Thursday, November 10, 2005

We Are T.O.

Praise Zeus for the American sports machine. Without it, millions of frustrated fans would have to deal with the bone-crushing reality of our present state, and that, I fear, would send more than a few face-painted loons into varied states of madness, depression, and sociopathic rage. Thankfully, there are enough athletic distractions to keep fans semi-pacified and well away from any serious self-reflection, save for one last check in the mirror to make sure their team's colors are adequately displayed.

As many of you know, I love sports but can't stand most fans. The tribal idiocy and general mindlessness found in stands and at tailgaters are a direct assault on my central nervous system, and this past week has been especially grating, what with all the self-righteous wailing about Terrell Owens' selfish and clueless behavior. If you're not aware of the current Owens saga, consider yourself clean and be happy about the fact. In short, the Philadelphia Eagles have essentially fired Owens for his ongoing disruptive comments to the media and divisive attitude in the locker room and on the sidelines. Given that T.O. is perhaps the most gifted and talented wide receiver in the NFL, his dismissal from the Eagles is big news in sportsland, since a player of his caliber makes any offense instantly better. For the Eagles to fire Owens at this point in the season means that he must have been far worse than is being reported. Talent like his isn't seen every day.

Now, it's true that Owens is full of himself, and he likes to preen and pose and loudly call attention to his marquee persona. T.O.'s not only theatrical, he's the entire theater -- seats, stage, curtain, the lot. He'll never be confused for Jim Brown. Until recently, most fans and many sportswriters and sports radio hosts didn't care all that much. Indeed, a good number of them were amused by Owens' antics (I recall a Peter Richmond piece in GQ that defended the T.O. Show for injecting life into the NFL). And of course Eagles fans loved the guy, when he was helping their team reach the Super Bowl, that is. Sports fans will tolerate all manner of gaudy behavior so long as the wins pile up. But T.O. apparently took his act too far; and with the Eagles playing .500 ball, his former fans are no longer amused. In fact, they're out to destroy him.

I haven't seen so much venom being spat at a sports superstar since the O.J. Simpson trial, which is really something when you consider that Owens isn't charged with double homicide -- he's being punished for putting himself ahead of his team and undermining his coach, Andy Reid, and his QB, Donovan McNabb. As his agent and aggressive mouthpiece Drew Rosenhaus reminded the media this week, T.O. has never been arrested for beating women, doing drugs, driving recklessly or being a social menace of any kind. Indeed, his neighbors say that off-field, Owens is quiet and polite. So, what we're talking about here is a mega-celeb jock who overplayed his hand once too often and is now paying the professional price. So why all the nastiness and hatred thrown his way? T.O.'s being hit in the wallet and barred from playing for the Eagles -- what more do fans want?

Considering how many of Owens' present detractors are white men, it's tempting to see race as an issue: the millionaire uppity Negro is finally getting his. I've watched enough games in the presence of drunken white boys to know that racial animosity exists, even if a black athlete is helping their team to win. There's something about rich black jocks that pisses off average white Joes, and it isn't simply the money. I've never heard white boys go off on rich white jocks in the same way. And if a rich black jock behaves as T.O. has of late, well, you don't have to be a sociologist to understand where much of the resentment comes from.

But again, as I said, Owens had a lot of white fans who loved his act, and in many cases, either imitated him or went far beyond what he could ever get away with. And this is where fan hypocrisy really shows, for if you've ever attended a football game, pro or college, you are surrounded by thousands of people who openly grunt, scream, chant, dance, strut, pump their fists and trash talk the competition which, in some cases, results in physical violence. So when I hear angry fans phone in to sports radio shows and dump all their bile on Owens, I wonder how many of them engage in much worse public behavior. And for Eagles fans to excessively complain about T.O. is truly rich, given that they are perhaps the craziest and most violent of all fans in the NFL (at one point it got so bad in Philly that a mini-court was set up in the basement of the Eagles' stadium where drunken, abusive fans were taken and tried by a judge). But then, rationality has little to do with the American sports experience. It's an area of modern life where people, mostly white men, feel free to act in a loutish, anti-social way. A lot of this stems from the base human desire for tribal identity, but in our corporatized state, such desire is crammed into a market niche where it is catered to and encouraged. Those people you see yelling into TV cameras on the weekends are acting exactly as they are told. It's as slavish a display one can currently find.

While it's sad to see Terrell Owens squander his immense talent appealing to this demographic, it's even worse seeing those who make up this demographic acting as if they are somehow superior to Owens. It's a conceit devoid of substance and any semblance of self-awareness, which makes those who market sports very rich and very happy.