Nobody Loves T.O. Like T.O. Loves T.O.

By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, November 10, 2005

Terrell Owens is, plainly, a narcissist. He can't even apologize to the Philadelphia Eagles without talking about himself. The Eagles don't buy his apology and have concluded that he should play football somewhere else. Better yet, maybe he should be self-employed.

Narcissism is not a crime. If that's Owens's worst offense, why are the Eagles dealing so harshly with him? Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, seem baffled that the Eagles are unforgiving. They have filed a union grievance, and protest that he has not been arrested, he doesn't have a rap sheet, nor has he broken any rules. But that's how fed up the Eagles are with Owens -- they'd apparently sooner keep a felon. Until Owens understands that narcissism is possibly as damaging to a team as criminal behavior, he'll be a detriment to any organization he plays for.

The Eagles are perfectly right to get rid of Owens, as any expert in workplace dynamics knows. "He's useless to them," said Richard Boyatzis, an author for the Harvard Business School Press, and a former CEO who is professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University. It's tempting to look at Owens's receiving statistics and rippling physique, at his talent, energy and abilities, and say that surely the 4-4 Eagles are better off with him than without him. But that would be to underestimate the problem that is Terrell Owens. "He's not really a great player," Boyatzis said. "He's technically proficient. But great players can play with others." Owens can't get along with anybody. And while that may not be a contractual violation or a crime, it's intolerable.

Terms like "chemistry" and the saying, "There is no 'I' in team" are idiotically vague bromides. But Owens's unbalanced ego has a very specific and diagnosable effect on others. Narcissistic behavior in the workplace has been studied before, and it's often discussed in terms of "malignancy" for a good reason, because it has a tendency to infect entire buildings. Management experts and prosecutors alike have theorized that corporate narcissism was at least partly responsible for the abuses at Tyco, WorldCom and Enron.

What happened between Owens and the Eagles "was so utterly predictable," said Prof. David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "What happens with a lot of athletes is they become the most high-profile employee in the organization and there's a sliding scale of tolerance where the coaches or the managers give those athletes, just like star sales people, just enough rope to hang themselves. And by the time they've hung themselves, they've really gone a long way to impacting the morale of the rest of the organization, and done a fine job of contaminating the company in the marketplace."

When is a team great? Why do some product development teams come up with fantastic ideas while others bicker and waste millions of dollars? Some doctor-nurse teams work especially well in operating rooms, and others don't. What's the difference?

Research is very clear that great teams are a function of harmony. Boyatzis discusses it in terms of "resonance" and "dissonance." An easy example is an orchestra. The members have an overall positive tone, a sense of efficacy, and are attuned to each other. This gives them not just resonance but resilience. They have the ability to adapt, and rebound. Resonance is as much an atmosphere as anything, and it feeds on itself. "This degree of resonance happens at all different levels, and the least degree is conscious," Boyatzis said. "A lot of it is unconscious."

For instance, it has been found that on really effective teams in an operating room, doctors and nurses tend to fall into similar pulse rates.

But when you have a dissonant player, "They actually spread toxicity," Boyatzis said. The most basic effect of that is discord, and the more subtle effect is a loss of resiliency. Organizations don't adapt or rebound, but deteriorate. If you think about it as a body, when your stomach decides to go on holiday and act differently, you feel ill, and other parts of the body are set off."

Owens is not solely to blame for the Eagles' deterioration from a Super Bowl team to 4-4 -- there are other factors, such as injuries to quarterback Donovan McNabb. But Owens certainly is responsible for a general malaise.

Owens doesn't seem to grasp the concept of resonance, unless it has to do with the sound of his own voice. Nor has he shown he can sublimate himself to the team more than temporarily. He was divisive in San Francisco, where he undermined his coach, Steve Mariucci, and slurred his quarterback Jeff Garcia. In just a year with the Eagles, he has divided them, too. He has been malicious about McNabb, carped about his lavish contract, and reportedly engaged in a locker room fistfight. Owens may or may not have the full-blown personality disorder known as narcissism, but that's not the point. You don't have to be a clinical case to inflict narcissistic behaviors on co-workers: an unrealistic sense of self-importance, an insatiable need for admiration, and a lack of regard for the feelings or needs of others.

A football team is intensely interdependent -- it's really more of an organism than an organization. Owens's brand of narcissistic behavior is perhaps especially virulent in that framework. According to Sam Vaknin, author of "Malignant Self Love -- Narcissism Revisited," narcissists are disruptive on several levels. They are unable to abide criticism, they work autonomously, refuse to succumb to guidelines. And they provoke intense emotional counter-reactions from colleagues. "They mentally monopolize," he said. No doubt, that will sound familiar to the Eagles.

In Vaknin's opinion, true narcissists are basically "unemployable." That's why many of them are self-employed, or work themselves into situations where they are sole decision-makers. You see a lot of them, he remarks, in politics.

But you see a lot of them in the pro leagues too -- more and more all the time. The NFL is an increasingly narcissistic system, constructed for the entertainment of a narcissistic society in which notoriety is preferable to obscurity. What's interesting about Owens is that there may be more like him coming, because he is what the league is breeding. After all, the Eagles signed him and paid him richly, knowing how he behaved in San Francisco. Another team will be eager to sign him, although perhaps not for quite as much money. "In sports the scale of tolerance depends on how badly you need to fill a gap in the lineup," Carter said.

The pity of it is that Owens has so much potential -- he has abundant ambition and dynamism -- if only he could be cured of self- absorption. CEOs have learned to alter their behaviors over time, according to Boyatzis, but it requires willingness and a good human resources department. And NFL teams are more focused on short-term performance than long-term personal improvement. "The problem is they're not really in the business of [that kind of] coaching," Boyatzis said.

The next NFL team that signs Owens should realize it's going to have to invest more in him than just a paycheck.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company