The "I" in Team

by Tobias Peterson

8 November 2002


NFL wide receivers, by and large, are jerks.
—Bryan Curtis, Slate magazine

My head’s already been chopped off.
—Randy Moss, Wide Receiver for the Minnesota Vikings

Apology made to who ever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus.
—Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”

“One Deep.” This epigram was scrawled in marker on the cap of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss as he sat for a recent interview with ESPN’s Andrea Kramer. His appearance followed his arrest by Minneapolis police for an altercation with a traffic cop, in which Moss reportedly refused to stop his car when the officer attempted to give him a ticket for an illegal turn. Although Kramer pressed Moss for an explanation for his behavior, his ball cap, to those who have followed the receiver’s career, said it all.

Moss’s written comment was a correction of “Three Deep,” a motto adopted and marketed by the Vikings when they first drafted Moss and teamed him with fellow wide receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed (i.e., three players who were legitimate threats to catch long touchdown passes, or “go deep”). Carter has since retired from the team and Reed has signed with another team, leaving Moss to shoulder the weight of the Vikings’ receiving duties and, more pointedly, the weight of the media scrutiny and criticism that frequently dog superstar athletes.

By and large, this criticism is as unvaried as it is virulent. Moss is just one of the latest professional athletes to be hit with the “immature” tag. No matter what the sport or circumstance, the protests generally read the same: a superstar with tremendous talent refuses to play by the rules because he’s an arrogant malcontent who thinks he’s bigger than the game and/or more important than his team.

You can insert several examples from sports into this criticized space: Allen Iverson, Latrell Sprewell, and Rod Strickland from basketball; Barry Bonds from baseball; Moss, Terrell Owens, and Keyshawn Johnson from football. Regardless of their specific situations and perceived infractions, the reaction to these and other “troubled” athletes tends to be resentment. Writing about Moss’s arrest, ESPN reporter Len Pasquarelli claims that “[Moss] is selfish and self-serving—a man who regards himself above the team and, apparently now, above the law as well.” What seems particularly and consistently galling to reporters and fans alike is the air of entitlement and privilege that is ascribed to athletes who do wrong. Pasquarelli goes on to complain that, “There has been, for many years now, an NFL mindset which holds that the only thing that matters is what a player does on Sunday afternoons. But in the real world, people who go to church every Sunday are still held accountable for what they do on Monday, or every other day of the week.”

This second point is made at the crux of the grudge held by the media against players like Moss. Professional athletes are idolized, analyzed, and scrutinized by countless millions of fans and media members because of their phenomenal physical abilities, gifts the average person can only dream about. These attributes make athletes unique, and the spectacular nature of their feats in sports—and the attention these feasts garner—make them seem elite. Few others can duplicate their acts, and the entertainment these games and their contestants provide generates billions of dollars in collective revenue, not to mention all the cultural currency that goes along with their visibility.

And yet, for all the ways in which the athlete is a media focal point, spectators doggedly insist that the athletes remain, in attitude and demeanor, on more humble footing. Randy Moss’s recent arrest mobilizes a whole host of assumptions and stereotypes that bubble just under the surface of the sporting world. When he is shown on TV whistling on his way out of jail after posting bond, the image says, “I’m special. I don’t have to do what traffic cops tell me because I’m Randy Moss.” Regardless of the details involving Moss’s run-in with the traffic officer (which are, like all such details, subject to debate), the reaction has predictably condemned the receiver as selfish and arrogant.

And condemned he should be. After all, he did break the law, something that millions of Americans do every year. His fame, however, and, more importantly, his status make the event newsworthy and make the criticism that much more outraged and hostile. Not helping matters is a comment Moss made prior to his arrest, telling reporters, “I play when I want to play.” Comments like these make Moss all the more disposed to critical lambasting like Pasquarelli’s rant. In reality, however, Moss is talented enough at his job to dictate his own work schedule—a luxury that few media members or fans that read their work have experienced.

Thus, reporters and fans have trouble identifying with players’ situations. As talented and special as the professional athlete’s talents make him (and “him” is really the pronoun to use here, as women athletes rarely achieve the same visibility as their male counterparts), the spectators attracted by this talent, whose money and attention make this talent marketable, insist that these players remain “one of us.”

These spectators insist on an illusion of identification, that these players must experience the same social conditions that the majority of Americans experience. Despite their immense talents, they must demonstrate hard work, an effort to seem “like us.” Despite their astronomical salaries, they must efface their wealth through humility and reserve. And despite the amount of attention we pay them, they must not call attention to themselves.

San Francisco’s star receiver, Terrell Owens, recently provided another example of this dilemma. After catching a touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks, Owens produced a marker from his sock and autographed the ball, handing it to a friend of his in attendance. This seemingly innocuous gesture set off a firestorm of criticism about Owen’s “selfish” behavior. Just as Moss’s behavior off the field violated media/social prescriptions for athletes’ behavior, Owens’ on-field expressiveness did the same. Critics argued that Owens was showing up his opponent and drawing unnecessary attention to himself. ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury blasted Owen’s behavior as unsportsman-like and a threat to the integrity of the game.

The reaction from Salisbury (who also hosted Comedy Central’s Battlebots) and others caused Owens to complicate the turbulent dynamic between pro athletes and the media by speculating on the role of race in his treatment: “You have a white guy as an announcer and sportscaster… We’re [African Americans] more expressive than the white guys.”

Owens astutely points out the predominance of white media members. And he might also have added team owners and coaches to this disparity. In fact, Johnnie Cochran recently threatened to sue the National Football League to increase the number of black head coaches. The racial makeup of the NFL creates a majority of white commentators and authority figures and an African American majority of players. Players can be penalized for “taunting” on the field, or, like Owens, suffer fines for “inappropriate behavior” levied by the team or the League. (Owens was hit with a $5,000 fine after the game against Seattle for an un-tucked shirttail.)

Whether the issue is race or class, or a combination of the two, though, the problem remains the unbridgeable gap of identification. Fans and the media wish to see professional athletes as “regular” people who behave as ordinary citizens because this maintains the illusion that anyone can be as successful, as popular, as “special” as Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. It also makes the players more human, more accessible to those on the outside, looking in.

Reality, however, is very different. Star athletes represent the top percent of the top percent in their field. Indeed, it’s difficult for most of us to imagine the kind of speed, agility, and physical grace possessed by the top receivers in the NFL. It is also difficult to imagine hearing 80,000 people cheering your accomplishments, earning a salary of millions of dollars, or being constantly approached by fans or your work.

These difficulties are made manifest by the readiness of the media to criticize players like Moss and Owens for simply being who they are: exceptional members of society to whom the normal rules of work do not apply. Rather than angry presuppositions about players’ personalities, media and fans would do better to consider their own roles in making these players famous, endowing them with a privilege with one hand, but denying them chances to show this privilege with the other. Regardless of what kind of person a professional athlete is (which, despite the best efforts and most elaborate speculations of the media, is never accessible), they are caught in a paradoxical bind: rewarded for being better than the rest of us, punished for letting us know.

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