It's hard to know what to do with Terrell Owens, laugh at him, or rebuke him and bemoan his comportment as further evidence of the extinction of sportsmanship. But the best thing to do with Owens is to look away from him and look to ourselves. Owens is not what's wrong with sports these days -- we are. Sportsmanship? That's become just an empty posture for the sake of the kids.
Terrell Owens has both wit and malice. He has a sure sense of the differences between jest, farce and taunt, and he likes to play with each of those forms. He has an even surer sense that he'd rather sell himself than let the NFL sell him as a generic commodity, even if that means becoming a caricature.
This week, Owens asked a very good question: How come he's the villain in his feud with Ray Lewis, when he's never done anything up to this point but play great football and chatter and pose, while Lewis is a guy who pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in a double murder case? Why does the NFL make rules against Terrell Owens, yet peddle Lewis as a redeemed hero? Let's ask an even better question: Why should we hang Owens out to dry for his lack of sportsmanship when our entire culture abandoned it long ago, especially our political culture?
Owens poses another question on his Web site: What's the best dance he's done this year? The Salute? The Situps? The Bird? Or the infamous Ray Lewis imitation wing-dance against the Baltimore Ravens? The winner by far is the dance against the Ravens.
Guess how many hits he's had on the Web poll? Over 20,000.
To review: Owens caught an 11-yard touchdown pass Sunday from Donovan McNabb to help give the Philadelphia Eagles a 15-10 win over the Ravens. In the end zone, he mocked Lewis with a sendup of his dance.
Things have escalated since. After the game, an aggravated Lewis called Owens "a coward" for saving his taunt until the end of the game, presumably when he couldn't retaliate. On Wednesday Owens responded by saying, "This is a guy, double murder case, and he could have been in jail, but it seems like the league embraces a guy like that. But I'm going out scoring touchdowns and having fun, but I'm the bad guy."
What's really going on here is the tension between the modern athlete and an antiquated definition of sportsmanship. According to Oregon State University literature professor Mike Oriard, who played football for Notre Dame and the Kansas City Chiefs before becoming a distinguished professor and cultural historian, sportsmanship is a white, middle-class ethic from the fictional dime novel Yalie, Frank Merriwell, back in the Victorian era. Merriwell was the perfect image of a modest star athlete. He played fair and knew right from wrong, he wore his hair in a center part, came from an impeccable family, and spoke in a baritone.
Terrell Owens is not Frank Merriwell. And it is dangerous to hold athletes to that standard. As Red Smith observed, "It has been pointed out that man is an imperfect being and the alert eye will discover flaws in the greatest of our sports heroes. Evidence has been submitted that even the immortal Frank Merriwell of Yale was, for all his matchless physical gifts, a cheat, a braggart, a bully, a sly trickster, a card sharp, a poltroon, and unkind to animals to boot."
The Merriwell code of sportsmanship was shattered in the 1960s by, among others, Muhammad Ali, in a way that white Americans initially found hard to accept. Ali, and figures like Joe Namath in a less threatening way, were about exploding previous definitions of acceptable sports conduct. They were "willfully defying antiquated old white guys modes of sportsmanship," Oriard says. They were also about a kind of candor. "Anyone who has done surveys of ancient literature knows that ancient heroes always bragged about what they did," Oriard says. "Achilles slew Hector and dragged him around the walls of the city and banged his chest. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, these were braggarts, too."
Owens is a new evolution, a reflection of his era. His conduct is not really about rebellion or candor anymore. The statement Owens is making on the field is not a political statement. "He's making a calculated business decision," Oriard says.
Look who gets endorsements and makes the sports talk shows. Deion Sanders. Michael Irvin. Owens has made it clear that a big part of his beef with Lewis is that he's not promoted the way he would like by the league. "I'm obviously not one of those guys who are a face of the NFL that they're going to have on commercials," Owens said. "They pick the guys that they feel best suits whatever position they're trying to come across with." What about the NFL's part in all of this? The league is often accused of humorlessness and feigning ethics for convenient sales purposes. But the league has a legitimate interest here. Spokesman Greg Aiello says the NFL polices exhibitions like Owens's because NCAA and high school athletes have shown they will imitate everything they see and because taunting can lead to something uglier.
"It often provokes retaliation," Aiello says. "It falls under the category of sportsmanship and that's something we think is important and try to uphold, especially for kids and everyone watching."
The trouble is, sportsmanship can't be legislated. The NFL is trying hard to contain something, yet it's the very thing on which the league sells itself, as Owens points out.
If you really want a sterling sportsman, one person to look to is Don McPherson, the former quarterback who is executive director of the Institute of Sports Leadership at Adelphi University. McPherson says, "It's unrealistic to hold Terrell Owens to account for a culture that we are not taking personal responsibility for. We expect kids to ignore the culture from which they come, and make better decisions in spite of it? On everything from alcohol to sportsmanship?"
Owens is an act. When he does The Bird or when he exposes Lewis's idiotic dancing after every two-yard tackle and points out the NFL's inconsistencies, he's a smart comedian. But when he degrades Jeff Garcia and homosexuals and suggests Lewis should be in an orange jumpsuit, he's just a dumb one.
"Personally, as a quarterback, I think the guy farthest from the ball should keep his mouth shut," McPherson says. "That's my personal view."
So if you want your kids to draw lessons in sportsmanship, don't look to Owens. Look lower. Look at Little League fields and AAU teams, where too many parents and kids have forgotten the real purpose of competition. If adults want to promote sportsmanship, they should start by remembering what games are for.
"It's not a matter of what I'd like to see Terrell Owens do, it's a matter of what I'd like to see the public do," McPherson says. "If you're upset by him, then turn it off. The public should start with itself, by being really honest about what we're being fed."
Why do we hold Owens to account for what we ourselves don't practice? Answer: because hypocrisy is easier than actual reform.