Eagles' Terrell Owens, NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In Philadelphia today, the case that has dominated sports news these past weeks went before an arbitrator. Wide receiver Terrell Owens is challenging a decision by the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League to bench him for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team. Joining us, as he does most Fridays, is Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: In a world where performance very often trumps behavior, the Terrell Owens saga seems to be a rare case of a team saying, `Enough is enough.' Philadelphia actually suspended Owens for four games and then said it would deactivate him for the rest of the season, five more games.
Mr. FATSIS: And the last five games with pay. But Owens dissed this court about Donovan McNabb more than once. He wanted his year-old contract renegotiated. He got into a fight with an ex-teammate in the locker room. But what he did in a lot of ways is irrelevant. What we should be looking at here is how the Eagles became confident enough to take the extraordinary step of effectively kicking a superstar off the team, no doubt to its own detriment on the field.
SIEGEL: Now in disciplining Terrell Owens, the Eagles were not just taking on a star player but they were taking on a star player's agent, they were taking on the players union and they were risking that the fans might resent it if the not-quite-so-super star who succeeded him dropped a, say, key touchdown pass.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, but Philadelphia fans don't really like prima donnas. Before the last game, fans tossed their TO jerseys into a coffin in the parking lot. And I think this all says something about what we're used to seeing in pro sports. We're used to seeing athletes get second and third chances with teams and with fans even after far more serious transgressions than Owens'.
I talked today to Peter Roby, who heads the Center for Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. He said that you have to look at the fact that organizations with reputations for not tolerating bad behavior have a better chance of pulling off this kind of discipline or avoiding these kinds of problems in the first place. The Eagles have been successful in recent years, which helps. Coach Andy Reid has been a no-nonsense guy on the field. This makes it easier to ditch a star.
SIEGEL: Do they stand, by the way, at--likely to be in the playoffs without Terrell Owens?
Mr. FATSIS: Who knows? I mean, they were having a tough time already, so getting rid of him in mid-season when you have a 500 record maybe isn't as risky as doing it if they were undefeated.
SIEGEL: Now you could say that the Eagles deserve whatever has happened to them with Terrell Owens because they signed him and they knew what kind of baggage he brought along with him.
Mr. FATSIS: Right. This is the cost benefit analysis that comes with signing athletes who have bad reps. How willing are you, as a team, to put up with a renegade or a divisive personality? In baseball, we think of the San Francisco Giants. They've tolerated Barry Bonds for years--steroids investigations, surliness with the media, special treatment in the locker room--but the Giants haven't won a championship. Franchises that have cultivated team-first style seem to be doing better these days. You look at the current champs.
SIEGEL: Patriots in the National Football League.
Mr. FATSIS: Basketball, the San Antonio Spurs; the Chicago White Sox in baseball--these are all team-first franchises.
SIEGEL: Now another sports star will not be competing on Sunday, that is race car driver Kurt Busch, kicked off the Roush Racing team after a run-in with police before a race last weekend in Phoenix for, of all things, a traffic stop.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, apparently, he argued with cops and was cited for reckless driving. Like Owens, Busch is an athlete who came with baggage. He had cursed and fought on the track during and after races. The difference here is that NASCAR athletes are independent contractors. Busch doesn't have a union backing him up the way Terrell Owens does. Still, as in a conventional team sport, there's a performance risk in getting rid of a star in auto racing. Busch was in ninth place in NASCAR standings this season; more than $6 million in winnings.
SIEGEL: You know, going back to Terrell Owens, the story of him being deactivated by the Eagles reminds me of, I guess, two baseball seasons ago, the--then I think they were still the Anaheim Angels, benched Jose Guillen, an outfielder playing very well, for dissing the manager, in the pennant stretch run, at a critical moment. This seemed to be some conscious decision to say, `We are going to bench a bad actor even if he's a star, in part, to motivate the other guys on the team.'
Mr. FATSIS: And I think that if teams have the power--if the manager feels like he can do it, if the owner feels they can get away with it, they're going to do that. We saw Keyshawn Johnson of the Tampa Bay Bucs a couple of years ago get deactivated for six games. We saw Randy Moss traded by the Minnesota Vikings after the last season. Maybe teams are finally saying, `It's just not worth it.'
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.