P.O'd About T.O.

"It is very painful for me that I can't play football for the rest of the season. It really hurts me not to be a part of the team anymore. My goal was to help the Philadelphia Eagles make the Super Bowl and win the big game." - Terrell Owens, November 7th, 2005

He apologized to his teammates. To the fans. To the coach. To the team president. To the owner. Even to the quarterback he had spent the last several months tormenting. Everyone but the victims of the Johnstown Flood and the family of Jimmy Hoffa was offered regrets. But Terrell Owens, the most dynamic and explosive wide receiver in the NFL will still have nowhere to play this year. What sin could possibly have provoked such an extreme reaction by the powers that be? Did Owens take plays off during games? Did he drink and drive? Go on a drugged-out sex cruise? Drink and drive on the deck of a drugged-out sex cruise? Lie about weapons of mass destruction and send a country to war? Nope. Nothing so shocking or dramatic. Coach Andy Reid only said cryptically that the suspension was due to "a large number of situations that accumulated over a long period of time."

But the situation is nothing so secretive. It seems that Owens both wants more money and isn't shy about telling everyone and their mama that this is the case. Owens wants his contract renegotiated. Many a sports radio gasbag has wheezed that T.O. was only done with the first season of a seven-year contract and is therefore "not honoring his deal." But T.O. and every NFL player know that NFL deals have the honor of a politician's promise. The NFL is the only major sports league with contracts that aren't really contracts. Any player can be cut at any time without compensation. The only money players can count on are in the signing bonuses. Everything else -- every zero on the check, could just amount to bells and whistles for free agent press conferences.

The average NFL career is just four years and the Eagles are well bellow the salary cap so T.O. took his chance to renegotiate, as any player would -- and should. T.O. felt like he had leverage after playing in last year's Super Bowl on a broken leg, and catching nine passes for over 100 yards. But when the Eagles didn't bite, T.O. flipped his "everyone can go to hell" switch. It's worth noting though that his anger never showed up on the field. He was on pace for 107 catches and more than 1,700 yards. No receiver in football blends his combination of size, speed, strength, and showmanship -- and now Philly wants to put him on ice. Quarterback Donovan McNabb has said that "the team will be better" without Owens, but that's like saying your car will go faster without the engine.

Don't get me wrong. I am sure Owens is a spectacularly frustrating individual. And his showmanship -- like pulling the Sharpie out of his sock and signing a football after a touchdown are anathema to the values of team work and cooperation that sports can be about. This is someone, remember, who engineered his trade/release from the San Francisco 49ers by accusing his quarterback Jeff Garcia of being gay, saying, "Like my boy tells me: If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat."

But none of this excuses the basic injustice at work here: that the Philadelphia fans now have a far inferior team, all of us lose a year of the most exciting player in the game, and Owens himself doesn't get to showcase his skills -- all because Owens wanted the same prerogative every NFL owner has: the right to tear up the tissue paper contracts, and ask for more.

His cardinal sin was being loud about it, making this an issue not only of the NFL's double-standard contracts, but an issue of free speech. In a recent letter to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, consumer advocate, and League of Fans founder Ralph Nader spelled out the broader stakes of the Owens suspension, calling the Eagles decision something that "dishonors this country's traditional respect for free speech and cheats fans of an opportunity to see arguably the best receiver in football. ... It should be the policy of the Eagles and the National Football League, as well as other sports teams and leagues, that players not be punished merely for what they say. ... If the Eagles do not want Terrell Owens on their team, then they should release him. Instead, the Eagles propose not just to suspend him for the term permitted by the collective bargaining agreement, but to make him inactive for the duration of the season. This vengeful approach keeps him as an effective hostage -- kept away from the fans who would like to see him play."

Ralph is absolutely right. To be clear, this suspension doesn't turn Terrell Owens into Nelson Mandela. He has never used his uncensored, unfiltered mouth to speak about war, poverty, or any of societies ills. He makes baseball's Barry Bonds look like Malcolm X -- but to paraphrase Bob Watson in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, "Let him play."
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