SALT LAKE CITY — Before the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony — and the one-man controversy that surrounded it — is too far in the rearview mirror, let’s sum up what just happened, perhaps as a cautionary tale for other athletes who tend to act out now and wonder later why no one loves them.
Terrell Owens was denied entry into the Hall of Fame in both 2016 and 2017 because voters believed he was — to be succinct — a divisive, royal pain in the arse for teammates and coaches. Then when he was finally voted into the Hall this year, what did he do? He proved their point. He divided the HOF induction ceremony just as he divided the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys.
Owens, as you probably know, announced that he would not attend the HOF induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, because he was snubbed the first two times. In other words, the 44-year-old Owens was still the petulant, attention-grabbing, disruptive man-child we saw during his playing days.
The HOF officials, taken aback by this unprecedented move, responded the way his coaches once did; they cut him from the program and announced he would not be mentioned during the induction ceremony. Owens held his own private induction ceremony at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"Don't be afraid to be you," Owens told his audience. "I celebrate and empower you today."
Uh, gee, thanks, but that didn't work out too well for Owens. He certainly has never been afraid to be himself, unfortunately. The only time coaches were happier than the day they signed Owens was the day they got rid of him.
For three years, Owens’ case has dredged up the old debate about the Hall of Fame: Does behavior matter, or is it based strictly on what happens on the field?
Based on Owens' statistics, there was no doubt that he was HOF material. He ranks second in all-time receiving yards, sixth in receptions, third in touchdown receptions. In 15 seasons, he had 1,078 receptions, 15,934 yards and 153 touchdowns.
But if all that mattered were those numbers, why did he play for five NFL teams in 15 seasons, four in the last six years (not counting the Allen Wranglers and Seattle Seahawks, who cut him before he played a down)? It’s a measure of Owens’ divisiveness that coaches, who are famously tolerant of bad behavior where talented players are concerned, were willing to dump him. You can't separate behavior in the locker room or on the sideline or even in their free time from what happens on the field. That’s why coaches fine athletes for “conduct detrimental to the team” for behavior off the field.
After Owens was denied the HOF the first time in 2016, HOF voter Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, said, "The bottom line on T.O. is he was so disruptive … .” Addressing the argument that consideration should be given only to what happens on the field, he said, “… the locker room is an extension of that … he tore teams apart."
Owens is remembered as much, if not more, for his bad behavior as he is for his play, which is saying something. It is revealing that during his peak years he was let go by the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys. In 2012, Bleacher Report listed what it considered to be the top 10 team cancers in NFL history. Owens was No. 1.
He butted heads with 49ers coach Steve Mariucci and was suspended. Eagles coach Andy Reid kicked him out of training camp, and then, seven games into the season, suspended Owens for four games, deactivated him for the final five games and then released him (the Eagles, who played in the Super Bowl the previous season, finished in last place).
Things were so toxic with the Cowboys that head coach Bill Parcells reportedly never said Owens’ name in public, referring to him instead as, “the player.” According to owner Jerry Jones, Parcells and Owens never spoke to one another. Parcells’ replacement, Jason Garrett, reportedly told Jones he didn’t want Owens on his team.
At every stop, Owens publicly criticized his quarterbacks — Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb. He argued with coaches on the sideline. He spit in the face of a defensive back. He got in a locker room fistfight.
Does any of this sound like a Hall of Famer?
HOF voter Vic Carucci told the Chicago Tribune: “… Owens' inability to stick with the Niners, Eagles and Cowboys is significant because it goes to the heart of the problem that numerous people with whom I have spoken about him have: He was a horrible teammate. He was a divisive force that the people who ran those teams had no problem cutting loose.”Comment on this story
Bill Polian, a Hall of Fame general manager, said last year, “I think the hall of fames are for people who make their teams better, not who detract from them. What did Owens do that made his teams better? He put up a lot of numbers. Bill (Parcells) said that he was a disruptive force. Jerry (Jones), who’s probably one of the most easy-going people when it comes to disruptive guys, got rid of him. I’ve gotten texts from people in Philadelphia responding to the campaign saying, ‘This guy was a cancer and destroyed our football team.’ How does that square with the Hall of Fame.”
The wonder isn’t that Owens was denied entrance into the Hall of Fame two times; the wonder is that he got in at all.