With worship of T.O., ESPN creates a monster of mythic proportions

November 08, 2005|By RICK MAESE

In high school classes someday, the unit on Greek mythology will be replaced by one on NFL folklore.

The teacher will talk about Terrell Owens, a modern-day Narcissus in shoulder pads. The kids will hear about how Owens played football and amazed everyone. It truly was a thing of beauty.

But Owens knew how great he was, and he enjoyed the beauty more than others. In the end, Owens stared at his image on the television for too long. He got sucked in like some low-budget sci-fi movie, one of those that only airs in the middle of the night.

Today, everyone is looking for someone to blame. Owens' downfall was a tag-team effort. He played a key role, but we'll give an assist to ESPN. It made him, and it killed him.

ESPN's mission has warped over the past decade. It doesn't deliver just news, stats and scores. It interprets sports and passes them down in whatever packaging the network feels is the most gripping.

What that means is that ESPN has put itself in the business of creating characters, building our sports heroes into athletic demigods. Owens was no longer simply catching, spinning and running. Suddenly, he was scoring touchdowns, revolutionizing football, saving seals and ending poverty.

ESPN created a larger-than-life character and hit us over the head every night with Owens updates. As any good soap-opera writer will tell you, even the most intriguing character is infinitely more compelling in death.

If you went camping this weekend or something, here's the chronology as I remember it: Last week, Owens talked with an ESPN.com reporter, sharing inflammatory remarks about his team and teammates. Owens was suspended indefinitely, and, on Sunday's pre-game show, ESPN aired what seemed like a miniseries on Owens-related drama.

Later in the day, an ESPN reporter confirmed that Owens was involved in a brawl a few days before. The drama was intense, the plot thicker than drying cement. It all led up to Sunday night's big Eagles-Redskins game, naturally televised on ESPN.

Owens is perfect made-for-TV programming. Yesterday's announcement that he has been suspended for the rest of the season provided endless fodder for the talking heads who fill the docket at ESPN and all of its sister, brother and second-cousin stations.

In Bristol, Conn., yesterday was a stop-the-presses kind of day. With everyone pulling a muscle to contribute his two cents, you expected the Connecticut governor to declare a statewide hairspray shortage and emergency masseuse troops to be brought in to rub aching jaws.

Yesterday afternoon, one of the ESPN smiling anchors interviewed former Eagles receiver Freddie Mitchell, who accused the network of over-hyping Owens' comments, cutting and splicing them so only the most sensational mattered.

"It's sad how the media makes him a bad person and he really isn't," Mitchell said.

There's something about Owens. Whether you want to believe he's good or bad, you're at least paying attention. There's a reason ESPN -- and every other media outlet, for that matter -- spends so much time discussing Owens.

The ousted wide receiver has some special quality that grabs our eyes and doesn't let go. He's like that high school crush who just consumed your thoughts.

Owens is one of the most polarizing personalities in sports, prompting reaction from even the most casual fans. He's the most selfish personality in sports, a corner of society that has no shortage of dominant egos.

Reporters have used that against him, baiting him with questions that even Owens knows he should resist. It has made his self-destruction captivating, albeit senseless.

And while we love him because he might say something ridiculously headline-worthy at any moment, intelligent fans loathe the guy because he's not nearly as important as reporters, editors and television producers have led you to believe.

He's a football player -- probably the best wide receiver in the game. His relevance should never have transcended his position and his team and his community. The past 1 1/2 years, though, Owens wakes up on a certain side of the bed and we're supposed to worry about how it'll affect the Eagles' playoff hopes, the chance of a late-afternoon shower in Philadelphia and the chunkiness of Mrs. McNabb's soup.

I liked Owens in San Francisco. He was funny and worth five seconds of footage on a Sunday night. Five seconds was enough. The on-field highlights were all anyone ever wanted.

When he moved east, though, media latched on.

Owens has always thought he was the most important person in the room. That didn't mean much until ESPN started buying into the idea.

It's too bad. His accomplishments have been stained and his legacy will be covered by a dark cloud. At the least, it'll make for a riveting piece on ESPN Classic in a few years.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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