Saturday night’s LSU-Alabama game served as a useful reminder that college football — especially SEC football — is not a “minor league” for anyone else. The NFL may dominate the nation’s media consciousness, but it’s important to remember that this is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The NFL itself was considered a minor league before the advent of television.
David Maraniss noted in his biography of Vince Lombardi that in the mid-1950s, “College football, major league baseball, horse racing and boxing all drew more ink, more attention on radio (and early television) and, with few exceptions, more fans in the stands [than the NFL].” College football, after all, was the original form of organized football. The first intercollegiate games predated the NFL by over half a century. And even though the NFL has come to rely on the colleges as a de facto developmental system, that doesn’t alter the fundamental truth that the college and professional games remain competitors in the marketplace.
This brings me to the subject of Tim Tebow. The former Florida star continues to enjoy the profile earned in his college days, which for now exceeds his professional accomplishments with the bottom-feeding Denver Broncos. Every Tebow start brings a new wave of media and Internet frenzy. He’s even eclipsed another former SEC champion, Cam Newton, who was the number-one pick in this year’s NFL Draft and has already proven a credible starter for the Carolina Panthers.
I don’t wish to rehash the case for or against Tebow as an NFL quarterback. I freely concede I have no idea what type of player he’ll ultimately become. I’m more interested in what “Tebow-mania” can teach us about the state of the NFL and its relationship with college football. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can draw three broad conclusions:
1. The NFL demand for quarterbacks far outstrips the collegiate supply
Lost in most discussion over whether Tebow is a true “NFL quarterback” is the fact that there just aren’t that many franchise quarterbacks out there. Tebow replaced Kyle Orton, a onetime Big 10 star who’d already been discarded by the Chicago Bears. Orton’s career passer rating (79.4) indicates he’s just another quarterback, an embodiment of average.
By my rough calculation, about one-third of NFL teams have true “franchise” QBs. Only 10 of 32 teams have the same starting QB today that they did at the end of the 2008 season. The majority of teams rely on unproven talents or journeymen. The NFL system increases the likelihood of QB failure by routinely assigning the most promising talents (via the draft) to clubs with a history of poor management.
In college football, of course, there is a constant renewal of talent and every coach knows he only has his best players for a short time. But there’s also a free market in college football known as “recruiting.” (Yeah, you heard me Taylor Branch, I said “free market”!) Unlike the NFL, SEC coaches can’t simply draft players and force them to remain with a school for four years. The relationship has to work for both parties. A player can leave or transfer (albeit with a minor NCAA penalty), and a coach can quickly get rid of a player who isn’t working out. Contrast this to the NFL, where a team commits a massive upfront contract to a top-drafted QB, struggles to surround him with talent and then has to bail on the player after two or three bad seasons.
The NFL tries to reduce QB development to a simple lottery where it’s all about getting the right, ready-to-go player out of college (see Luck, Andrew). This ignores the fact that it’s not really the job of college football to produce NFL-ready players. College football is a distinct product that serves as its own end. Since the NFL refuses to invest in its own player development, there’s a substantial gap between the players produced by the colleges and those demanded by NFL clubs. Tebow just happens to be a high-profile example of this problem.
2. There’s also a gap between what the NFL and its media partners want
The NFL’s real customers are not fans, but the television networks who pay billions for the right to televise games. Television does the actual marketing of NFL football. And like most television programming, the broadcasters like to build their product around strong personalities.
Jay Caspian Kang recently wrote an article for ESPN’s Grantland with the headline, “Why the NFL Needs Tim Tebow.” His thesis was that “what the most profitable, successful league in the country lacks right now is star power.” This is really more of a problem for media members, like Kang, than people in the league office. Yet he makes a valid point. If you’re ESPN and devoting hundreds of hours per week to NFL programming, it makes your job a lot easier if you have marketable stars to talk about.
This is where the NFL and college football products differ sharply. College football remains rooted in live attendance and the “college experience.” Stars come-and-go but the tradition remains. The NFL doesn’t really have tradition. Florida football was big before and after Tebow. Without Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, it’s hard to imagine anyone caring much about the Indianapolis Colts or New England Patriots during the past decade.
For better or worse, the media focuses its star-making powers on the QB position. Three of the NFL’s four network partners have ex-QBs as part of their top broadcast teams. Even average pro talents like Tebow get a good deal of hype in an effort to increase the pool of star QBs. Call it Favre withdrawal if you like, but as long as the media remains in its present configuration, it will always be on the lookout for a QB with even the slightest potential for superstar status.
3. The NFL faces a strong test of its censorship capabilities
Grantland’s Kang cheerfully suggested players like Tebow and Newton might pose a threat to the NFL’s efforts to dehumanize individual players:
[G]iven the NFL’s rules against showing the slightest smidge of personality, it’s clear that the National Football League wants to keep those three words as its focal points. Players are fined for “excessive” celebrations in the end zone. They are fined if they want to wear any alterations on their uniforms. They are fined if they speak out against the league or its governing powers. They are discouraged to speak on racial matters in the sport. Most tellingly, they are fined for taking off their helmets on the field of play, thereby barring the only time they can show their faces.
Traditionally the one area where players can express themselves is with respect to commercial endorsements. Who doesn’t love those goofy Peyton Manning Mastercard commercials? And most star athletes resist the temptation to stray outside the realm of commercial speech. Michael Jordan famously refused to endorse a Democratic Senate candidate, arguing, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” While plenty of athletes delve into politics after their playing days — former Tennessee and Washington Redskins QB Heath Shuler is a member of Congress, for example — few delve into socially controversial subjects while under the NFL’s mighty shield.
Tebow already took a step away from the shield when he appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for a religious organization. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs recently criticized that ad and the media’s hands-off treatment of Tebow’s public expressions of religious belief:
I believe that Tim Tebow is ill-served by a sports media that…are courteous about his religion to the point of distortion. I believe that his Super Bowl commercial was not, as everyone said at the time, harmless. I believe that the commercial and the accompanying video on spanky Jim Dobson’s website were using Tebow’s providential birth to urge women never to seek out abortions, even if it meant ignoring a doctor’s counsel. I believe that the commercial was anti-medicine and anti-woman, and that it served no one’s interests—except maybe those of Bob Tebow’s ministry—for the media to dress up extreme quackery as an honorable and unimpeachable expression of religious belief.
Whether or not you agree with Craggs’s characterization of Tebow’s beliefs, it’s likely a harbinger of things to come. If Tebow achieves enough success to be a regular NFL starter and his media profile remains high, there will be an increasing tension between his use of his platform to promote his beliefs and the NFL’s bureaucratic need to control everything players say and do.
If the sports media does what Craggs suggests and starts focusing on the substance of Tebow’s religious message, it will set off all kinds of alarms in Roger Goodell’s office. Goodell was adamant during the recent labor negotiations that his power to arbitrarily fine or suspend players could not be diminished one iota. Now that he maintains such authority, how will he react when people demand he use it to punish speech that is deemed against the mainstream? In other words, what happens if Tebow or some future player stands up in a pressroom after a game and calls for the banning of gay marriage or some other politically controversial topic?
The Tebow debate itself is not just about his merits as a starting NFL quarterback. It’s also something of a proxy battle over the proper role of athletes in the New Media Society. The NFL may try to restrict athletes’ expression once they’re in the league, but that may prove to be moot when dealing with players like Tebow who can amass an independent following while still in college.