Sign of a pro: You don’t get autographs

If anyone deserves Tim Tebow’s autograph, it’s me.

As a diehard University of Florida fan, I’ve religiously cheered Tebow the past four years. I’ve gone hoarse screaming “TEE-BOW!” during games. I even bought a T-shirt celebrating his Heisman Trophy win.

But just because I now get to cover him as an NFL player doesn’t give me license to ask Tebow for his John Hancock. The reason is simple: When you’re a media member, such behavior is wrong.

Unfortunately, two of my peers don’t have those same journalistic scruples – if any. They embarrassed my craft following Sunday night’s preseason game at Cincinnati.

I wish I knew exactly who these folks were. Neither person rang a bell from my FOXSports.com travels, my two-year tenure as Pro Football Writers of America president or my time covering the 1995-96 Bengals for the Dayton Daily News. One hack was credentialed as a photographer, the other as a reporter. Both had passes granting them access into Denver’s postgame locker room.

As Tebow was getting dressed, the gray-haired scribe asked him to sign what’s known as a “flip card” – a white piece of cardboard that contains roster and depth-chart information for both teams. The reporter told Tebow it was for his son who was “a big Florida fan.”

I’m assuming Tebow did because: A) every indication I’ve gotten personally and anecdotally is he’s a sincerely nice guy; B) as a rookie, he was probably unaware this shouldn’t happen. The solicitation of player autographs is strictly prohibited under the guidelines that all reporters agree to before receiving their credentials.

The photographer struck once the “reporter” was ushered away by an angry Broncos media relations assistant. He petitioned Tebow to sign a ticket stub. Tebow again accommodated while a Broncos security guard yelled at the lensman. At that point, the photographer scurried away like a rat with cheese as I jokingly asked Tebow if he could write my column for me while he was at it. Tebow laughed and then began his postgame interview without further incident.

I briefly mentioned what happened in my FOXSports.com Tebow column and Twitter account. I didn’t expect this to balloon into what has become a much bigger debate elsewhere about journalism ethics.

There is no defense for what these two clowns did. At a time when reporters are coming under increasing fire for the manner in which they conduct themselves personally and professionally, these actions provide ample gasoline.

I hope the Bengals can identify the guilty parties, but that seems unlikely. In an e-mail, Bengals media relations director Jack Brennan told me 80 credentials were issued to independent media outlets for Sunday’s contest but hundreds more are given each game to such parties as stadium workers, NFL employees and visiting team personnel.

Without an extensive and time-consuming investigation over something relatively frivolous – or someone being stupid enough to try to sell one of the autographs on eBay – the culprits are unlikely to ever get fingered. That’s a shame.

But this situation also speaks to what others have described as the Cult of Tebow. In 16 years covering the NFL – including legends like John Elway and Dan Marino on a daily basis – I’ve never seen media members fawn like this before over a player. The hero worship doesn’t end there, either. As I wrote about in January, NFL coaches and scouts shamelessly asked Tebow to sign memorabilia at the Senior Bowl. The demand is so great that Tebow was able to charge $160 per autograph at appearances in Florida earlier this year (a portion of the proceeds went to his charity foundation).

There isn’t one single reason for Tebow’s popularity. His good looks draw female supporters. Some male fans have a man-crush. There also are those who admire Tebow for his UF success and/or his strong Christian beliefs.

I personally hope Tebow does well in the NFL but am not afraid to criticize flaws, such as bashing his throwing motion in my Broncos-Bengals column. While on the clock, my cheering days are over. They must be for my own credibility.

No signature is worth that.