Of all the bittersweet tributes paid to George Best following the troubled football legend’s death last month, it was Sir Bobby Charlton, a former team-mate, who offered one of the more poignant and thought provoking observations. “We at Manchester United have learnt from our experience with Eric Cantona – we had to treat him differently, make allowances,” Sir Bobby said. “If, instead of being hostile to George, which I was, we had leaned a bit his way and tried to help him, who knows?”
It is a comment that would surely inspire reflection among fans of the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles, who have seen the team cut loose its own troubled superstar, wide receiver Terrell Owens. The Eagles initiated the break-up five weeks ago after Owens publicly disparaged quarterback Donovan McNabb and complained about the team’s failure to commemorate his 100th career touchdown reception. Although the outburst was nothing out of the ordinary for the gifted but querulous Owens, it was one tirade too many for the Eagles, who banished him for the remainder of the season and are expected to trade or release him over the winter.
Initially, at least, an overwhelming majority of Philadelphia fans seemed to agree that Owens was a malignant influence and needed to be let go. However, the Eagles have lost four of five games without Owens and, at 5-7 on the year, are all but out of play-off contention – and, unsurprisingly, some previously unforgiving fans are having misgivings. Meanwhile, several prominent national figures, including Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader, have sprung to Owens’ defence, claiming the punishment is too draconian.
The saga has reinvigorated a long-running debate about the prerogatives of stardom. How much disruptive behaviour should a club be willing to tolerate in order to keep its most talented players happy and productive?
It is a question that United faced with Best and Cantona. They have experienced an acute sense of déjà vu in recent years on account of Roy Keane (recently released by the club) and now the fiery Wayne Rooney is showing potential in this respect. On the other side of the Atlantic, problem players abound – pick a sport and a team, and chances are the roster will include at least one human tinderbox. The NFL’s Oakland Raiders are a team whose history has largely been written by malcontents and rogues – the latest being the gifted Randy Moss, acquired during the off-season from the Minnesota Vikings, who had grown tired of the wide receiver’s showboating and surliness.
The city of Philadelphia has some experience in these matters, too. Allen Iverson, the star of the local National Basketball Association franchise, the 76ers, was a toxic presence during his first years with the team. He was a frequent no-show at practice and was arrested once on gun and drug charges, another time for gun possession and criminal trespass (this after breaking into a cousin’s apartment in search of his wife, whom he had evicted from the couple’s house – naked). The team’s then coach Larry Brown, one of the most successful and respected managers in basketball history, found Iverson beyond even his formidable abilities and the 76ers finally tried to unload him in 2000. No deal was struck but the near-trade brought about a Damascene conversion in Iverson. Virtually overnight, he became a paragon of agreeability – to the point that now, aged 30, he is considered as one of the NBA’s wise men.
It was perhaps with this happy ending in mind that the Eagles took a chance on Owens two years ago, after the San Francisco 49ers had decided the blessing was no longer worth the burden. Although Owens played well in San Francisco, he also embarrassed the team and the league on multiple occasions. In a game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, Owens pulled a marker out of his sock after catching a touchdown, signed the ball, and tossed it into the stands. Two years earlier, in a game against the Dallas Cowboys, he twice scored touchdowns and both times ran with the ball to midfield and spiked it into the Cowboys’ logo. The second time, Dallas defender George Teague gave pursuit and spiked Owens into the logo.
Owens kept the controversies to a minimum during his debut season with Philadelphia and rewarded the Eagles by helping the team to its first Super Bowl appearance in more than 20 years. Although the Eagles narrowly lost the title game to the New England Patriots, Owens played sensationally, pulling in nine catches for 122 yards – a performance all the more impressive because it came just weeks after he had suffered a leg fracture and had been advised by his doctor not to play.
During the off-season, however, the Owens of old returned. He demanded the team renegotiate his seven-year, $49m contract and threatened to make a nuisance of himself if the Eagles did not comply. When the club refused, the histrionics began. Owens was such a petulant presence at training camp in August that he was sent home for a week. The mouth kept roaring up until November 3, when he gave the interview to espn.com that brought his season to a premature end.
In permanently sidelining Owens, the Eagles probably expected some grumbling from fans; they surely did not figure on Owens becoming a cause célèbre. But just days after the punishment was announced, consumer advocate Ralph Nader accused the Eagles of violating Owens’ right to free speech. Jesse Jackson chimed in, calling the suspension “much too severe”. Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, joined the choir by threatening to hold hearings into whether the Eagles had violated antitrust laws in preventing Owens from playing for the rest of the season. Having seemingly struck
a blow for such bedrock principles as teamwork, personal responsibility and mutual respect, the Eagles were doubtless bewildered to find themselves
However, Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado sociologist and an expert on the role of sport in American society, says the Owens case is not as clear-cut as it might seem. He concedes Owens crossed the line in publicly denigrating a team-mate and castigating the club. But he does not think the Eagles are entirely blameless. Given Owens’ ego and love of the spotlight, Philadelphia management had to know that he was going to expect some acknowledgement of his 100th touchdown catch, and Coakley believes the Eagles erred badly in not anticipating that the milestone would be an issue and making plans to mark it.
In terms of the larger issue – how teams can manage difficult stars – Coakley says there is no simple answer. The most successful athletes are often also the most intense ones and their emotional energy can occasionally be misdirected and result in behaviour detrimental to themselves and their teams. No club can permit egregious conduct to go unpunished but Coakley suggests the most effective punishment is the negative publicity such conduct generates. If there is one thing that most star athletes fear, it is alienating fans and losing endorsements, and a few unflattering headlines may be what it takes to get a disruptive player to fall into line. As Coakley puts it: “Public shaming is still the most powerful sanction in society.”