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Florida’s Teez Tabor, and the true value of building a brand

Few Gators ever have done as much to make themselves as Tabor has.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

"If you call me Teez, you know me," Florida cornerback Teez Tabor said earlier this week, explaining his decision to ask the Gators to refer to him as Teez in the official media guide. "If you call me Jalen, you just know of me."

That — a simple statement on the value of a nickname, and the reasoning of using it instead of a given name — is as powerful a thing as Tabor will say all year.

Tabor is already clearly Florida’s front-facing standard-bearer, to the point that his Twitter account drew plenty of fire when Tabor had the audacity to voice opinions earlier this summer, and his tweaking of Tennessee — a team that he did not play against in 2015 — has made headlines three separate times this offseason. While other players — Jarrad Davis, most clearly — are likely slightly closer to the "leader" of this Gators team, such as it is, Tabor is Florida’s star, and perhaps its superstar.

He is also going nova. When his popularity outstripped that of the teammates selected to go to SEC Media Days, he held a Q&A session that fans and journalists anticipated more eagerly than Media Days itself. When Florida sent Jim McElwain to Bristol for an ESPN car wash, it also made the unprecedented move of bringing Tabor along to New York City, facilitating more media training and exposure to the world for a player who, less than a year ago, was saying the University Athletic Association "sucks."

Arguably, Florida has done more to support and showcase Tabor than it did to support and showcase Tim Tebow, who was almost inarguably the most-covered college football player of this millennium. Tebow certainly didn’t need much help to get attention, given an ESPN documentary, a Heisman Trophy, and a pair of national titles preceded his third year as a full-time starter — but, my eye, Florida is doing more on its own to promote a player who was cited for marijuana possession, found in a car with weed, and reportedly suspended for a drug policy violation, and is notorious for speaking his mind, at a moment in history when the public square can be a very dangerous place to do just that.

That is stunning, and beyond admirable. Florida has clearly decided that Tabor’s mistakes do not, in sum, outweigh the work he has done to earn these privileges, and is rewarding him for changing and growing in the program. Anything Florida does to showcase Tabor now is patting itself on the back, sure, but it’s also a risk taken: Supporting a young, opinionated athlete — especially a young black man who is known for being opinionated on the live-wire topics of race, race relations, and racism — is a bridge too far for the majority of college football programs.

It might have even been a bridge too far for Florida as recently as a year ago, considering the polished, largely non-controversial Vernon Hargreaves III didn’t have Florida shining as bright a spotlight as the one Tabor has danced in this offseason.

But Tabor himself ought to be the figure praised most for this development, because it’s his development that has made all of this possible. And that brings us to dropping Jalen for Teez.

Tabor’s been using Teez for a while, including in that Q&A and on his Twitter profile, and his pre-college Twitter account was the fantastic @HesSuchATEEZ. There is, though, a significant difference between personally going by a nickname and prevailing on your superiors to use your nickname professionally.

The obvious parallels here are to Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest, who changed his name to one led by the Buddhist term for "loving-kindness" "to inspire and bring youth together all around the world," and Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson, who said he originally changed his name because "I’m having fun," and, despite later changing it back for his then-wife, still goes by @ochocinco on Twitter — where he has 3.6 million followers, more even than @TimTebow, despite Tebow having spent the summer appearing on a Fox reality show and recent years working for both Good Morning America and the SEC Network.

World Peace has made over his eccentricity and erraticism — both perhaps products of the mental illness he has helped destigmatize — into lovability, despite his role in the infamous Malice at the Palace. Johnson is perhaps the greatest case for athletes marketing themselves ever, especially given that he remains largely beloved despite a domestic violence arrest. He worked hard off of the field to make sure that his on-field talents weren’t the only thing he would be remembered for after the sun set on his career, and he’s enjoying the fruits of his labor now.

It’s no wonder that Tabor’s been pining for a chance to go one-on-one with Johnson: He might just have far more to gain from a conversation with Ochocinco than he would from six seconds of fame earned by jamming him in a Vine.

Tabor, in contrast to World Peace and Johnson, has sped up the process of self-determination. He will enter the NFL — almost assuredly through the 2017 NFL Draft — having already done much of the work of finding his name and his voice, and having convinced a sometimes stodgy athletics program that rakes in nine figures in annual revenues to meet him on his level.

Jalen Tabor, in other words, was the player who dazzled fans for the last two years. Teez Tabor is the new man — and the brand.

For all of Jim McElwain’s talk about brands — he’s spoken ad nauseam about Florida’s position as one of the best brands in college sports, and his players’ capacities to build their brands — it wasn’t clear until just this week, when Tabor’s name change got a favorable write-up on Florida’s official website, that Florida is now perfectly positioned and admirably open to rather radical brand-building.

The Gators have set Tabor up to shine as brightly as a defensive back can, and helped him earn fame that will likely help him earn money as a professional football player. In return, what Tabor has done for Florida — apart from play football for compensation that is far outstripped by value generated — is shift the program’s image toward the player-friendly end of the spectrum, something that will be noticed and remarked upon favorably by recruits for years and years to come.

This revolutionary positioning of Tabor — his own and Florida’s — won’t be entirely free from drawbacks. The "Shut up, boy" tailgate racism that Neil Blackmon called out in his piece on Tabor’s vigorous tweeting in the wake of the most recent spate of police shootings of black men, the antipathy for his talk from some of his peers, and the even subtler distaste for "flash" or "self-promotion" that Johnson dealt with throughout his illustrious NFL career (Johnson was in the league’s all-time top 30 in both receptions and receiving yards after his last season in 2011): We have heard and will hear more of that.

The latter might actually be pernicious to Tabor’s career, given that the NFL is far more hostile to "flash" than college football is. Coaches and teams really do think about athletes’ opinions, and while talent — something Tabor has in spades — usually trumps all, it’s much easier (and perhaps more lucrative) to be as anodyne as Russell Wilson than as gregarious as Michael Bennett.

Building a brand is well and good, yes, but it also necessitates maintaining it. Florida clearly trusts the man it will now call Teez to do that. I think it’s equally clear that Tabor trusts himself to do it, too.

The pros of fame, though, likely outweigh the cons, at least to Tabor. He has embraced fame, and grown, and changed for the better, because of it.

Because of how damn good he is at football, I was excited to watch Jalen Tabor as a fan.

Because of who he has become, I’m even more excited to watch Teez Tabor the man.