My interest in studying and thinking about fans and fan culture came under the tutelage of Professor Constance Penley at UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Penley was an authority on popular culture. Her classes were always in demand. She inspired her students to seek out and celebrate the inventive ways that fans engage with pop culture — ways that are not necessarily intended by the “cultural producer” (a filmmaker, news reporter, artist, tattoo artist, etc.) Professor Penley dismissed the widely-held notion that fans are passive, apathetic and unthinking.
With this in mind, I became extra-intrigued by “Occupy Tebow” (OT), the Internet meme that started and was spread in the comment section of an ESPN blog titled, “Time for Elway to think post-Tebow” (October 30, 2011). The “occupation” (a clever take on the Occupy Wall Street movement) was, among other things, a passionate rebellion against the sports and mainstream media’s glorification of Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow. Fans were firm in their belief that the second-year player had not yet earned the lavish praise that enveloped him.
I learned of the meme through a NBC Sports story. I rushed to the ESPN website, which had been overrun by dissenting football fans. For the next seven days, I was glued to the page observing, taking notes, and occassionally trying my hand at it.
It was never clear to me why the protest began in the comment section of a story that was uniquely critical of Mr. Tebow; but logic has no place in a meme. A “meme” is a cultural item that spreads widely, quickly, and in a disorderly manner via the Internet, videos, news sources, etc.
The initial discussion began innocently enough. But soon, the website turned into a platform for popular rebellion. The trademark OT comment structure was expressed via the equation “[something] > Tebow.” The > sign was pronounced “greater than.” The “something” was a distasteful person, place or thing that was deficient in some way. No matter how vile something was, it was still > Tebow.
It was fun to watch new people join and instantly know how to participate. The > format never varied. At times, late into the evening when a dozen or two people remained, they would have an actual conversation. Yet, the comments, humorously, never diverted from the format. For example, “Where do you live? > Tebow” followed by, “In New Mexico > Tebow.” If someone accidently forgot to add the “> Tebow” to a post, another would immediately add it in the reply section.
Commenters would be on the web page for hours and hours. Not surprisingly, the meme was most active during the work day and week.
The content of the posts was varied and was improvised. Soon, the action turned into a fast-paced, brainy game. In good spirit, posters atttempted to top each other in terms of cleverness, vulgarity, tastelessness, and originality. There was irony, satire, and sarcasm. Foul language, biting humor, and creativity. It was side-splitting stuff.
Profanities were often caught by the “mods” (moderators) and the violater would have his/her account put on hold for three days or closed all together. Not to worry; the affected fan would immedately open a new account in a different ficticious name. It was like a badge of honor to have your account closed; especially if it happened multiple times.
The group’s commentary was self-reflexive at times. For example: “My self-esteem depending on the number of likes I get > Tebow.” As time went by the site was no longer about Tim Tebow. It had become a forum for cultural critique. There were statements and discussions concerning marraige, politics, sports, identity, social ills, current events, and prominent national and international news.
The OT meme ended after 15 days. The tens of thousands posts caught the attention of the many including the sports media. Occupiers selected the ESPN site as a way of disapproving of the network’s glowing reviews of Mr. Tebow’s young career. Occupy Tebow was such a success, that SI’s Richard Deitsch called the body of work “ . . . one of the more fascinating commenter threads on a sports website in recent history.”