Friday, October 18, 2002

In NFL, the celebration's the thing

        One of these days, when players celebrate touchdowns with end-zone tailgate parties and two-minute concerts by Mary J..Blige, you'll yearn for the night Terrell Owens whipped out his Sharpie and signed his touchdown ball for his financial guy in the first row.

        Back in the day, guys respected the game enough to end zone-dance without music.

        You could keep yelling about Owens. You could say what the San Francisco 49ers receiver did on national TV Monday night was "shameful," as Seattle coach Mike Holmgren did. What's shameful is that Holmgren stuck so long with Matt Hasselbeck before letting Trent Dilfer be his quarterback. But never mind.

        You could yell for single-bar facemasks, too, and rotary telephones. You could mourn the passing of Marion Motley, leather helmets and black-and-white TV. Or you could buy yourself a 60-inch plasma and make peace with the new millennium. Because really, Lou Gehrig doesn't live here anymore.

        We judged Owens' display the way we mediate most disputes between today's athletes and our own, dated standards. Every time a jock over-celebrates a success or flunks a drug test, we swell with self-righteousness. We sweat indignity.

        Is it too much to ask a player just to hand the ball to the referee? Does he have to admire his home run like Einstein admired light bulbs?

        Well, yeah.

        We expect these guys to be direct descendants of Gil Thorp. We're mad when they're not. That's our problem. It ain't theirs. The same middle-agers cursing Terrell Owens had a Joe Namath poster hanging from the wall of their teen-aged bedrooms. They loved Joe Willie. He was cool, shaggy and hip. Their parents hated him. He wasn't Unitas or Otto Graham.

        As for civility:

        It's over.

        The play's not the thing. The play after the play is. We've got Little Leaguers mugging for the cameras now. Wake up and smell the Me.

        The NFL discourages large celebrations. It also frowns on gambling. Both are as big a part of the league as the TV contract. We long ago left the time when jocks were jocks. They're entertainers now.

        John Unitas could never be an entertainer. He couldn't dance like Deion. Or like Ickey Woods. OK, maybe Johnny U could dance like Ickey.

        The point is, even if you abhor what Owens did, it's here to stay. Part of me says it's silly; a bigger part says sports sells itself as entertainment. Teams don't sell the game to their fans anymore. They peddle the show: the climate-controlled lux-boxes, the wet bars, the catered menus. Even the medieval Bengals want to know if their club-level fans need live music.So tell me how Terrell Owens doesn't just fit right into that strategy.

        The only time celebration steps out of bounds is when your team is losing big and/or your team is terrible. The Bengals should never over-celebrate. Even then, only the celebrant looks ridiculous, the way Oliver Gibson did when he glorified himself after an interception when the Bengals were losing 28-7 to Tampa Bay.

        Act like you've been there before? No way, dawg. Act like you'll never get there again.


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