The Ecphorizer

Terrell Owens vs. The Media
Susan Holtzer

Issue 02 (December 2003)

Last Sunday [September 23, 2001'/>, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens had one of the worst games of his career, dropping four passes in the 49ers' narrow loss to the St. Louis Rams. Afterward, Owens sat in front of his locker in silence for more than an hour, refusing to speak to the media. The media, predictably, went ballistic.

Now that the dust has settled, however, let's roll tape and take a second look. Following is an attempt to deconstruct the following day's coverage:

Here's the terrible, immature thing that Terrell Owens did -- nothing.

That's right. He sat in front of his locker. He didn't speak. He didn't throw a tantrum. He didn't threaten to punch out anyone. He didn't blame anyone else. He did... nothing.

And oh, how the media hate that.

See, the worst crime an athlete can commit is to get in the way of a sportswriter and his God-given right to a good quote. From John Taylor to Barry Bonds, the media reserve their highest level of savagery for those players who don't provide them with instant access to the depths of their psyches -- on demand and before deadline.

You think "savagery" is too strong a word? Consider the following quotes:

From Skip Bayless in the San Jose Mercury: "Only one 49er failed to mature Sunday: Terrell Eldorado Owens. He butter-fingered that pass and a postgame opportunity to face his failure like the man he wants to be... "

From Lowell Cohn in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, in an unspeakable exploitation of national tragedy to score points: "Although Owens didn't speak, he was obviously making a statement. He was expressing sadness, maybe blaming himself. He wanted everyone to witness his statement and be impressed. He should have hidden his unhappiness in the privacy of the trainer's room. It's a crummy week for a guy to grieve publicly because he loused up a ballgame. People don't need to observe Owens' grief, not when there's real grief out there."

From Glenn Dickey in the San Francisco Chronicle: "POOR BABY: The 49ers have been waiting five years for Terrell Owens' maturity to equal his ability. They're still waiting. After his dropped passes led to a 49ers defeat on Sunday, Owens sat sulking on the stool in front of his locker, neither talking to the media nor interacting with his teammates. Coach Steve Mariucci tried to justify that yesterday, saying, 'Different players react differently.' Yeah, there's the right way and then there's the Owens way. " (Note the phrase "nor interacting with his teammates," clearly contradicted by several other reports.)

* * * * *

The question, I suppose, is this: Should athletes be expected to turn themselves inside out for the media, no matter how they feel? After all, we saw Steve Young stand up at the worst moment of his life -- after losing to Joe Montana's Kansas City Chiefs -- and field questions like a saint for nearly an hour. So now we know -- Terrell Owens is no Steve Young.

We've also known Jerry Rice to throw a raging tantrum and storm out of the clubhouse after a bad day. So which icon is your touchstone?

The media used words like "sullen." They used words like "pout." They used words like "sulk." But those are words descriptive of inner emotions, impossible to confirm. The truth is, the ONLY adjective one can legitimately ascribe to Owens Sunday afternoon is -- "silent."

And oh, how the media hate that.

But everyone processes despair differently, and silence isn't necessarily immaturity. Neither is spending the following hours in the film room, evaluating your own performance and taking notes. Neither is standing up and taking responsibility for your failure -- no, not even if it isn't until the next day.

* * * * *

And now we come to the famous (49er quarterback) Jeff Garcia Quote -- or, why quarterbacks should make all their statements in the press room with mikes and cameras rolling. The next time you question an athlete's claim that he's been misquoted, consider the following:

As reported by the Associated Press: "(Owens) puts so much pressure on himself to be the go-to guy," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "Right now, he feels a bit helpless because he probably feels that those opportunities didn't come his way."

As reported by Lowell Cohn: "He's a big-time player and he wants opportunities to make plays. He probably feels the opportunities didn't come his way today."

And finally, as reported by the egregious Skip Bayless: "'He puts so much pressure on himself to be the go-to guy. He feels a bit of helplessness. He feels the opportunities didn't come his way.'''

Now note that word "probably," which both the Associated Press and Lowell Cohn managed to get -- and Bayless didn't. By any sensible scan, that's Garcia blaming himself for not getting Owens the ball more often and more accurately -- projecting his own disappointment onto TO.

But Bayless drops that word, so he can write the following: "Worse, Garcia suggested Owens wasn't punishing himself over the four drops that contributed directly and intangibly to the 30-26 loss. No, Owens was pouting because Garcia hadn't thrown more in his direction."

Such a small word, such a big difference.

* * * * *

Not all the media were guilty, of course, for which we should give appropriate credit. Most of the beat writers, as opposed to the columnists, reported it straight. Not what they thought was going on in TO's head, but simply what they saw.

From Roger Phillips of the Oakland Tribune: "Through a team spokesman, Owens declined to speak with reporters. Teammates, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, stopped by in a fruitless attempt to console Owens. Team chaplain Earl Smith also stopped by, talking to Owens and fellow receiver J.J. Stokes, who dropped two passes... But no one seemed to be taking the loss harder than Owens..."

From Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle: "He just sat there with a face as hard as iron. A framed picture of his mother, Marilyn Owens, a rosary and CD player sat unused beneath his chair. Players circulated around him, media moved in front of his unmoving eyes and 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens never flinched. Owens silently took the yoke of the 49ers' narrow 30-26 defeat to the hated Rams yesterday at 3Com Park and firmly put it on his shoulders...When asked to speak, Owens deliberately shook his head, 'no.'"

Think it's impossible to take a sympathetic perspective? Here, finally, is Mike Triplett of the Sacramento Bee, one writer who bothered to look a little deeper than his own deadline: "Owens is a perfectionist and can often place unrealistic expectations on himself. But he didn't seem to ostracize teammates or coaches with his postgame theatrics. They know him. They know that he is a player who never hides his emotions, positive or negative." 

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Susan Holtzer




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