Instead of the usual NFL preseason focus on last-minute roster moves and way-too-early playoff predictions, nearly every major media outlet, sports and otherwise, has focused this summer on the circus surrounding Philadelphia Eagles superstar, wide receiver Terrell Owens. Although Owens has always been a lightening rod for media attention dancing on the sacred Dallas Cowboys star, pulling ink pens from his sock to sign autographs after touchdowns, not-so-subtly “outing” 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, and his now infamous Monday Night Football skit with Desperate Housewives star Nicolette Sheridan, have all transformed him into the most recognizable and controversial name in football the current brouhaha surrounding his contract demands has propelled him to a new level of scrutiny.
The Terrell Owens saga began in April 2005, a few months after the Philadelphia Eagles’ gutty but ultimately unsuccessful Super Bowl appearance. Barely one year into his seven-year, nearly $49 million contract, Owens mounted a very public campaign to renegotiate his deal. Buoyed by the signing of cutthroat sports agent Drew Rosenhaus, Owens argued that he had “outperformed” his current contract by breaking regular season team records and recovering from a severely broken ankle to perform in the Super Bowl. Soon after Owens issued his public demand for a new contract, the Eagles responded with an equally public and unequivocal refusal to renegotiate with Owens. Not only would they not consider offering him a new contract, they were unwilling to entertain trade offers from other teams. In short, Owens could play or sit out, but his contract was not up for discussion.
Undaunted by the Eagles’ obstinacy and the public’s lack of support, Owens intensified his campaign and began vigorously working the media circuit, telling anyone who would listen that he was being mistreated by Eagles ownership and misunderstood by the general public. Never one to mince words, Owens also unleashed a vicious verbal assault upon the Eagles management and coaching staff, calling head coach Andy Reid a “control freak” and ordering offensive coordinator Brad Childress not to speak to him. Soon after, he went a step further and attacked team quarterback and media darling Donovan McNabb for his anemic performance in the final minutes of the Eagles’ Super Bowl loss.
By the middle of August, the Owens story had turned into a full-fledged spectacle. It became a significant challenge to turn on a television without seeing Owens and Rosenhaus pleading the merits of their case to an ever-growing but increasingly skeptical court of public opinion. Although Owens reported to training camp, he was soon sent home by coach Andy Reid for “violating team rules”, ambiguous shorthand for pissing off his teammates and coaches. Within minutes, news helicopters were surrounding Owens’ suburban home waiting for sound bites from the fallen Eagle, who entertained the media by doing calisthenics on his lawn his shirtless, muscular black body now a spectacle instead of a threat since it was no longer in proximity to Nicolette Sheridan and talking about the injustice of his circumstance.
Immediately after issuing its edict, the Eagles brass was celebrated by local and national media, owners, and fans alike for their hard-nosed stance against Owens. The reasons for the overwhelming support of the Eagles’ decision were varied but familiar. Media pundits called Owens an ego-driven crybaby and a “team cancer” in search of attention as much as money. Team owners publicly and privately insisted that anything but a complete refusal from the Eagles to renegotiate Owens’ contract would set a dangerous precedent and place the league on a slippery slope that would tarnish the sanctity of the NFL contract. Fans scoffed at the idea that a pampered, millionaire athlete could ever be considered underpaid. While there is merit to both of these points, they betray a shortsighted view of the controversy and the larger issues at stake when athletes like Owens speak out publicly.
Since the beginning of his career, Terrell Owens has been able to rile up the media like few other athletes. Commentators like ESPN’s Skip Bayless, who unleashes vitriolic attacks against Owens reminiscent of the equally one-sided Bob Costas/Dennis Rodman beefs of the mid-to-late ‘90s, demonstrate the level of personal animus that Owens invokes. National and local columnists take turns coming up with offensive meanings for his “T.O.” initials (e.g., “Terrible One”) and finding personal fault with everything from his speech patterns to his female companions. While many of the media attacks are motivated by legitimate concerns, they allow the public to sidestep the truth that often emerges from Owens’ provocative comments.
By reducing Owens to a two dimensional Jerry Maguire character, we are able to easily ignore the veracity of his often-poignant commentaries about the cultural politics of professional sports. For example, after feuding with Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis in 2004, Owens pointed out the irony in the media’s veneration of Lewis, who was strongly linked to a double-murder in 2000, and simultaneous castigation of him as a player who lacked character. Later in the season, Owens rigorously rehabbed from a season-threatening ankle surgery from an injury incurred with only two games remaining in the regular season in time to give an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl. Many media pundits like Bayless dismissed Owens’ comeback effort as self-serving and divisive (“He won’t be healthy enough to help the team. He just wants to be in the spotlight”). Owens responded by pointing out that if superstar quarterback (and the current occupant of the “great white hope” throne to which Eli Manning and Payton Manning are heir apparents) Brett Favre had mounted a similar recovery, it would have been cited as evidence of his courage, tenacity, and will to win.
Many argue that if Owens’ intention is to use his status as a football star as a platform from which to make pointed (and I would argue, often legitimate) critiques of the NFL, he should present himself in a more acceptable way. “How can anyone take him seriously if behaves the way he does?” many observers have asked. To ask such a question, however, is to naively presume that the relationship between mass approval and political passivity is merely coincidental.
Would Michael Jordan have become a universal basketball icon if he had echoed Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman’s argument that Larry Bird was overrated because he was white? How “harmless” would Shaquille O’Neal be if he had publicly shared Rasheed Wallace’s sentiment that the NBA was a white establishment that exploits young black athletes?
The truth is that publicly “respectable” athletes are not simply mingling within the larger athletic populace. Rather, they are created by the elites that control sports and sports media in ways that represent their interests. The missteps of athletes like Jordan and O’Neal are ignored or completely excised from our collective memories who talks about Jordan’s backdoor deal to have Isaiah Thomas removed from the Olympic Dream Team or O’Neal’s propensity for punching rivals like Greg Ostertag in the face in public? in ways that allow them to be the “good guys” against whom athletes like Owens are measured.
By constructing figures like Owens as stereotypical selfish athletes, we are able to avoid wrestling with their uninhibited truth telling. This is not to suggest that Owens is anything but the obnoxious, selfish, crybaby that beat writers and sports commentators make him out to be. Nevertheless, his shortcomings cannot be appealed to in order to painlessly shirk the responsibility of giving his arguments full consideration.
Immediately after Owens’ contract demand, NFL owners uniformly supported the Eagles’ uncompromising position. At stake, they argued, was the functionality of a system in which players and owners honored their legally binding contracts. After all, if the Philadelphia Eagles let Owens renegotiate his contract after one year, what would stop every player from doing the same? This argument, however, implicitly rests upon the faulty assumption that players like Owens are disrupting a system that has heretofore been fair and equitable for players and owners.
Unlike the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball, NFL contracts drastically favor the interests of owners. While the other leagues offer guaranteed contracts that ensure that players are paid regardless of performance level, health, or status with their respective team, the non-guaranteed NFL contract enables owners to cut players from the team with no further financial obligation. Of course, the better NFL players are able to negotiate this dilemma by demanding guaranteed signing bonuses, frontloaded contracts, and easily attainable performance bonuses, as Owens did for the first season of his contract. However, the majority of NFL players, particularly those with average talent and those near the middle or end of their contracts, are at-will employees with little financial security.
As Owens has continually noted since the beginning of the dispute, it is this power that owners leverage against players whenever they see fit. For example, while Owens stands to earn more than $40 million over the remainder of his contract, he will receive only $3.5 million this year. In all likelihood, the Eagles will ask Owens to take a drastic pay cut if he were to remain with the team beyond the 2006 season. If he refuses, the Eagles would likely cut Owens and pay him nothing. Similar instances occur every year with most NFL teams, who force players to reduce their salaries with little or no recourse.
With this in mind, we can look at Owens’ claims and the owners’ self-righteous response in a new light. The notion of “outperforming” a contract is not nearly as pompous and absurd as it has been presented to be in the media. If owners have the ability and the willingness to terminate contracts with little regard for players, why should players have such concern for owners? While we can safely assume that Owens’ intention is not to represent for the NFL proletariat, his stand nonetheless spotlights the highly problematic power balance between league owners and players.
Many fans have followed the Philadelphia Eagles-Terrell Owens controversy closely but elected to ignore the particulars of Owens’ argument on the grounds that he, like other professional athletes, is sufficiently rich and should be content with whatever salary he receives. Such arguments, however, allow the absurd wealth and greed of NFL ownership to go unchecked. It is easy to laugh at millionaires like Owens or Latrell Sprewell, who proclaim that they are merely attempting to feed their families, until we consider the multi-generational wealth that billionaire owners like Paul Allen are able to generate on the backs of athletes like Owens. As Owens has pointed out, our identification of greed cannot be limited to the players.
Sports talk-radio shows are flooded daily with indignant callers who can’t believe that an athlete would dare complain about his or her salary. “If T.O. were a [insert any working-class profession here] he wouldn’t pull this crap!” is a comment frequently heard in the Philadelphia radio circuit. True. But the problem is that a schoolteacher, plumber, or janitor should do exactly what Owens is doing given their devaluation, alienation, and exploitation within the capitalist market. Unfortunately, they lack the resources and relative power to force the economic hands of their oppressors. That Owens has a viable means by which to resist the powers-that-be should be a reason for motivation, celebration and inquiry instead of scorn.