Terrell Owens: Bigger than Football

by David Rothenberg | 11/18/05 6:00am

Terrell Owens, the controversially outspoken yet unquestionably talented wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, has once again found himself front and center in a debate that has quickly burgeoned beyond the scope of the NFL.

On Nov. 3, Owens, in an interview with ESPN, chastised the Eagles for failing to publicly recognize his 100th career touchdown and asserted that the team would be better if they were led by NFL legend Brett Favre. Egotistical for the 100th career touchdown complaint and disrespectful for the Favre comments, Owens was definitely in the wrong, but on Nov. 7, Owens was suspended by the Eagles for four games without pay and would be prohibited, also by the team, to play for the rest of the season -- a punishment very disproportionate to the crime.

Expectedly, Owens, his management and the Players Association filed grievances with the league. Unexpectedly, late last week, both civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader released separate statements condemning the Eagles' organization. With Nader and Jackson voicing their opinions, it is evident that there are underlying issues more serious than the Eagles' playoff hopes.

Luckily, these issues do not involve freedom of speech or racial discrimination. The Eagles are not the U.S. government and, therefore, are not held to the strict standards of the First Amendment when deciding punishments in response to the words of an employee. Additionally, I do not believe Owens is being punished more severely because he is black. Neither Jackson nor Nader has explicitly contested the Eagles' on the freedom of speech or racial discrimination fronts. Rather, the underlying issues involve the role of professional sports in America.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid cited Owens' conduct as the formal reason for the suspension, calling his behavior "detrimental to the team." Through this logic, in order for the Eagles' to avoid irony, the divisiveness and problems Owens caused off the field must have far outweighed the benefits he provides when playing on the field. Thus, if we were to believe the Eagles, the reason Owens is being punished is so that they have a better chance to win games.

I seriously doubt this is the team's primary motive. I doubt this because I doubt that the Philadelphia Eagles, or any other sports franchise, is primarily a "team." This is the real underlying issue: what is the true nature of professional sports? Are pro sports arbitrary pageants of frivolity held to entertain the masses and make profits for the ownership? Or are they manifestations of the human spirit showcased in order to inspire us? In other words, are sports teams more meaningful than shallow entertainment companies? If they are more meaningful, then the punishment of Owens is justified. Owens was selfish and cares about himself more than the team; therefore he should be punished. If they are solely businesses, then the excuse for punishing Owens is a gross misrepresentation that perpetuates a common misconception about sports teams. Owens is an employee bound by a contract, hired to do a job by a company. Under this definition, doesn't he have the rights to be selfish, to seek the highest wages, and to do things his contract does not expressly prohibit?

I believe sports teams are first and foremost businesses. Thus, I believe Owens is being punished by an unfair double standard: The Eagles' assert that they are a "team" and that Owens hurts the team, when in reality they are simply a business that needs to justify suspending his pay for a period of four weeks, and terminating his contract at the end of the season.

As a person who loves sports, I struggle to accept this conclusion. I want to believe that professional sports are primarily meant to inspire, that they are not a frivolous waste of time, an illusion of the corporations. Sadly, while professional sports hold some merits, they ultimately are machines of profit. They are businesses, buttressed, employed, and empowered by other large corporations.

Advertising. Sponsorship. Corporate America. This is what doomed Owens and the Eagles. This is what facilitated both sides' greed. Owens is simply one of the unlucky and unprepared heirs to the legacy begot by television networks, Nike, Michael Jordan and Broadway Joe Namath.

My analysis will not change anything. America will continue watching. Owens will continue talking. What we can do is accept the negative implications that sports are business and continue to find positive inspirations. We should continue to believe that if we work as hard at our passions as a Michael Jordan, or even a Terrell Owens, worked at becoming the best athlete in his sport than we can achieve great success. We should continue to find athletes worth admiring. Lastly, we should continue to remember that ultimately professional sports are entertainment industries and that there exist more dire controversies and problems for people like Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader to tackle.