On Saturday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will reveal this year's class of inductees, and for the first time in the Hall's history, an honoree might react to the announcement by finding the nearest TV camera, dropping to the floor, proclaiming his love for his fans, and commencing a succession of stomach-crunches.
Terrell Owens is among the 15 finalists for induction, and given that this is his second time on the ballot, he's probably getting in this year. For those who covered Owens during his year-and-a-half tenure with the Eagles, it would seem difficult reconciling this prospect with that unforgettable summer of 2005, when he singlehandedly took a team that was presumed to be the best in the NFC, again, and reduced it to a smoldering heap. As terrific as Owens was in 2004 (when he caught 77 passes for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns) and as great as he was in Super Bowl XXXIX (when he caught nine passes for 122 yards on a broken leg), his petulance and selfishness undid much of the goodwill he'd built. For the Eagles' refusal to renegotiate his contract, he used the coded language of "company man" to paint Donovan McNabb as an Uncle Tom, splitting the locker room in two. He instigated conflicts with coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Brad Childress. He turned the Eagles into a dumpster fire before the term "dumpster fire" was cool.
Of course, Owens had also made trouble for his previous team, the San Francisco 49ers. (That was the reason he was available for the Eagles to acquire in the first place.) And though his credentials suggest his induction ought to be a fait accompli - he ranks among the league's top eight career leaders in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and total touchdowns - it's unlikely that the 46-member selection committee will vote him in unanimously. Under the Hall's requirement that the committee use only "football-related criteria" to determine whether a candidate deserves induction, a voter could argue that the intangible damage Owens did renders him unworthy.
"The bottom line on T.O. is he was so disruptive," the New York Daily News' Gary Myers, a committee member, said last year on The Dan Patrick Radio Show. "He tore teams apart."
Me, I'd argue the opposite: that in the total context of his career, Owens' on-field production and talent outweigh his flaws. (The guy had eight seasons of at least 70 catches - for four different teams - and nine seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards.) More, with 111/2 years of hindsight on that '05 training camp, I'd suggest that the "legacy" (such as it is) of Owens' actions and the frenzy they ignited is not primarily that he vaporized a possible Super Bowl team. It's that he was responsible for providing one of the first glimpses of what modern media coverage of the NFL (and big-time sports in general) would look like.
If the O.J. Simpson-White Bronco chase in 1994 augured a new era of 24-7, saturation coverage of a single national newsworthy event, Owens showed how a pro athlete could leverage relatively bad behavior to enhance his celebrity and gratify his own ego. There were news vans and helicopters and reporters in their own cars tracking Owens from Lehigh University (where the Eagles held training camp at the time) to his home in Moorestown. They gathered outside his house and waited for a show, and he gave them one. He shot baskets in his driveway. He lifted weights. He did those sit-ups. And everyone (in the Delaware Valley, anyway) watched.
Eighteen months after Mark Zuckerberg had launched Facebook, seven months before Twitter debuted, more than a decade before Joel Embiid tweeted "Trust the Process" and everyone learned that Carson Wentz and Mike Trout were hunting buddies, Owens laid bare the power and attraction of having an unfiltered look at a famous athlete-even if the look was ersatz and orchestrated. Had Reid kicked him out of practice in, say, 2015, Owens wouldn't have needed all the cameras around. He could have used a smartphone to film himself, posted a Vine or GIF of those sit-ups online, and reaped the rewards of stoking major social-media buzz. This wasn't a smile to earn endorsement dollars, to push a product. This was disruption for disruption's sake and attention for attention's sake, and those are familiar concepts and tools in today's digital world, whether their purveyors are famous or just seeking to become so.
In that way, in his own way, Terrell Owens was a revolutionary. That isn't supposed to be a factor in whether he gets into Canton. His performance on the field, not in his driveway, is. But ask yourself, and be honest: When you think of him, what do you think of first? I mean, there's a reason it's called a Hall of Fame, right?