They are called “diva receivers” for a reason. We tend to find out why when NFL pass catchers open their mouths.
Cases in point most recently would be two of football’s biggest stars, Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. What they’ve spouted, no matter how it gets spun and by whom, can’t be anything but detrimental to the team.
The history of wideouts with wide mouths — or free rein on social media nowadays — includes, naturally, the likes of Terrell Owens, Plaxico Burress, Keyshawn Johnson and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco. To call their utterings constructive criticism would be like calling Lambeau Field balmy in December.
And they hardly are the only guys who have damaged the locker room vibes with their, well, bad vibes. Do you think cornerback Jalen Ramsey deriding opposing players made for comfortable feelings in Jacksonville? Guard Richie Incognito bullying a teammate in Miami? Jay Cutler calling out his own guys just about everywhere, including on the sideline?
Hey, cornerback Josh Norman and Beckham pretty much came to blows in a 2015 game after their trash-talking shenanigans.
Sure, lots if not most NFL players like to run their tongues during games. Philip Rivers might not be the greatest Chargers quarterback ever — remember Hall of Famer Dan Fouts? — but he’s unquestionably the franchise’s great trash-spewing QB. Steve Smith, one of the most combative receivers the NFL has seen, definitely didn’t believe in the bromide “if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.”
And Ray Lewis not only was an all-world tackler and leader for the Ravens, his stream of words directed at opponents was steady — and often comical, if unprintable.
But in the particular cases of Brown and Beckham, there can be considerable negative fallout for their clubs. So much so that the tension and mistrust they create can be as damaging as a fourth-quarter pick-6 by an opponent.
Brown might be the NFL’s most talented offensive player. He might also be the most thin-skinned.
Among other items this year, he tweeted that Pittsburgh should “trade me let’s find out” when it was suggested his success is due more to Ben Roethlisberger than to Brown’s skills. Brown also didn’t show up at team headquarters for a day last month, and famously once livestreamed a locker room celebration following a playoff victory over Kansas City.
He also used Twitter in September to threaten a reporter who covers the team, forcing the Steelers to issue an apology. Explaining away Brown’s behavior, words and social media posts has become nearly a regular chore in Pittsburgh.
All of this doesn’t mean Brown needs to be sat down by the Steelers, which isn’t likely to happen considering they are in the business of winning games and he is their best player. It does mean he should be sat down and told that his proclamations and actions are a distraction for a team that isn’t exactly tearing up the NFL, sitting tied with Cleveland and behind Cincinnati and Baltimore in the AFC North.
The Beckham blowups have been more inflammatory and, without question, potentially more harmful. When you question your teammates’ heart while carefully removing yourself from such a claim, irreparable damage often results.
“A lot of it has to do with the energy we have that we don’t bring every single day,” he said last week. “You know me, I’m a passionate, energetic person. I always have to have that. If I don’t, it’s going to be a problem for me. Playing with some heart, we need to play with some heart.”
Beckham also blasted the play-calling of first-year coach Pat Shurmur, mainly because, in Beckham’s view, he wasn’t getting the ball enough, particularly deep. Never mind that the offensive line has been such a sieve that asking Eli Manning to throw balls anywhere downfield has often been problematic.
Recognizing how counter-productive his comments were — or being instructed by a livid coach or, perhaps, someone higher up in the Giants’ command chain — Beckham went into crisis control last Sunday. He asked to speak to the team in the locker room, and then he ran something of a fly pattern away from his earlier statements.
This season is hardly the first time Brown or Beckham have acted up or acted out. It probably won’t be the last. But maybe the concept of “team first” will sink in before what they do or say sinks their teams.
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This story appears in the Dec. 3, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Terrell Owens wants to get away. He dreams about that sometimes, how freeing it might be to just . . . escape. Pack up, move to Australia, find a remote island, grow a long beard. “Like, to hell with everybody,” he says, laughing. “Start fresh.”
What’s stopping him? In a sense, the same things that have kept him daydreaming about disappearing. His “unfairly” sullied reputation. His beefs with writers and TV analysts and the organizers at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even if he passed on his ceremony in Canton, Ohio, in August, preferring to fete himself at his alma mater, Tennessee at Chattanooga. Owens, at 44, must stay and fight and continue to address these things. He can’t leave, he insists, or “they” win. He can’t move on, or “they” win. In the case of T.O. vs. the Perception of T.O., he’s the last prosecutor left.
It all matters to him, the jokes and memes and character assassinations that others, he says, are spared: “Look at our President. He can go and say and do whatever he wants, and the majority of people like what he’s doing. They think that’s O.K. Those same people, they can like him and hate me? How?!”
Owens spits the question out as he steers a pickup truck through the Hollywood Hills on a jam-packed Monday in August. This afternoon he will run sand dunes, chug protein shakes, shop for workout gear, get treated by a chiropractor and squeeze in some pickup basketball in front of a royal audience. He’ll also try once more to explain how he ended up here, retired, ostensibly happy, at last a Hall of Famer—and yet, more than ever, intent on arguing for his reputation.
“Christmas with the Chipmunks” plays on the stereo as Owens navigates traffic as fluidly as he did secondaries. His skills, his numbers—second all-time in receiving yards (15,934), third in touchdowns (153)—require no defense. Yet T.O. feels the need to do battle. “What makes me angry?” he asks. “Why would you think I’m angry?” Well. . . . T.O. cuts off a reply. “As it pertains to me, that perception is not my reality,” he says. But. . . . “The perception is that I’m selfish, self-centered, egotistical, cocky, arrogant. That I’m the worst teammate in history.”
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Owens has a few ideas about what might have created these perceptions, and he rattles them off from a notes file in his brain: 1) his division of locker rooms from San Francisco to Philadelphia during a five-team, 15-season odyssey of an NFL career; 2) his outspoken nature outside of those locker rooms; 3) his “harmless” touchdown celebrations; 4) even his playing on a broken right leg and torn ankle ligament in Super Bowl XXXIX, where he caught, incredibly, nine passes for 122 yards in the Eagles’ loss to the Patriots. Huh? Owens says his heroics in that game were framed as selfish, though a fact check suggests he contrived that framing himself. He looks at a performance for which he earned universal praise and still, somehow, perceives that he was slighted.
What matters, Owens says repeatedly, is how his story is presented. And he cites a fresh example to make his point. He wore his gold Hall of Fame blazer to church one day this summer. It was a favor to his pastor. But seemingly anyone who didn’t know that detail looked at this wardrobe choice and saw T.O.’s usual self-aggrandizement.
“I don’t get it,” he says. Owens has never been arrested, never jailed, never charged with a DUI. And he’s the one who voters kept out of their precious Hall for two years? Owens is faulted, he says, for his competitive nature, his individuality, his passion, his honesty. Those same Hall voters, Owens says, “let guys in with basically blood on their hands.” (He doesn’t go there, but consider: Ray Lewis, for one, was a fellow 2018 inductee, in his first year of eligibility.)
Owens’s reputation, he says, has slowed his postfootball progress, costing him jobs, sponsorships, another shot at the NFL . . . even dates. “Like a smear campaign,” he says. He points to a T-shirt deal he says he once had in place with Costco—a deal that was killed after those execs found out that this Terrell Owens was actually the Terrell Owens. “We don’t want anything to do with him,” he says his reps were told. (Costco declined to comment.) Same thing happened when Owens met a woman at a nail salon recently. They exchanged numbers and made plans for a date that Friday night. Later she texted Owens, bailing. She’d Googled him. “My friends,” she explained, “say you’re a bad person.”
All of which raises the question: Was anything Owens ever did really that bad? Well, no. Perhaps, though, he’s also missing the point, fighting this caricature with the same unfiltered angst that turned Terrell Owens into T.O. He admits he’s made mistakes, he’s human, he’s not perfect before adding “they” always say he’s crying victim.
Then he says, “I am a victim—to a certain extent.”
Terrell Owens sits on the concrete patio of a Los Angeles TV studio, having just scarfed a Chipotle chicken burrito. He’s trying to find the balance that has eluded him over the years in situations like this—the balance to stand up for himself without adding another controversy to his greatest-hits list, to attack his least-favorite perceptions without sounding bitter or delusional. It’s a reasonable goal, if not an attainable one.
He flashes back to the beginning. How his late grandmother Alice Black told him never to let things other people say “deter you from being who you are.” How he grew up in Alexander City, Ala., without any male guidance, learning at age 11 that his biological father actually lived across the street. How no one in his family ever said, “I love you.” And how all of those events hardened his exterior to mask the insecurities he buried deep and carried with him. Where did all those outbursts come from? Start there. He was, at heart, an outsider searching for acceptance. Still is.
He bloomed late, starring at UTC before the 49ers took him in the third round of the 1996 draft. His first few years were remarkably quiet; he sobbed after making a game-winning playoff catch against the Packers, but that was easy to get behind. Perceptions changed irrevocably, he says, in 2000. He can trace the shift to a single game, at Dallas, in September.
The 49ers were conducting their walk-through at Texas Stadium that Saturday when Owens found himself standing on the Cowboys’ famous midfield star. An idea occurred to him. And so when he scored the next afternoon he ran to the same spot, spread his arms and celebrated. He scored again and did the same thing, this time making it 41–17—a blowout, more offensive. Three Cowboys sprinted out to tackle him.
What happened next typifies Owens’s central issue—it’s the difference between how he viewed his own actions and how others saw them. He deemed the preening harmless. Anyone could have seen the controversy coming, but he was surprised. Even now, he can’t resist taking a shot at his coach back then, Steve Mariucci, who suspended him for a week. “He’s a phony,” Owens says, continuing a pattern of lashing out whenever he has felt betrayed. “The heartache he caused—I don’t have anything good to say about him.”
For Owens it’s pretty easy to explain away this incident, and all of those that followed. Oftentimes, it’s easy to see his side, too—to see the innocence in each misstep. He just doesn’t perceive the patterns, how each episode feeds off the previous. He knows that, no matter what he says, it will reverberate across social media. And yet, even though he wants to focus on how he has been wronged, and how much he has changed, he can’t help himself. He’s still the guy who lauds Jerry Rice on the TV studio patio and then wonders aloud how many touchdowns he might have scored himself if he’d been playing all those years with Joe Montana and Steve Young.
He answers questions for hours, seemingly without fear of consequence. If he were still playing, he would have knelt beside Colin Kaepernick, for starters. “I’m with Kap,” he says. “The President does a real good job of deflecting what the real issues are. You have owners stepping in, basically siding with the President. Some [players] feel betrayed.”
T.O. moves on to end zone celebrations and freedom of expression. The NFL of his days had yet to embrace his brand of individuality: grabbing pom-poms from a cheerleader or snagging a tub of popcorn from a fan. But he could never defend himself without the filter of those who covered him, the way that, say, Le’Veon Bell can in 2018, through social media. “I wish I played now,” he says. “I’d probably have a million followers. I’d be a trend-setter. One of those guys that fans really adored.”
Presentation. He hits that point again. For instance: On the call box at Owens’s condo in Beverly Hills he lists himself under HANDSOME. Is that really such a big deal? Was it really that big a deal when he conducted an interview while doing sit-ups in his driveway, in 2005? It is if you’re looking to demonstrate self-promotion. But Owens won’t meet his critics in the middle. He can’t ever cede that, in some instances, “they” might have a point.
Does he regret any of this? His feud with Eagles QB Donovan McNabb? The way he forced himself off a contending Philadelphia team? The sideline tantrums? The $150,000 in fines for excessive celebrations? How he insinuated (and later took back) that another former Niners teammate, quarterback Jeff Garcia, was gay? Owens doesn’t flinch. “I don’t regret anything,” he says. “As it relates to football: nothing. I don’t need to. I know who I am. I know who T.O. is.”
Does he regret anything in life? “Maybe my last girlfriend,” he says, smiling. “That didn’t work out.”