Allen Iverson and Terrell Owens are not the kind of athletes that necessarily invite compassion and/or understanding, either from the media or from the sports fan community. Each of them have at various points in their all-too-brief careers, enjoyed the scorn of both fans and sports media alike, and usually simultaneously. It’s no small coincidence that each of them enjoyed their most successful stints in the Philadelphia, where T.O.’s histrionics and A.I.’s nihilism found brilliant exposure in a city that claims “brotherly love” and thrives on working class values with the not-so-subtle suggestion that said values are inherently White. Yet, the media coverage of their current financial woes, seems to take too much of the “I told you so” tones of a media waiting for these kinds of disappointing outcomes to occur – especially to those ungrateful athletes who deserve what ever bad fortune they get.
Bomani Jones recently wrestled with the news that A.I.’s current financial challenges are punctuated by some extraordinarily absurd amount of money owed on jewelry (i.e. bling in snarky parlance totaling some 375K or 860K with court costs attached) – bling that of course, he should never have purchased in the first place. Jones’ take on A.I.’s current challenges is fair and insightful. He notes his own sadness and the complexities that athletes face post-career.
A.I.’s overall financial status is unknown, but one thing we can be certain of is that he has been frozen out of the NBA and basketball more generally. Considering that he has anything left in the tank, and that there are any number of teams that might be able to play him off the bench – it is of course, a point-guard’s game at the moment – we can only conclude that public perceptions dictate his fate. His attitude, his willingness to be a coachable player, and the negative reporting that dogged his career, all work in concert to prevent him from what must be his last few years of professional sports play. But sadly these misperceptions about A.I. will likewise prevent him from entering the coaching/scouting ranks or from even having a crack at the sports commentating game. These possibilities are truly troublesome for a player who by some reports was “pound-for-pound” one of the greatest players ever to pick up a basketball.
Like it or not, attitude matters, and sadly, perceptions of one’s attitude matters even more. Unfortunately we can’t know whether or not A.I. was actually a “team” player. All we are supposed to understand is that A.I.’s current financial challenges suggest that he has cavalierly squandered the American Dream. In retrospect, too much of the coverage on his career centered on his hair, his tattoos, his rap lyrics, his entourage, his . . . almost anything but the fact that he was one the best damn players to ever dribble a basketball.
In a recent GQ profile, Nancy Hass highlights the trials and tribulations of Terrell Owens, offering readers a stereotyped and troubling story of the “fall” of an NFL star. “As you're planning your Super Bowl party this year, give a thought to future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens. He's out of work, out of money, and currently in court with all four of his baby mamas.” These, the first lines of the story, punctuate its peddling of widely circulated stereotypes of Black athletes, recycling the tacitly accepted trope of the once famous and wealthy Black athlete who threw it all a way. Focusing on his loss of 80 million dollars, his personal demons, and his pain, Hass turns Owens into a spectacle for readers to condemn, gawk at, and otherwise ridicule in an effort to hate the player not the game.
Despite the caricatures, stereotypes and the troubling narrative, the GQ article actually provides some insight into Owens’ financial situation. Partially challenging the dominant narrative that he simply wasted the money by highlighting failed investments and depreciating home values (he bought one home for 3.9 million but was forced to sell it for 1.7 in 2010), Hass's work approaches complexity in its coverage. Yet, the media, which simply took the GQ story to create their own, erases any of the complexity and tragedy, instead using the moment to further demonize Owens and place the blame on his shoulders. For example, Deron Synder who claims that TO “appears to have serious money problems, due largely to the four paternity suits.” The cases are not questioning the paterning of these children, but the amount of child support Owens should pay given the end of his career.
This sort of troubling argument is indicative of the spectacle of the Owens situation. Describing him as a deadbeat dad and as someone who has “squandered his millions” forsaking his responsibility as a father, the overall narrative uses the issue of child support to paint Owens as a philanderer who, because of his attitude and ego, is writing checks that he is unable to cash. The efforts to blame, pathologize, and ridicule Owens by imagining his own failures and betrayal of the American Dream is a central theme in the media coverage.
The narrative of Owens and Iverson as “rags to riches to rags” is a powerful ideological commodity that at one level celebrates the American Dream, which represents sports as a wonderful escalator to fame and fortune. Often erasing hard work, dedication, perseverance, and the talents of professional athletes, the narrative celebrates the system not the person. Yet those stories focusing on the “falls from grace,” on the financial tumbles, don’t tarnish the system because the focus is often on the individual. Demonizing our athletes for personal failures – ego, bad investments, not paying child support – that are the result of a bad combination of ego and a lack of education, the dominant discourse exonerates the system and keeps our focus on the pathologies of particular Black players.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press, spring 2012).