What We Think We Know About Athletes

Sometimes I’m so carefree/ with a joy that’s hard to hide/ Other times it seems that all I have to do is worry/ And then I know you’re bound to see my other side/ I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/ Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

— The Animals

This is not serious.

— Terrell Owens’ publicist, Kim Etheridge, the morning after Etheridge called Dallas Police to report the receiver’s “accidental overdose”.

“Oh. He’s on my fantasy team.” This is the response I received from two separate co-workers after telling them that Terrell Owens was hospitalized for ingesting what has been reported to be the majority of a 40-pill subscription of generic Vicodin, in an apparent (now roundly denied) suicide attempt. It’s a shameful response, but really, I am nobody to judge. My own initial response wasn’t all that different. He was on my fantasy team as well, but I traded him a week ago, because, as I wrote in an email to a friend of mine who is also in my fantasy league: “(the person I traded him to) has no idea how much it sucks to have to root for someone who you so deeply despise.”

In light of the near tragedy, such reactions (my own included) are sad, but true. Whether you chose to believe Owens (whose press conference denial was arranged and attended by his publicist) or the initial — and curiously redacted — report filed by Dallas Police, the reality is that Owens was seriously incapacitated, one way or another. But with the star receiver presumably undergoing both medical treatment and psychiatric evaluations for suicidal tendencies (as is typical when police report an attempted suicide), a large portion of sports fans’ initial reaction was to consider the ramifications for their fantasy league, or for their favorite team — whether it be the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he plays; the New York Giants, whose secondary it momentarily seemed he may no longer be able to shred apart; or the Philadelphia Eagles, whose fan-base he so offended in his short time there that, when the news broke, Eagles Message boards were flooded with gems like this one from poster, “Susquehanna Birder”: “I’d rather see him get killed on the field.”

The essential truth revealed by such callousness is this: in the world of sports fans, the athletes — along with their managers, coaches, team administrators, officials, even sportswriters — are talismans. Athletes symbolize. For some, it’s a net gain or loss in their fantasy standings. For others, they symbolize something positive if they happen to be wearing our favorite team’s uniform, or, if they sport any other laundry, something so deeply negative that they can illicit our true hatred. Unfortunately, as symbols, these human beings cease to exist as people. It is not uncommon, for example, to sit at a sporting event and hear racial epithets, personal slurs, or the smearing of character directed at any particular player, merely because they are from the visiting team. I have sat behind the dugout of a certain home team while the manager inside was berated by an obnoxiously intoxicated fan for everything from leaving in a pitcher for too long, to having a last name that ended in a vowel (this last fact led to several derogatory remarks about the manager’s ethnicity). And recently, the head of an NCAA football refereeing crew that blew a game-deciding call in the Oregon-Oklahoma game reported having his life threatened numerous times. Likewise, after Boston Globe columnist Gordon Edes wrote a column berating hometown hot-button Manny Ramirez for giving up on his team, his very next column was a plea to the overzealous fan whose response to the journalist’s criticism was to called Edes at home (while the writer was away on the road) and threaten Edes’ life and family.

In light of such hate the question becomes,At what point does the healthy fervor of being ‘a die-hard fan’ cross the line into the sickening territory of wishing harm upon others? Or, perhaps more aptly, At what point are fans not even able to see sports figures as human? I believe it happens somewhere around the point where, upon hearing that an athlete has allegedly attempted to off himself with three-dozen pills of prescription pharmaceuticals, our initial reaction is: “damn, I’m glad he isn’t on my fantasy team.”

Regretfully for this writer, I am afraid I crossed that line some time before that. I probably crossed it the first time I saw T.O. doing what T.O. does best: entertaining. I imagine I must have declared something along the lines of, “I hate Terrell Owens.” I regret that now, not because I feel some sort of guilt or responsibility for what T.O. has done, but because I was doing something shameful. Granted, it’s hard to feel guilty about someone coming to harm when they immediately call a press conference to downplay the seriousness of the situation, but it isn’t hard to feel guilty about being party to a dangerous trend in the world of sports and sports fans. That danger lies in the failure to separate the entertainer from the human being. In allowing myself to hate Terrell Owens, I had allowed the entertainer in a uniform to manifest into a persona, not a person. I had lowered myself to a level not much above those fanatics who called Gordon Edes’ home, or who threatened football officials’ lives.

Really, what did I ever know about Terrell Owens, the man? How could I understand what it must have been like for Terrell, the young athlete, who was home-schooled, raised by his grandmother, and spent his college years in Chattanooga as a self-reported loner? In fact, all I knew about Owens as a person was the image that he provided in quotes during interviews and press conferences. It was an image that reverberated from his isolated boyhood years, through college, and into his professional career, where his role as a “Me-vs.-The World” athlete symbolized an apparent lonesomeness that was perhaps so profound, so alienating, that less than two weeks before Owens was scheduled to face his former team — now filled with so many enemies — he was rushed to a hospital in a fire rescue vehicle to have painkillers pumped from his stomach. Still, the Owens I knew prior to this was nothing more than a character, or worse, a caricature.

Fans cannot be blamed entirely, though, for players becoming dehumanized in this way. This phenomenon has its roots in the obsession of the media over specific, frequently controversial, icons. Between the constant “fantasy sports” updates in the middle of CBS and Fox football coverage and the barrage of SportsCenter segments chronicling every movement of these players, the fetishism of athletes is unavoidable. Such attention leads to everything from rumor milling, to idolatry, to amateur psychoanalysis practiced by everyone from former footballers-cum-anchors to so-called “fantasy experts” (an amalgamation of Geek Squad advertisement models and fraternity-row sports fans). Indeed, in an era where the need for entertainment is constant and the coverage of sports so uninterrupted, it is no wonder that the focus on players’ personal issues has become so intense. Let’s never forget that the first letter in ESPN stands for “Entertainment”. Rather than spending studio-time, money, and energy on actual sports analysis, reporters are instead following around guys like Terrell Owens, waiting for the next pivotal scene in an ongoing soap-opera.

And of course, I am guilty of it, too. We all are. We find ourselves mesmerized by the tirades and antics of volatile players and sports figures. We take as much time each morning to read the daily steroid rumor leak as we do to read about the hit-and-run execution of a play-off bound team. It’s the urge to remain entertained by an entity that requires constant coverage, but only provides actual material for the few hours that the ball is on the field. So we join fantasy leagues, visit rumor blogs, and wait for the next Cincinnati Bengals’ DUI. It’s a way for us to feel like we are still discussing athletes and sports. Only, we’re not at all. We are discussing something fantastical, something fabricated. And fantasizing is the first step in removing a person from humanity and holding them up to be an emblem worthy of scorn, spite, or even scrutiny. The very real story about a man in earnest trouble has become all about something else, entirely: it has become about us, and the image we have molded for him.

Here is what this story is not about: it is not about football games; or Terrell Owens’ fans, team, foes, or enemies; and it most definitely is not about sports fanatics who will have to spend their lunch-break figuring out which fantasy wide receiver to take or which athlete’s moral fiber makes him most worthy of our scorn. This story is about the Terrell Owens we can not know, and the Terrell Owens we thought we knew. It is also about us, the fans, and our need for iconography, judgment, and fetishistic entertainment. It’s about time the fans and media turned their scrupulous analysis inwards to figure out what it is about being a fan that lends itself to this worrisome trend.