I promised a couple of weeks ago that I wouldn’t write about the coverage of T.O. It’s so overblown, such a colossal waste of time even by the standards of sports coverage and so fundamentally uninteresting, that I just haven’t had the stomach for it.
That is, until T.O. got his pumped.
The initial police report, which stated that T.O. had attempted to commit suicide, appears to be untrue, especially given Owens’ quick release from the hospital yesterday. So, what began as a potentially sad and serious day in T.O.’s life turned into one more odd media spectacle. But, as is often the case, the reactions to the unfolding events tell us a lot about our sports media culture.
Yesterday afternoon and evening, when speculation a suicide attempt was still swirling, Bob Ryan told Michael Wilbon on PTI that there was no way that the Cowboys’ star receiver had tried to off himself. Why? Because “Owens loves himself too much – here’s a guy who’s always walking around in tights and showing off his body and calling attention to himself…there’s no way he tried to kill himself.”
On Fox Sports Radio last night, Andrew Siciliano made the same assertion: that Owens had way too big an ego to attempt such a thing.
Sports commentators live in a sheltered world much like the athletes they cover, and this is more true the more prominent the commentator’s platform. Their own privileged lifestyles and insularity from the mundane complexities of day-to-day life makes their focus on the image-driven culture of sports more than mere reporting. It’s a mirror of their own tastes and preferences: a way for the sports commentariat to differentiate themselves from the lavish lifestyles of the athletes, while immersing themselves in the trappings of a world that most of them are obviously drawn to. This ambivalent intimacy with the world of the rich and famous makes it difficult for most commentators to step back from that world with any perspective. That Ryan and Siciliano, both grown men, could confuse the public image of Owens and all his bling with whatever internal experience he lives with, speaks to their blind spots. That a man might preen about and self-promote at every opportunity, while being, deep down, depressed, even suicidal would be almost banal as an insight to ordinary adults. But, in the sports world, commentary has great difficulty distinguishing between artifice and reality. The commentariat, for all its privilege, also can’t get over its own resentment at being second class citizens in this fantasy world. The result: two-dimensional heroes and, in the case of guys like T.O. – two-dimensional villains.
And, it’s not like one even needs to look beyond the sports world for a more compelling point of reference: does the image of Dennis Rodman sitting in a truck with a loaded shotgun mean anything to anyone?
As of this morning, as the furor began to die down, and the post-mortems began to roll in, Chris Mortenson told Mike and Mike that “ESPN was held hostage by T.O. yesterday.” Mortenson then belatedly added: “or we allowed ourselves to be held hostage by Owens.” In USA Today, the normally sharp Christine Brennan used the same phrase as Mortensen, without the qualifier. She wrote (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/columnist/brennan/2006-09-27-brennan-owens_x.htm):
“It's hard not to look at Wednesday's unrelenting media saga as just another publicity stunt in the life and times of our T.O. nation. It's mind-boggling, really, how this man and his story held the news media hostage for most of the work day.”
For Brennan, what happened yesterday is a symptom of a larger problem:
“Then again, our senses have become so dulled to stories such as this that its omnipresence really shouldn't be so surprising after all. The multimedia's oversaturated coverage of infamous people who offer our society few if any redeeming qualities has plagued us for as long as there have been too many television channels — from Tonya Harding to O.J. Simpson, from Scott Peterson to Paris Hilton to, now, T.O.”
This is an odd grouping – an unwitting example of the media’s inability to distinguish serious acts from harmless spotlight-mongering. O.J. and Scott Peterson are murderers. Harding directed someone to knee-cap a competitor. As for Hilton and T.O. – shouldn’t the phrase “no-harm, no-foul” mean something here? Brennan’s a serious writer who often writes about serious things. But, the sort of contrived irritation on display in her column today is a stock in trade of sportsmedia coverage. The notion that T.O. held anyone hostage is, of course, ludicrous. Sports media, like the media more generally, have become so rudderless in their ability to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, and are so driven by a herd mentality that substitutes camera-count for serious judgments about what matters, that it’s no wonder that they can’t figure out any longer that the reason T.O. gets so much attention is that the media, incapable of imagining that they have anything better to do with their time, give it to him.
What are the crimes against humanity of which Owens stands accused? Brennan tells us:
“We need a timeout from T.O. This fellow is just too much. Over the past few years there has been the self-serving incident with the Sharpie in the end zone and the outrageous Desperate Housewives skit and the silly pose on the star at midfield in Texas Stadium. It seems as if Owens is either always injured or always fighting with one of his teammates. If it's not his hamstring, it's his hand, or a feud with the starting quarterback. There's always something going on with this guy.”
So, what’s the logic here? The media has turned a series of trivialities – the three S’s of sharpies, skits and silly poses – into the most inane running news item in the history of sports coverage. Therefore, a police report for which Owens almost assuredly bore no responsibility is turned into another example of why Owens is such an outrageous character.
The media’s two dimensional moral categories, and its endless resort to two-bit psychologizing have given us a discourse incapable of seeing beyond a person’s public image. Whether or not T.O. just got loopy because of a bad combination of pills, or something more serious was going on, remains to be sorted out. But, what is that the mainstream sports media has ingested to cause it to spit up such a childish view of human motivation and such a blinkered understanding of its own role in perpetuating its irrelevance as a tribune of the public good?