Back when I actually worked for a living, I primarily handled cases arising from the firing of employees. Those lawsuits typically turn on the question of whether the reason given for the decision is the real reason, or whether it’s a pretext for one or more factors protected by the law.
They’re hard cases to prove, requiring lawyers to pierce behind excuses like “Joe was late for work too many times” in search of evidence of other employees who were late as often or more, without getting a pink slip.
As it relates to the Hall of Fame candidacy of Terrell Owens, his well-covered difficulties with teammates and coaches potentially provide a plausible basis for those voters who may be inclined to keep Owens out simply because they don’t like T.O. The question is whether it’s a pretext for voters who simply don’t like Owens because of who he is or how he treated them personally or collectively.
“They feel his disruptive behavior over the course of his career is sufficient grounds for keeping him out of Canton,” Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News writes regarding the voters’ views on Owens. And while Domowitch supports Owens’ case for Canton, “[T]he locker room is an extension of the field, and therefore, voters are allowed to consider Owens’ disruptive behavior.”
Here’s the problem with allowing the line to be drawn somewhere beyond the actual field of play. We’ll never know how many other players have engaged in “disruptive behavior” but nevertheless got in to the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter was “disruptive” at times (in fairness, not like Owens), but the voters never really made that case publicly when keeping Carter waiting over and over again. The thinking was that the voters simply didn’t like Carter; with statistics not so strong that entry was obvious, the voters didn’t feel compelled to cobble together a case against Carter beyond the gridiron.
“For the past two years, Owens has been buried in the room, portrayed as a divisive figure who cares only about himself,” writes Ira Kaufman of JoeBucsFan.com. “These views aren’t fake news — they are comments shared by former coaches and former teammates who couldn’t wait to get rid of a supremely talented player.”
Who are the former coaches and teammates who believe Owens was divisive and selfish? Donovan McNabb says Owens should get in (then again, McNabb thinks McNabb should get in). Brian Dawkins supports Owens’ enshrinement. Where are the former teammates who think he shouldn’t be enshrined?
Those who want to ignore T.O.’s statistical achievements should get every coach and quarterback and other key teammate on the record, if the narrative will continue to be that coaches and teammates thought he was too disruptive or too selfish or so much of an overall turd that it undermines his on-field performance. Along the way, those who want to keep Owens out also should take a closer look at the number of divisive and selfish players who made it to Canton during an era when the tendency to disrupt or be selfish wasn’t widely known.
Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, for example, potentially could have been known as a very disruptive and selfish player in the age of social media and Twitter. As one media source told PFT several years ago, the 49ers’ P.R. staff during Rice’s career knew when Rice potentially would be inclined to say or do something controversial (typically after not getting the ball as much as he wanted it). They’d whisk Rice out of the locker room before it could happen. In today’s NFL, it’s a lot harder to hide those tendencies.
Owens played most of his career during an age when we know much more about players than we ever did. The increasingly-competitive media environment has compelled reporters to seek out scraps of scoop that could be used to advance a storyline, such as (for example) the idea that Owens deliberately created a rift in the Dallas locker room. To the extent that those kinds of things happened in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, how would anyone have known?
Speaking of the 1990s, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin stabbed a teammate in the neck with scissors.
In contrast, Owens never got in any trouble. Yes, he had verbal and possibly physical altercations with teammates. But none were attacked by T.O. with scissors or any other weapons. Since Irvin has a bronze bust, the absence of violent assaults by Owens should count for something.
Arguably, the worst thing Owens ever did was to want to be compensated for a level of performance in 2004 that nearly carried the Eagles to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. The Eagles flatly refused to modify his contract after an MVP-caliber performance in Super Bowl XXXIX six weeks after breaking his ankle. Owens decided that, if the Eagles weren’t going to pay him, he’d try to go to a team that would.
Stubbornness on both sides created a huge mess and non-stop media frenzy for the 2005 Eagles, but at least it shows that there was a method to the apparent madness of T.O. Yes, he could have handled it better, but the way in which he chose to exercise business leverage over the Eagles should not disqualify him from Canton.
If this process is going to continue with voters hiding behind the reputation of Terrell Owens without considering whether and to what extent others already in Canton have done similar things (or worse), it’s important for the voters who oppose T.O. to have something more tangible and more persuasive and more categorical than the “T.O. was a bad teammate mantra.” Surely, plenty of Hall of Famers were bad teammates. For Owens, whose statistically is the second or third greatest receiver of all time, there needs to be proof that he was a dramatically worse teammate than other bad teammates who already been given permanent residence on the team of pro football immortality.
Meanwhile, the fans and those in the media who believe T.O. should have a spot in Canton should demand that folks who ostensibly spend their professional lives getting to the truth will get to the truth about whether and to what extent Owens was so bad away from the football field to justify disregarding how good he was on it. Anyone who is willing to vote “no” on Owens without doing that work perhaps shouldn’t be in a position to vote on Owens or anyone else.