The punishment far outweighs the crime

Steve Hammer

The best player in the NFL is on the sidelines for the rest of the season and it isn't due to a torn ACL, a broken leg or even a late-night arrest at a club.

No, Terrell Owens will be sitting out the remainder of the season, unable to work, because the Philadelphia Eagles have decided that showing Owens who's boss is more important to them than a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Last week, Owens was suspended by the Eagles following a series of incidents that culminated in T.O. trashing the team's owners, getting into a fistfight with a former player and basically telling the league to go to hell.

He didn't rob a bank. He didn't violate the league's substance-abuse policy. He didn't even go into the stands and pummel some redneck fans. All T.O. did was run his mouth, and for that he stands to lose millions of dollars.

The Eagles won't allow him to play for them, nor will they allow him to seek employment with another team, so the NFL loses its most exciting player because of a vendetta by team owners.

Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

Imagine being, say, a carpenter who gets fired by a construction company. It'd be illegal for your former bosses to get on the phone and tell the other construction companies in town not to hire you.

That's what T.O. is going through right now and nobody seems to be standing up on his behalf, either out of fear or ignorance.

Like Ron Artest last year, Owens is being punished by a pro sports system that is spooked by the prospect of congressional legislation while taking vast sums of public money to build their stadiums. He's being victimized for being too loud and too flashy (meaning, of course, "too black") in a pro sports environment that's eager to please the "red states" by cracking down hard for any offense.

The most marmoreal of all sports, demographically, is NASCAR, and they showed their true colors over the weekend by suspending Kurt Busch merely for being pulled over by a cop on suspicion of drunken driving.

Never mind that Busch passed the chemical test and was not drunk. Never mind that the only charge he faces is a misdemeanor reckless-driving rap. His team owners suspended him for two races, effectively ending any chance he had at winning the Nextel Cup this year.

Meanwhile, admitted steroid abusers are allowed to play baseball, while the sport itself refuses to institute an effective drug-testing policy. Former players like Daryl Strawberry were given second, third, fourth and fifth chances to redeem themselves.

But in today's environment, just looking guilty is enough to lose your livelihood.

A new book, Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home by hoops writer Harvey Araton, examines last year's Detroit brawl. He concludes it was mostly post-election jitters on the part of the NBA, combined with a troubling disconnect between the black youngsters who play ball and the rich whites who purchase season tickets, that made David Stern come down so hard on Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson.

That is what's at work in the T.O. situation as well. He's being punished for not only his own actions but also the sins of a multitude of athletes before him.

The facts are simple: Owens let down his guard in an interview with a teen-age journalist and said some things he shouldn't have said. Then he got involved in a minor fistfight in the locker room.

At that point, an apology and possibly a one-game suspension would have been in order. With any other player, it would have ended there. Owens apologized several times in public and private, to no avail.

Now he's been Artested for the remainder of the season. He's not allowed to play for the Eagles, nor is he able to contribute to another team, simply to spite him.

Instead of suspending T.O., the NFL should give him a trophy for being such an exciting and colorful player. His presence on the Eagles guaranteed good TV ratings, plenty of merchandise sales and a full stadium every Sunday.

You know a corporation is making an example of someone when they're willing to forego all that money just to keep a player in his place.

ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Monday that the NBA's Miami Heat may attempt to sign Owens as a small forward/shooting guard. Here's a better idea: Have the Indiana Pacers sign him to a one-season contract.

He could back up Artest and Jackson, figuratively and literally. His quickness and strength would test the limits of any defense. More importantly, the Pacers would know that if it comes down to a fistfight with fans, T.O. will have their backs.

Until Owens is restored to an NFL roster, the league will be associated with cowardice, vindictiveness and arrogance. He's as much a political prisoner as Artest was. He needs to be reinstated immediately.

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