelly, who has already traded stars LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles, now has one of the most talked about NFL players in his fold.
“[Tebow has] never been a prototypical anything,” O’Grady said. “He hasn’t fit any kind of mold.”
He isn’t a typical quarterback, religious figure or NFL player. Still, Tebow seems determined to become a professional quarterback -- Philadelphia his fourth NFL stop -- and a whirlwind of attention has followed him along the way. But that attention isn’t the reason for the signing, O’Grady said.
Kelly must see him a potential asset on the field, O'Grady said. “My personal belief is you don’t tie up roster spots for PR hits.”
In Philadelphia Tebow will likely compete with QBs Matt Barkley and G.J. Kinne for the final roster spot as the third quarterback. Still, it’s a tough task and one he wasn’t able to complete in his last NFL stop with the New England Patriots. The team decided to carry just two quarterbacks on its 53-man roster in lieu of keeping Tebow. Las Vegas seems to think he will get cut, with the line set at +200 for a "yes" bet saying Tebow will be on the Eagles' Week 1 roster, according to bovada.lv. But no matter what happens in Philly, Tebow's every move will likely be dissected.
“Cultural obsessions have existed since the beginning of time,” Lustberg said. “With social media they’re [quick] to catch fire, interests in others stems from our own desires.” We’re attracted to seeing things, like Tebow’s public image, that draw our attention to either side of a debate.
The NFL Network reported in 2013 Tebow had an out clause in his contract, and ESPN knew he would continue to pursue a NFL career. Bloomberg reported in 2013 an analyst like Tebow is usually fortunate to see a salary of $500,000. A veteran’s minimum salary in the NFL can total $510,000-$970,000, depending on years of experience, Spotrac reported. It also appears ESPN would welcome him right back into its studios, should he get cut.
“We appreciate Tim’s contributions to the launch of SEC Network and wish him all the best as he pursues his NFL dream,” John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president of programming and production, said in a statement. “Tim developed quickly into an excellent analyst. He has a home at ESPN when his playing career is done.”
A failure in Philadelphia might just be the last stop for Tebow’s pro career. Offseason workouts began Monday for the Eagles and soon it’ll be time to see what becomes of Tebowmania Part 4.
“I personally think it’s going to work out,” O’Grady said. “If it doesn’t, it’ll flame out quick, and he’ll be back in the announcer booth.”
Either way, the cameras will be rolling and a lot of people will watch.