JP Pelosi explores how Average Joes become sports icons.
The reason Tim Tebow was recently booed in Yankee Stadium isn’t because he’s a New York Jet, a devout Christian, or even a Florida Gator. It’s because he’s a cultural phenomenon—a mania! In isolation, none of the aforementioned descriptors would invoke a whisper. But in the media market that made King Kong, and amid the brutal honesty of the New York sports mob, the causatum of movements like Tebowmania continue.
According to Plato (whose postulation would’ve made him a good Giants fan), humans consist of three parts: the rational, spirited, and appetitive. The rational desires knowledge and truth. The spirited seeks honor. And the appetitive is the force behind our primal urges. While we each have varying degrees of these traits, I would argue that many sports fans regularly sift for knowledge and truth. They turn to game reports and highlights, pore over box scores and stats, and consider single performances within the framework of entire seasons. In turn, most athletes, aspire to the second quality, honor—to perform honorably, even if that’s not always the end result. And finally, the masses, often primal in their collectivism, hunger for celebrity—for a circus.
Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin, two regular and mortal young men, are more than lion tamers or high-wire walkers—they’re the Main Event. The rationale for their worship, is that both are exceptions to the norm. For example, one is an articulate and humble athlete in a world of monstrous egos, while the other is a Harvard graduate on sports most athletic stage. Tebow has poor quarterbacking skills, but led a team to the NFL playoffs. Lin wasn’t scouted as a starting NBA talent, but turned the New York Knicks around. Tebow is overtly religious. Lin is Asian-American. And both seem like good guys.
But are these things enough to make mere men cultural phenomenons?
The common thread between them, and indeed for any sports mania candidate, is that in a flash, and through no fault of their own, they grew larger than life, transcending culture, politics and faith. I suspect their inordinate popularity has much to do with society’s yearning for positive human stories, in a sporting landscape laden with controversial headlines, forced celebrations, and cliches. The fact that Tebow and Lin weren’t expected to succeed makes their respective feats more memorable, stirring and compelling. Regardless of their backgrounds, pedigree, or beliefs, underdog status is at the heart of their hyper-popularity. They, like Cal Ripken or Doug Flutie before them, are the everyman carrying with them the hopes and dreams of the crowd.
Sports fans, and in fact all of us as media consumers, are rarely surprised by news stories anymore, simply because we’ve heard every pitch, and seen every angle. This is an important distinction to make when separating superlatives from superstars. We’re immune to the controversies and hype, to a point that even steroid scandals have become pedestrian. It’s a strange condition when your digesting blowouts and comebacks with the same appetite. But thankfully, Tebow and Lin have added some spice to the mix. They’re rare talents, not because they’re necessarily talented, but because they play with heart, and succeed against conventional wisdom. That’s their hook—their point of difference. Of course, the hook alone is not enough. The element of surprise, as I just eluded to, is also needed. For instance, why didn’t LeBron James’ grand NBA entrance in 2003, and ensuing statistical onslaught, result in nationwide “LeBron-mania”? Some people, particularly those in Cleveland, would perhaps argue there was a LeBron-fueled mania, at least until he bailed for South Beach. They would point to jersey sales, sellout crowds, regular back-page ledes, and the explosion of his global brand. But was that really a mania, or just hype?
In 2008, the New York Jets cut starting quarterback Chad Pennington to bring in a version of creaky Brett Favre. Pennington, a smart and diligent performer, instantly became an afterthought. Nobody expected his career to ascend any further than it had. But a stroke of luck landed Pennington in Miami, where he led the once dismal Dolphins to the biggest turnaround in NFL history (equal to the 1999 Colts 10-game turnaround). Not only did Miami notch 11 wins and a playoff berth with Pennington under centre, but in the final regular season game, their underdog signal-caller orchestrated an inspiring victory over the very team that cut him—and against the man who replaced him. Come on. If that’s not cause for a mania, then what is?
The problem with Pennington’s example is that there was no media hook, nor longevity. The circumstances were rare, but for news shapers to latch on the protagonist needed a point of difference that would provide long-term satisfaction. A family man from Tennessee with an average arm and an intellectual approach to quarterbacking, representing a marginalized NFL market and a New York rival, is not quite what editors in the Big Smoke crave. And so the American public were never given the opportunity to crave it either.
Conversely, some characters are an easy media sell. Perhaps the original mania was Broadway Joe Namath, who at the height of his fame was a man with even more charm than throwing zing. Namath’s guarantee ahead of Super Bowl III was shocking. But even more shocking was the Jets actually beating the Baltimore Colts 16-7. The NFL was never the same after that, nor was Joe Namath. He became football’s first major media star and millionaire product pitchman. He practically invented the idea of famous for being famous, long before the Hiltons and Kardashians. Yes, he was charismatic and smooth, and hung out with gorgeous women like Ann-Margaret, but he was more than just a jock. He had presence and poise, if not dominant talent. Like Tebow and Lin, he redefined his profession through self-belief. And that’s what propels a mania forward in the end: the disruption of the status quo, and the notion that someone—maybe someone like you or me—can step into the spotlight, and win over the crowd by simply being different.