The Body Electric

by Tobias Peterson

22 November 2004


Another week, another apology for Terrell Owens. This time, however, the Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver wasn’t answering criticism of his outspoken speculation about his teammates’ sexuality or defending his exaggerated touchdown celebrations. Owens, whose successful career on the football field has been largely overshadowed in the media by his brash attitude and penchant for self-aggrandizement, was instead responding to a new firestorm of controversy that erupted in response to his role in ABC’s recent Monday Night Football introductory promo.

The premise is simple enough. Owens, in uniform, is shown in a locker room on his way to the game. He’s sidetracked, however, by the appearance of Desperate Housewives‘s Nicollette Sheridan, dressed only in a towel. Sheridan then drops her towel and jumps into Owens’ arms, successfully diverting his attention from the upcoming game as he quips that the team will “have to win without me.”

The Eagles’ opponents that night, the Dallas Cowboys, might have been so lucky. Owens proceeded to lead Philadelphia to victory and score three touchdowns in the game, but the action on the field has been merely an afterthought in the wake of the outrage that the piece has occasioned. This vitriol has been multifaceted. Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has taken Owens to task in a New York Times op-ed for his individualistic attitude: “The Steelers…play as a team. This promotion simply did not belong in that context, and that’s what sparked my reaction.” Others have seen the skit as yet another blow to the moral fabric of American society. Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King asserts, “I think ABC Sports should be absolutely, positively ashamed of itself!-that’s a really nice example Owens—who talks of being such a God-respecting, religious man—is setting, letting a naked woman jump into his arms on national TV.” King’s indignation is shared by FCC chairman Michael Powell, who waxed hypothetical in his indictment by invoking ABC’s parent company: “I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud.”

The FCC’s commentary is telling here, given the fact that MNF is already broadcast under a five second delay. The delay was instituted as a precautionary measure after CBS’ infamous Super Bowl halftime show earlier this year. After Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during their performance, the FCC leveled a $550,000 fine at CBS as punishment and has since increased its efforts to impose a more stringent standard of “decency” on American television and radio. Despite this heightened institutional vigilance, the Owens-Sheridan episode is a clear echo of the Jackson-Timberlake controversy, as the chorus decrying the association of such sexual content with professional football arises with renewed intensity.

There is, of course, more to this issue than the question of sex on public television. Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, added another wrinkle to this issue with his criticism of the skit!/s racial overtones: “I think it’s stereotypical in looking at the players, and on the heels of the Kobe Bryant incident I think it’s very insensitive.” Dungy, who is African-American, went on to condemn the underlying message of the promo, which he summarized as the idea “that athletes are sexual predators and that that stuff is more important than what!/s going on on the field.” Dungy’s comments underscore his (and others’) concern that the skit reinforces damaging stereotypes about the threatening lasciviousness of African-American men, essentialisms that have been historically grounded in athletes from Jack Johnson to O.J. Simpson to, as Dungy points out, Kobe Bryant.

To criticize the piece as either wholly sexually inappropriate or racially insensitive, however, is to paint only half of the picture. Clearly professional football is rife with sexually exploitive overtones. No one who has seen a professional football broadcast, with its lingering close-ups on cheerleaders’ cleavage and ubiquitous beer ads filled with busty models in tight clothing, can be surprised by the skit’s overt sexuality. It’s also too easy to chalk this up as just the latest example of the ways in which African-Americans are vulnerable to stereotyping by a white majority of owners, coaches, media members, and spectators. The Owens case, instead, finds itself at a crossroads of cultural anxieties. Sex and race are both at work here, and it’s their unique and problematic confluence that makes the spot so controversial.

Dungy is on the right track in raising concerns about what the skit evokes, rather than what it says outright. Beyond the pale of stereotypes, though, what lies beneath ABC’s promo is the consumption of overtly physical African American bodies by white spectatorship. To understand this dynamic, it’s important to underscore that professional football is game played by a majority of African American players. With the exception of the quarterback position, nearly all of the “skill” players, those who receive the lion’s share of the media’s focus (running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs, etc.), are African American. And, unlike the quarterback (popularly lauded for his cerebral understanding of the game rather than his physical abilities), these players are evaluated for their physical prowess as runners, leapers, and strong tacklers. To add to this physical emphasis, the very uniforms worn by these players—tight pants and jerseys, pads to exaggerate their chests and shoulders, and helmets that obscure their faces—draw attention specifically to their bodies. The white majority that constitutes football spectators is, consciously or not, consuming representations of a hyper-stylized black physicality, and the attraction to the sport cannot be separated from an attraction to these relentlessly emphasized bodies.

In light of this attraction, the furor surrounding the Owens spot begins to make more sense. As Nicollette Sheridan jumps into T.O.‘s arms, the white attraction to African American bodies in football is made literal—a reminder that most, apparently, would rather do without. This unspoken, perhaps unconscious, subtext of racial sexuality and the consumption of such rears its head in this skit, and the Owens promo becomes a mirror that presents a reflection of this gaze that, ultimately, confronts the gazers.

This, of course, is not to say that all football fans want to have sex with their favorite players. It is to say, however, that one cannot cheer a successful football play without, fundamentally, an acute attention to the physicality of those making the plays. Given the racial demographics of the sport and its consumers, not to mention the aggressively heterosexual associations that accompany football, it’s easy to identify an underlying anxiety about this attraction that creates a tension amongst the sport’s (mostly white, mostly male) spectators. The outrage at the skit may be clothed in terms of morality or race, but should really be understood as a more subtle manifestation! of this ambivalent attraction. What’s truly provocative about the promo, ultimately, is not that it mobilizes racial stereotypes or references sexuality, but that it so blatantly invokes the underlying basis of physicality upon which these issues are based. Viewers are too neatly reminded of the dynamic at work in their attraction to the sport—that what’s most thrilling to watch about football are not the great plays, but the bodies of its great players. It’s a reminder that’s shockingly obvious.

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