brings you The Barbershop Notebooks a
column by our friend and family Marc Lamont
Hill. Hill's on the site because like
they say "Great minds think alike"
and Hill will bring you a wise youthful
voice of cynicism, candor and analysis.
Be sure to check it out on a regular basis
as Hill goes over all topics under the
elite Terrell 'T.O.' Owens may be clearing
the path for a proletariat uprising.
of the usual NFL preseason focus on last-minute
roster moves and way-too-early playoff
predictions, nearly every major media
outlet, sports and otherwise, focused
this summer on the circus surrounding
Philadelphia Eagles superstar, wide receiver
Terrell Owens. Although Owens has always
been a lightening rod for media attention
- dancing on the sacred Dallas Cowboys
star, pulling ink pens from his sock to
sign autographs after touchdowns, not-so-subtly
"outing" 49ers quarterback Jeff
Garcia, and his now infamous Monday Night
Football skit with Desperate Housewives
star Nicolette Sheridan, have all transformed
him into the most recognizable and controversial
name in football - the current brouhaha
surrounding his contract demands has propelled
him to a new level of scrutiny.
Terrell Owens saga began in April 2005,
a few months after the Philadelphia Eagles'
gutty but ultimately unsuccessful Super
Bowl appearance. Barely one year into
his seven-year, nearly $49 million contract,
Owens mounted a very public campaign to
renegotiate his deal. Buoyed by the signing
of cutthroat sports agent Drew Rosenhaus,
Owens argued that he had "outperformed"
his current contract by breaking regular
season team records and recovering from
a severely broken ankle to perform in
the Super Bowl. Soon after Owens issued
his public demand for a new contract,
the Eagles responded with an equally public
and unequivocal refusal to renegotiate
with Owens. Not only would they not consider
offering him a new contract, they were
unwilling to entertain trade offers from
other teams. In short, Owens could play
or sit out, but his contract was not up
by the Eagles' obstinacy and the public's
lack of support, Owens intensified his
campaign and began vigorously working
the media circuit, telling anyone who
would listen that he was being mistreated
by Eagles ownership and misunderstood
by the general public. Never one to mince
words, Owens also unleashed a vicious
verbal assault upon the Eagles management
and coaching staff, calling head coach
Andy Reid a "control freak"
and ordering offensive coordinator Brad
Childress not to speak to him. Soon after,
he went a step further and attacked team
quarterback and media darling Donovan
for his anemic performance in the final
minutes of the Eagles' Super Bowl loss.
the middle of August, the Owens story
had turned into a full-fledged spectacle.
It became a significant challenge to turn
on a television without seeing Owens and
Rosenhaus pleading the merits of their
case to an ever-growing but increasingly
skeptical court of public opinion. Although
Owens reported to training camp, he was
soon sent home by coach Andy Reid for
"violating team rules", ambiguous
shorthand for pissing off his teammates
and coaches. Within minutes, news helicopters
were surrounding Owens' suburban home
waiting for sound bites from the fallen
Eagle, who entertained the media by doing
calisthenics on his lawn - his shirtless,
muscular black body now a spectacle instead
of a threat since it was no longer in
proximity to Nicolette Sheridan - and
talking about the injustice of his circumstance.
after issuing its edict, the Eagles brass
was celebrated by local and national media,
owners, and fans alike for their hard-nosed
stance against Owens. The reasons for
the overwhelming support of the Eagles'
decision were varied but familiar. Media
pundits called Owens an ego-driven crybaby
and a "team cancer" in search
of attention as much as money. Team owners
publicly and privately insisted that anything
but a complete refusal from the Eagles
to renegotiate Owens' contract would set
a dangerous precedent and place the league
on a slippery slope that would tarnish
the sanctity of the NFL contract. Fans
scoffed at the idea that a pampered, millionaire
athlete could ever be considered underpaid.
While there is merit to both of these
points, they betray a shortsighted view
of the controversy and the larger issues
at stake when athletes like Owens speak
the beginning of his career, Terrell Owens
has been able to rile up the media like
few other athletes. Commentators like
ESPN's Skip Bayless, who unleashes vitriolic
attacks against Owens reminiscent of the
equally one-sided Bob Costas/Dennis Rodman
beefs of the mid-to-late '90s, demonstrate
the level of personal animus that Owens
invokes. National and local columnists
take turns coming up with offensive meanings
for his "T.O." initials (e.g.,
"Terrible One") and finding
personal fault with everything from his
speech patterns to his female companions.
While many of the media attacks are motivated
by legitimate concerns, they allow the
public to sidestep the truth that often
emerges from Owens' provocative comments.
reducing Owens to a two dimensional Jerry
character, we are able to easily ignore
the veracity of his often-poignant commentaries
about the cultural politics of professional
sports. For example, after feuding with
Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis in 2004,
Owens pointed out the irony in the media's
veneration of Lewis, who was strongly
linked to a double-murder in 2000, and
simultaneous castigation of him as a player
who lacked character. Later in the season,
Owens rigorously rehabbed from a season-threatening
ankle surgery - from an injury incurred
with only two games remaining in the regular
season - in time to give an MVP-caliber
performance in the Super Bowl. Many media
pundits like Bayless dismissed Owens'
comeback effort as self-serving and divisive
("He won't be healthy enough to help
the team. He just wants to be in the spotlight").
Owens responded by pointing out that if
superstar quarterback (and the current
occupant of the "great white hope"
throne to which Eli Manning and Payton
Manning are heir apparents) Brett Favre
had mounted a similar recovery, it would
have been cited as evidence of his courage,
tenacity, and will to win.
argue that if Owens' intention is to use
his status as a football star as a platform
from which to make pointed (and I would
argue, often legitimate) critiques of
the NFL, he should present himself in
a more acceptable way. "How can anyone
take him seriously if behaves the way
he does?" many observers have asked.
To ask such a question, however, is to
naively presume that the relationship
between mass approval and political passivity
is merely coincidental.
Michael Jordan have become a universal
basketball icon if he had echoed Isiah
Thomas and Dennis Rodman's argument that
Larry Bird was overrated because he was
white? How "harmless" would
Shaquille O'Neal be if he had publicly
shared Rasheed Wallace's sentiment that
the NBA was a white establishment that
exploits young black athletes?
truth is that publicly "respectable"
athletes are not simply mingling within
the larger athletic populace. Rather,
they are created by the elites that control
sports and sports media in ways that represent
their interests. The missteps of athletes
like Jordan and O'Neal are ignored or
completely excised from our collective
memories - who talks about Jordan's backdoor
deal to have Isaiah Thomas removed from
the Olympic Dream Team or O'Neal's propensity
for punching rivals like Greg Ostertag
in the face in public? - in ways that
allow them to be the "good guys"
against whom athletes like Owens are measured.
constructing figures like Owens as stereotypical
selfish athletes, we are able to avoid
wrestling with their uninhibited truth
telling. This is not to suggest that Owens
is anything but the obnoxious, selfish,
crybaby that beat writers and sports commentators
make him out to be. Nevertheless, his
shortcomings cannot be appealed to in
order to painlessly shirk the responsibility
of giving his arguments full consideration.
after Owens' contract demand, NFL owners
uniformly supported the Eagles' uncompromising
position. At stake, they argued, was the
functionality of a system in which players
and owners honored their legally binding
contracts. After all, if the Philadelphia
Eagles let Owens renegotiate his contract
after one year, what would stop every
player from doing the same? This argument,
however, implicitly rests upon the faulty
assumption that players like Owens are
disrupting a system that has heretofore
been fair and equitable for players and
the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball,
NFL contracts drastically favor the interests
of owners. While the other leagues offer
guaranteed contracts that ensure that
players are paid regardless of performance
level, health, or status with their respective
team, the non-guaranteed NFL contract
enables owners to cut players from the
team with no further financial obligation.
Of course, the better NFL players are
able to negotiate this dilemma by demanding
guaranteed signing bonuses, frontloaded
contracts, and easily attainable performance
bonuses, as Owens did for the first season
of his contract. However, the majority
of NFL players, particularly those with
average talent and those near the middle
or end of their contracts, are at-will
employees with little financial security.
Owens has continually noted since the
beginning of the dispute, it is this power
that owners leverage against players whenever
they see fit. For example, while Owens
stands to earn more than $40 million over
the remainder of his contract, he will
receive only $3.5 million this year. In
all likelihood, the Eagles will ask Owens
to take a drastic pay cut if he were to
remain with the team beyond the 2006 season.
If he refuses, the Eagles would likely
cut Owens and pay him nothing. Similar
instances occur every year with most NFL
teams, who force players to reduce their
salaries with little or no recourse.
this in mind, we can look at Owens' claims
and the owners' self-righteous response
in a new light. The notion of "outperforming"
a contract is not nearly as pompous and
absurd as it has been presented to be
in the media. If owners have the ability
and the willingness to terminate contracts
with little regard for players, why should
players have such concern for owners?
While we can safely assume that Owens'
intention is not to represent for the
NFL proletariat, his stand nonetheless
spotlights the highly problematic power
balance between league owners and players.
fans have followed the Philadelphia Eagles-Terrell
Owens controversy closely but elected
to ignore the particulars of Owens' argument
on the grounds that he, like other professional
athletes, is sufficiently rich and should
be content with whatever salary he receives.
Such arguments, however, allow the absurd
wealth and greed of NFL ownership to go
unchecked. It is easy to laugh at millionaires
like Owens or Latrell Sprewell, who proclaim
that they are merely attempting to feed
their families, until we consider the
multi-generational wealth that billionaire
owners like Paul Allen are able to generate
on the backs of athletes like Owens. As
Owens has pointed out, our identification
of greed cannot be limited to the players.
talk-radio shows are flooded daily with
indignant callers who can't believe that
an athlete would dare complain about his
or her salary. "If T.O. were a [insert
any working-class profession here] he
wouldn't pull this crap!" is a comment
frequently heard in the Philadelphia radio
circuit. True. But the problem is that
a schoolteacher, plumber, or janitor should
do exactly what Owens is doing given their
devaluation, alienation, and exploitation
within the capitalist market. Unfortunately,
they lack the resources and relative power
to force the economic hands of their oppressors.
That Owens has a viable means by which
to resist the powers-that-be should be
a reason for motivation, celebration -
and inquiry - instead of scorn.
Lamont Hill is one of the youngest members
of the growing body of "Hip-Hop Intellectuals" in the country. His work, which covers
topics such as hip-hop culture, sexuality,
education, and politics, has appeared
in numerous journals, magazines, books,
and anthologies. In 2005, he was named
by Ebony Magazine as one of Black America's
30 future leaders. He is currently working
on several book projects, including New
Dilemmas of the Black Intellectual (with
Gregory Seaton), Media, Learning, and
Sites of Possibility (with Lalitha Vasudevan),
and a book of African American cultural
criticism. Marc Lamont Hill is an assistant
professor of Urban Education and African
American Studies at Temple University.
Trained as an anthropologist of education,
he holds a Ph.D. from the University of
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