Not a Fan, Just a Friend

Last week, Tim Tebow hit a home run on the first pitch of his first instructional league game with the New York Mets. He went 0-for-5 during the rest of the game, but the home run inspired strong reactions from his legions of fans and detractors alike. A few of those reactions made their way into my social media feeds, and one response—from a non-sports fan, which surprised me—went something like this:

“No matter what Tebow does, he’s not given credit, and people find reasons to belittle his accomplishments.”

I thought—as many of you are probably thinking—that this defense was pretty ridiculous.

Tebow washed out of the NFL on three separate occasions with three different teams, earning two more chances at the highest level than the vast majority of his peers. He then moved into a prominent analyst role as part of ESPN’s college football coverage, and the Mets let him remain in that role during his recent baseball adventure. That any 29-year-old athlete would receive a minor-league deal after an 11-year hiatus from competitive baseball and be allowed to work a second job struck me not as a great comeback story but as a case of the worst kind of favoritism. At an age when other former Heisman winners have settled into careers as insurance salesmen or financial advisors, Tim Tebow’s still getting shots at athletic glory. All because he’s a celebrity, an outspoken Christian, and a darling of conservative culture warriors.

I then remembered that my Tebow-supporting Facebook friend had just so happens to be a graduate of one University of Florida in Gainesville. That’s why he was so outspoken, and any hope for objectivity in matters Tebow was pure fantasy. Just as haters gonna hate, fanboys gonna fan.

But something didn’t add up. My experience with non-sports fans who’ve attended large, state-run universities told me they almost always hate their institutions’ rabid obsessions with sports. They loathe the fact that so much money, time, and passion is devoted to a few hundred students (you’ll often find quotation marks around that word) finding various ways to move a ball around a playing surface, while tens of thousands of other students are trying to cure cancer, reform criminal justice, or write a series of children’s books that continue the literary tradition of the Captain Underpants novels. For serious students who can’t be bothered with sports, guys like Tebow represent everything that’s wrong with their school.

I moved the conversation over to a private message and asked about it:

“I’m genuinely surprised you’re a Tebow fan.”

“I’m not a fan, just a friend.”

Yeah, sure, you’re friends with Tim Tebow. In the sense that all UF alumni are “friends” united in Gator Pride or some nonsense like that. Everyone knows superstar college athletes—and Tim Tebow was at the very pinnacle of that already exclusive group—don’t interact with normals.

Then another message came in:

“I first met him because his class was down the hall from mine. My French teacher wanted a picture with him, and everyone was too shy to ask him, so one day he was in the hall and I called out his name. I got him to come take pictures with our class. After that, we gave each other fist bumps or head nods when we saw each other around. One day he came up to me while I was working an event for the Pride Student Union. He was totally easy to talk to and just dead friendly to everyone.”

Sports fans don’t often get insight into players’ true personalities. Almost everything we see is filtered through the prism of cameras or social media. So most of the time we just sort of take a guess. Anyone who’s been to high school knows the stereotype that the star quarterback isn’t necessarily the nicest guy in the student body, and Tebow certainly seems like someone who could fit that bill: a transcendent athletic talent with easy charm who is awash in fame and ostentatiously religious. The picture of a Tim Tebow who would actively maintain friendships with the “average” members of his college community—and even take the initiative to engage with an LGBT student organization—isn’t one our vantage point as sports fans gives us a chance to see.

Something else we often forget is that star athletes can interact with the very same humans we call our friends. Sure, Tebow’s “dead friendliness” in college could be just more evidence of the ease with which he can manipulate people and bolster his personal brand. And if my friend’s account had instead come from some anonymous Internet commenter, I probably would have brushed it off. But now I know that Tim Tebow and I have at least a piece of our worldview in common. We’ve both met the same person and decided, “That’s someone I want to talk to again.” The random circumstances and movements of the universe have given us a shared experience. And if I ever saw him face to face, I’d have something more interesting to say than, “So, uh, is football hard?”

That connection—even if it’s about as strong as a straw wrapper—is as good a reason as any for me to reconsider my view on Tebow. Most of the reasons we choose to either support or criticize athletes are pretty arbitrary: they play on a team that’s geographically close to where we were born; their team wears cool colors; their name is fun to say; they play for a team that happened to win a lot when we were growing up. Having a personal relationship—even just a limited acquaintance—with an athlete should trump all that. Once you’ve met someone and confirmed they’re a good person—in the real way, not in the maximize-my-endorsement-potential kind of way—you’re pretty much obligated to defend them. Sticking up for our friends is just what we do. Even if our friend has an unwieldy throwing motion, can’t seem to stay out of the public eye, or has some less-than-perfect members of his fan base. Because all that stuff is pretty damn irrelevant. It’s just a cut-rate substitute for what sports fans want, deep down: genuine emotional connection with their heroes.

Does all this mean I’m thrilled that the Mets gave Tim Tebow a minor-league deal over a younger, fresher full-time player whose only shortcoming was his anonymity? Not exactly. I still don’t really think it’s fair. But life isn’t fair, either, and so—armed with a new perspective—I sort of can’t help but hope he makes the most of the opportunity. That other guy was probably a real asshole, anyway.

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Dustin Petzold is the proprietor of TimTebowIsTheBest.com. You should follow him on Twitter.