He’s All Mine: Laying Claim to Terrell Owens in the Culture Wars

[20 November 2005]

By Tobias Peterson

“I’m sorry.” Increasingly, these two simple words are dominating modern sports. Athletes have publicly sought forgiveness for everything from contract holdouts to criticizing officials to attempted murder. As such, press conferences have become mini-sporting events in and of themselves, with the accompanying spectacle of the contrite athlete, frenzied media attendants, and the presence of family, extended family, coaches, and/or agents. Each word of the invariably prepared written statement is scrutinized to determine the level of contrition, the credibility of the athlete asking forgiveness, and the legitimacy of whatever accusation is at hand.

As these public apologies go, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens recently held a doozy. Standing in front of his home, Owens apologized to fans, teammates, coaches, and team owners for his latest outburst, in which he criticized the team for not publicly recognizing his 100th career receiving touchdown and agreed with assessments that the Eagles would be more successful if they had a different quarterback. Taken by themselves, these comments wouldn’t necessarily merit anything more than an in-house retraction or a meeting with management. Given Owens’ tumultuous tenure with the Eagles, however, his comments motivated the team to suspend him from the rest of the season; firing him, effectively, just roughly a year and a half after he was brought in under a seven-year contract.

The press conference, then, was a response to the announcement of Owens’ suspension and a bid, as his agent Drew Rosenhaus admitted, to encourage the team to reinstate Owens on the team. While nothing of the sort was accomplished (the Eagles opted to wait on the outcome of a grievance hearing, still in progress as of this writing), much was done to cement public opinion of Owens and Rosenhaus during the conference. After Owens read from a prepared sheet of paper, Rosenhaus stepped forward, literally shielding the player from the media, and railed with indignation against the sentence handed down to his client. Rosenhaus then responded (or failed to respond) to a series of questions by repeatedly snapping “next question.” Shortly after the conference, ESPN.com ran a poll asking whether or not Owens’ apology was credible. Eighty-five percent responded with a “no” vote. Clearly, Owens and his agent had failed to make their case both to the Eagles and to the public at large.

That result should come as no surprise, however, to anyone who has followed Owens’ career in the National Football League with even a passing interest. Public opinion surrounding the gifted receiver has been checkered even at the best of times. Originally with the San Francisco 49ers, Owens became infamous for his outlandish touchdown celebrations: mocking opposing teams, autographing footballs, once even grabbing a pair of pompoms and celebrating with a cheerleader. He also publicly criticized his coach at the time, Steve Mariucci, and, in an interview with Playboy magazine, hinted that former 49ers’ quarterback Jeff Garcia was gay (perhaps the worst accusation one athlete can levy at another, given the aggressively homophobic culture of sports today). Eventually San Francisco traded the talented receiver to the Baltimore Ravens, choosing to forgo his considerable talent on the field in favor of relief from his off-the-field distractions. Owens refused the trade, though, insisting he play for Philadelphia instead. His wish was eventually granted and last year he helped the team to a Super Bowl appearance.

This year, however, Owens has encountered much of the same pitfalls that marked his time with San Francisco. Firing his agent, Owens brought in Rosenhaus, a fast-talking agent known for his high profile clients and ruthless negotiating skills, and immediately drew ire when the pair demanded a raise just one year in to his seven-year contract. Owens was also suspended over the summer by the team for confronting and arguing with team coaches. His latest batch of criticism, then, is seen as a culmination of a series of distractions caused by the receiver, sounding a tired echo in a court of public opinion that appears to be allied firmly against him.

More than one commentator (myself included), however, has noted that Owens is in many respects a kind of victim in all of these goings on, the target of a host of racist stereotypes that affect high profile African American athletes. His domination of opponents on the field, coupled with his excessive celebrations, evoke longstanding associations of African Americans with rampant and unchecked physicality — threatening displays that must be curbed through the discipline of “sportsmanship” and the NFL’s codes of conduct. His conspicuous displays of wealth and penchant for braggadocio — rather than understood in the context of a hip hop identity that aggressively asserts what has been (culturally or personally) so long denied or suppressed — have also made Owens predisposed to accusations of selfishness, ingratitude, and arrogance. In short, he’s become a case study for conservative, working class, (predominantly) white fans, for all that’s wrong with the modern athlete. Given this kind of censure, then, the only wonder that 85 percent of the country feels that Owens is insincere with his latest apology is that this percentage is not higher.

With his well-established history of agitation and censure, the receiver occupies very thin ice with fans and the media. As a result, each subsequent “infraction” is popularly understood as symptomatic of Owens’ damaged character, rather than as isolated events, quotes taken out of context, or simply the refusal of one athlete to kowtow to a restrictive majority simply because he makes more money. Take, for example, the interview in which his latest criticisms were made public. Owens’ comments about the team and his quarterback were all that was reported from a 57-minute conversation with ESPN’s Graham Bensinger. Among Owens’ other comments, though, were tried and true platitudes that are typically seen as indicators of “good” athletes who “respect the game”. When asked about the source of his determination, Owens responded, “Just keeping my family and my grandmother at heart. I just try to put herself in my situation at times, almost like what would she do in this situation, or what would she not do? So, my family is very dear to me.”

One man’s love for his grandmother, however, was not the story that emerged. Similarly, when asked about the importance of his own acheievements versus those of his team, Owens asserted, “That’s the name of the game. Honestly, it’s wins and losses when it all boils down to it. And, that’s how I look at it.” Putting the team above personal consideration is perhaps the fastest way for an athlete to win public kudos these days, yet Owens was not credited for this sentiment at all. Instead, Owens has been taken to task simply for agreeing to a sentiment, advanced by ex-receiver turned commentator Michael Irvin, that the Eagles would be better off with a different quarterback. Though it was not his own original idea, Owens failed to see the trap when Bensinger asked him to respond. As a result, Owens has been attributed sole ownership of the criticism and has been punished accordingly.

Still, the interview is seen as a “last straw” for Owens. His contract dispute, for example, had already positioned him as simply another seflish, ungrateful (black) athlete. But while the $49 million he earns over seven years is a staggering sum, it pales before the contracts of other top receivers in the league. Randy Moss was paid $75 million over eight years, Marvin Harrison received $67 million over seven. No one disputes that Owens’ talent is on a par with Moss or Harrison, but few have time to listen to arguments about fair market value when that market involves million dollar payscales. It’s also apparent that few remember Owens’ rushing back from a broken leg to play for the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl. Though Philadelphia lost the game, they were able to compete in large part thanks to Owens’ dedicated rehabilitation and selfless risk of further injury.

Taken altogether, it’s clear that the criticisms, editorials, fines, and suspensions hurled Owens’ way say more about the demands placed on African American athletes by predominantly white fans and members of the media than anything substantial about Owens as a person. Still, though, even this kind of deconstruction is nothing new. The counter response to the conservative criticism is, imporantly but predictably, an attention to the racial dynamics involved in sports in general and the inequality and hypocrisy with which such censure is applied and maintained. By now, the debates have been played out to such a degree that the players are merely placeholders in a longstanding difference of opinion. In many ways, Owens is simply the latest to occupy that space; he’s a kind of proving ground in the culture wars that pit racist fans and media members against bleeding heart, amoral commentators.

To illustrate, the case for Owens’ defense is not difficult to make. One need only point out the social and material conditions that constrain the receiver to show the ways in which race, class, and stereotype come to bear upon debates that would seek to otherwise overlook such considerations. Critics, instead, want to discuss what kind of a “person” Owens must be — a perfectly unknowable and, hence, useless basis for argument — but defenders point to the social forces that inform the situation. And while that complication is more useful than idle speculation about “character”, it too, is an incomplete approach in its move to shift the often messy and contradictory facts of the case to the abstract realms of sociology.

In the case of Owens his detractors fail utterly to understand the social institutions that frame the receiver’s reception and perception in the popular imagination. No distinction is made between the highly constructed image that Owens projects and the unknowable vagaries of his personality. But similarly, the expected counterargument to these critics can be equally lacking. In simply focusing on the ways Owens’ falls victim to stereotype, for example, one will miss the report that the receiver was involved with a fistfight with one of his teammates, Hugh Douglas, in the week leading up to his suspension. One will also have to forget Owens’ past history of calling out his quarterbacks and his homophobic insinuations in San Francisco. These actions, of course, point out that Owens can indeed be a bad teammate and a bad employee, complicating the kind of victim hood that a purely racial argument is attempting to assert.

So what’s to be done about Terrell Owens? Is he entirely a victim? Is he entirely guilty? The answer to both questions, of course, is no. Instead, Owens occupies a hotly contested middle ground and, regardless of the outcome of his suspension, he’ll continue to do so. The facts of the case here are really immaterial. Instead, it’s the peculiar social space Owens finds himself in that is most clearly identifiable after all is said and done. In a country divided, Owens is in a kind of tug-of-war, claimed by conservatives as an emblem of selfishness and moral degradation and championed by liberals as a victim of racism and stereotyping. Both arguments, however, fail to truly account for the more complicated reality that is Terrell Owens. After all, a victim of racism that fights with his teammates is a figure that is not easily molded into coherent evidence for any particular worldview. Such inconsistency, of course, only points to the failure of tautological thinking that begins with its conclusions in mind. Though it must be far less satisfying to either camp looking to use him as so much raw material for their debates, Owens must ultimately be understood in a much more pedestrian fashion: flawed, just human, like the rest of us.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/peterson051121/