Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
The Things You Can't Ignore
2006-09-27 06:39
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I'm not a football writer. If I knew enough about football to write about it, then I wouldn't perennially finish out of the money in my fantasy leagues, and I probably wouldn't still be a Bears fan, either. But look at the title. Sometimes things happen in sports that are so monumental that they effect us all, like how blowing up the moon would totally wreak havoc on the tides here on Earth. Hang on to that outer space metaphor, I'm going to come back to it in a second.

Terrell Owens, the staggeringly talented Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, tried to commit suicide last night. Reports last night had indicated that Owens had somehow had an allergic reaction to the medication he'd been taking as part of his treatment for a broken finger. He was taken to Baylor Medical Center where doctors were reportedly attempting to induce vomiting. His publicist, already in full spin mode, was quoted as saying "this is not serious."

This is serious.

Owens' behavior since he was a San Francisco 49er has been, to put it mildly, irregular. When he arrived in Philadelphia to join the contending Eagles, things escalated. After a heroic performance coming off of injury in a Super Bowl defeat, T.O. first threw his quarterback, Donovan McNabb, under a bus and then engaged in a spectacularly bizarre and overhyped contract holdout. Owens has been such a regular fixture in the headlines of sports websites and the conversations of sports talk radio shows that many fans initially reacted to the news of his "allergic reaction" with sighs of exhaustion or even yelps of anger that T.O. was in the news yet again. Not least myself.

But here is the thrust of it: Terrell Owens is clearly not a mentally healthy individual. This has been obvious for years. But because he is gifted with prodigious speed and miraculous strength, he has been allowed to continue without the medical attention needed to save his life. When Owens escaped the Eagles to sign with the Cowboys, the stories written were not about whether allowing him to continue playing football as if nothing had happened in Philadelphia was medically prudent. They were about whether his addition made Dallas instantly a championship contender, and how many #81 Cowboys jerseys was selling, and in which round of your fantasy draft you would want to pick up Terrell Owens. Because he was still able to perform on a football field, no one had much interest in what else might be troubling T.O.

As someone who has intimate personal experience with mental illness, this whole story leaves me numb. It makes me wish I didn't care about sports as much as I do. By spending so much of my limited income on tickets, jerseys, out-of-market cable packages, and licensed video games, am I complicit in this system? The system that allowed a man that anyone who's ever watched SportsCenter knows is gravely sick to get to the point where he would want to take his own life? Because the NFL made him a star, Owens believed that the laws that apply to everyone else in the world didn't apply to him. He rejected any suggestion of professional help as just another ploy by the "critics" his ever-mounting paranoia wouldn't let him ignore. The Cowboys and the NFL were still willing to let him play football, even accomodating him more than they would most other players, because he's such an incredible athletic specimen. Owens sat out most of the preseason with a fishy injury. Bill Parcells, one of the most hardline, old-school authoritarian coaches in the business, didn't push him and wouldn't even talk to the media about it, giving T.O. the further impression that the rest of the universe's rules weren't for him.

Ancient astronomers thought that the sun, the planets, and the stars rotated on other planes far in the heavens. We could no sooner go out and reach them than they could come down and visit us. The laws of the earth were not the laws of the heavens. Terrell Owens, because he can catch a football, knock over five guys, and run eighty yards for a touchdown, thought he was on another plane of existence. It doesn't work that way. Gravity and entropy and all of those good things from high school physics apply the same in the Horsehead Nebula as they do here. The same fallibilities with which a struggling freelance journalist in Boulder, Colorado has to deal with can fell one of the richest, most famous, and most breathtakingly physically gifted men in America.

2006-09-27 07:58:25
1.   Chyll Will
Wow. It just goes to show no one can assume anything about a guy from what you see right at that moment. Here we are calling T.O. a selfish jerk and all that, yet who would have thought that it would come to that?

I also have first-hand experience with mental illness with my family; a niece and nephew are diagnosed with schizophrenia and the nephew tried to commit suicide by cop (inducing the cops to shoot him) by brandishing a machete when he went off his medication.

Even now, my girlfriend has convinced herself she has OCD and was actually prescribed an anti-depressant without an examination. That's scary.

Everyday we prescribe ourselves to something that's meant to relieve us from the mundane life rituals, and sports has varying effect on people in general. But when I hear or read about stuff like this, it's like Jesus turning the wine back to water.

What's even worse is getting help for people who clearly need it. In some cases, like my nephew, they have no choice. In some cases, like my girlfriend, they do have choices, but you have to encourage them to seek help. There is still a strong negative stigma about mental illness and seeking treatment; particularly in certain "minority" communities, and it's like fighting an uphill battle while trying to cover your back at the same time. I wish I could understand...

... what else is there to say? Damn...

2006-09-27 08:40:50
2.   Bob Timmermann
It wasn't all that long ago that Alex Johnson had to file a grievance to be allowed to recoup his back pay from the Angels because of his mental illness.
2006-09-27 08:47:29
3.   dianagramr
Great post Mark!

I really hope T.O. gets the help he so obviously needs.

2006-09-27 08:48:11
4.   standuptriple
What's most troubling to me is that this has probably been an issue for his whole life, yet because he was talented on the field he got "special treatment". You could imply that since he's become relatively popular all those so-called friends and family (not to mention media and fans) have been enable-ers (sp?) at TO's expense. I saw him in SF. Yes, he had issues. It was mentioned in the paper occasionally, but it always seemed in jest or an attempt to provoke a reaction. Well, we've got one. I hope people take erratic behavior by athletes more seriously in the future, but I'm not holding my breath.
2006-09-27 08:57:10
5.   Ken Arneson
Bill Walsh was on a local sports talk show a few weeks ago, and was asked about Owens. Walsh said Owens was (and I'm paraphrasing here, I don't remember his exact words) "a sociopath, incapable of feeling what other people are feeling."

It struck me because Walsh didn't hide behind any diplomatic language, he just came right out and was blunt about it.

2006-09-27 08:58:17
6.   dianagramr
Athletes get ALL KINDS of "special treatment". They don't have to go to classes in college. They get oodles of money as a "signing bonus" before they even set foot on a field. They get comped in all sorts of restaurants, hotels, casinos, etc.

The modern-day athlete most likely has a very perverted sense of "personal responsibility".

I think of athletes like Randy Moss, Mike Tyson, T.O. and the like who have been given carte blanche on their behaviors, and it upsets me.

2006-09-27 09:12:37
7.   Chyll Will
Where does it begin and where does it end? Changes don't happen overnight and it's not entirely the responsibility of the athlete, though the athelete is ultimately responsible for his actions.

This is larger than opportunities, this goes even beyond values. It's more than enough to say, "okay, here are the problems." What do we do now?

2006-09-27 09:18:28
8.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I have been listening to Colin Cowherd's show for the last two hours; I finally turned it off due to the extremely high number of middle American morons who called in with their conspiracy theories on how the whole situation is some sort of sick media manipulation concocted by Owens and Drew Rosenhaus. (Cowherd, to his credit, has dismissed all of these idiots out of hand, although he also let them have airtime in the first place.) Cowherd used the term "enabler" too, specifically about Jerry Jones.

I wish I knew what was to be done next. It would be a beautiful thing if Owens could return healthy to the game and become a high-visibility spokesman for mental health issues, but frankly and with no small amount of regret, I think he's too far gone. Look what has happened to those athletes who have admitted to mental illness. Specifically I am thinking of Barret Robbins, the Oakland Raider lineman. His admission of suffering from bipolar disorder was perceived by the media and his teammates as a copout; it effectively ended his career. Note how carefully statements by the Royals danced around the mental illness issue when Zack Greinke went through his little sabbatical this spring.

2006-09-27 09:32:38
9.   Chyll Will
8 True, but a person with high stature or at least with a lot of wattage could bring more focus to the issue than those two ever could, not to dismiss their issues, but to say that it's more commonplace than people are willing to acknowledge. If Paul Tagliabue, who has nothing to lose in terms of legacy, were to come in and say he has dealth with it first-hand, or if Gene Upshaw were to campaign on behalf of T.O. and point out the need to address the issue on a large-scale basis, then it would happen.

Granted, I don't anticipate that happening, which would make it all the more powerfully effective if they did.

Some things happen for a reason, and who's to say that T.O. or any other high-profile athelete won't actually come in and fight off that stigma, addressing it directly with us and the world?

The one thing we definitely need to do, as a culture in general, is look beyond the simple economics and address the future head-on.

2006-09-27 09:40:51
10.   Mark T.R. Donohue
There's a point. Welcome to the commissionership, Roger Goodell. How are you going to deal with this? If Goodell had any guts at all he would ban Owens from the league for a long time and require him to seek treatment before he could return. It already appears as if Owens' publicist is trying to spin the wheels to pass the whole thing off as a misunderstanding so he can go on playing as if nothing happens. That would be a devastating mistake for all parties involved. Parcells ought to step up and ban him if Goodell won't.
2006-09-27 09:46:53
11.   Chyll Will
That's step one. But if they leave it at that, what about the others who have similar issues that haven't manisfested to this degree (yet)? If teams have a vested interest in ensuring that their players are physically healthy, they should also consider the player's brain. Seems to me that Physical and Mental are only contractually exclusive, not mutually...
2006-09-27 09:52:43
12.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Pro sports is a backwards, cultish, caveman kind of scene. With the number of players in the NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA, there must be dozens of gay players. But we'll have a gay president -- hell, we'll have a BLACK president -- before any of them come out. This extends to the stigma about mental illness, I imagine. It's OK to pat a dude on the ass or cry when you win one for your dead father, but it's not OK to kiss a dude or to see a psychiatrist for any reason other than maximizing your focusing skills to make you even more of an emotionless athletic task-performing machine.
2006-09-27 09:58:38
13.   Shaun P
8 Or, to bring this back to baseball a bit, how about the reaction Alex Rodriguez got when he admitted to seeing a therapist?

The macho culture of sports, sadly, doesn't mesh well with admitting to having a mental illness and seeking treatment for it. You're very right, Will 11 - the brain being healthy is a big part of being physically healthy. I wish teams would take more of a public stand on this, and I hope they already do behind the scenes.

I recall reading a story about TO a few years ago - he was raised by his grandmother, and I don't remember where his parents were or if he had any siblings. You would hope that a close family member (isn't he married?) could help him to seek treatment and take care of that. Or, if there is no family member who can get through to him, what about Rosenhaus? As an agent, he has at least a fiduciary duty to TO, if not a duty of care as well.

2006-09-27 10:03:40
14.   Chyll Will
12 Obama Barak is not that far off to project. Still, I get your point. People derided Alex Rodriguez for admiting that he sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis, and the culture within and outside will never accept it in this generation. Doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it or think of ways to turn it around. Kinda (but on a whole different scale) like Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, it's the principle that matters.
2006-09-27 10:33:22
15.   Count Zero
While I don't disagree with the thesis that we as a society don't have enough respect for mental illness, I think you're off the path here.

First of all, how many of you are familiar with T.O.'s childhood history? If you aren't, I suggest you go find out something before you make any other comments. For every Bill Walsh out there, there is a Jerry Rice who has been in T.O.'s camp since day one.

What exactly does the average NFL coach know about psychology? You mean to tell me you think the Tuna is qualified to judge whether someone is mentally ill, or just having a tough time? Yeah -- because he spotted that LT (the first LT, not the current one) was a great individual right away. Hell, most NFL coaches are borderline psychotics in their own right.

Secondly, are you saying we should do this with the entire population? I mean, many of you are saying that there are dozens of athletes out there on the verge of serious mental illness (right or wrong, where you got this, I can't say). Ummm...yeah...and there are millions just like them in more mundane jobs, too. Should all those people in mundane jobs also be sent home immediately? Because you think they may have problems? This was America last time I checked -- you need more than a hunch to start taking away someone's livelihood. There are thousands of schizophrenics wandering the streets of Manhattan every day -- any of you jumping up and down to get them medical care right away?

For those of you who know something about T.O.'s biography, I think it's been painfully obvious for some time now that T.O. is not the egotistical, self-confident, manipulator of the media and the NFL that many have made him out to be. On the contrary -- anyone who took Psych 101 in college should have been able to predict that:

a) Everything T.O. did to attract attention to himself, he did precisely because he got no attention all his life until he became an NFL star. Not from anyone...including his own mother and father (the latter of whom lived across the street from T.O., but only revealed that he was T.O.'s father at age 12 because T.O. appeared to be getting close to a girl who was his own half-sister. "Oh by the way, I'm your dad so that there is your sister, so don't be gettin' any ideas.")

b) He was openly and completely rejected by his own mother and father, so it should come as no surprise that he spends all his time trying to prove his worth. This is so textbook, it's trite.

The fact that he attempted suicide doesn't mean that he's incapable of playing in the NFL (or doing any other job for that matter.) Do you propose that anyone who ever attempts suicide should be institutionalized until such time as a team of psychiatrists deems him able to go outside again? Perhaps football is the only thing that has ever meant anything to T.O. in his whole life. If so, will taking it away from him cure his depression? Maybe we take it away from him and then dope him up until such time as he walks around in lala land 24 hours per day? Then he'll be cured, right?

This isn't a conspiracy between Paul Tagliabue, Jerry Jones, and Bill Parcells -- it's the sad result of one more unwanted child growing up in poverty. We've all got our baggage to carry around -- some of us have a knapsack; some of us have a full moving van. Just because it gets too heavy to carry from time to time doesn't mean that we need intervention from federal agencies, congressional do-gooders, or well-meaning sports fans. What we need is our friends, our families, and maybe a good listener.

Perhaps now would be a good time to quit ragging on T.O. and have a little sympathy for someone who grew up in a world that would horrify 99% of us. Or you can jump on the Self-Righteousness Bandwagon with all your fellow jealous jerks and just string him up for having a talent you envy.

2006-09-27 11:05:29
16.   BlueMamma
15 - i don't think anyone's on a t.o. witchhunt here, out of envy or any other ulterior motive. they're just saying that to continue giving owens preferential treatment, to hold up a different set of standards to him because of his talent, is what is making his moving van full of baggage become a disabling issue.

it's easy to see that early neglect and abandonment have led to unquenchable thirst for attention. as you say, to textbook that it's trite. but what's the solution to that? that's what this discussion is about.

2006-09-27 11:28:40
17.   Count Zero
16 I understand that, but I think you're off the deep end prematurely.

Number one, it's not quite clear that T.O. even did attempt suicide at this point -- numerous sources other than his publicist are saying that the police report is full of errors. So...this may be just one more case of the media trying to manufacture a story to sell papers / get ratings.

Number two, everybody's saying there's an unfair double standard in sports. I dispute that -- I don't think T.O.'s behavior up to this point merited his being banned from the NFL, sent to mandatory psychotherapy, or any of the other suggestions being made. I have known and worked with plenty of people in mundane business jobs who were every bit as "special" as T.O. has been and no one fired them either.

Exhibit A -- Was the subject failing to perform his job? No -- in fact he was performing it so well that he's one of the most coveted receivers in the NFL.

Exhibit B -- Up until now, has the subject done anything that might have been considered illegal? No -- no DUIs, no drug arrests, no wife beating arrests, etc., etc. Basically, with the exception of his outspoken interviews and some on-field publicity stunts, the guy is a model citizen for pro sports. Compare T.O. to AI for example...Ray Lewis, anyone?

So why exactly is T.O. being held up as a symbol for society's lack of interest in mental illness? Because lots of people don't like him -- period.

2006-09-27 11:34:38
18.   Shaun P
15 "What we need is our friends, our families, and maybe a good listener."

Very true, and I think that's what I was trying to say, as well as the others. The problem here seems to be that TO is lacking at least one of those three things, and perhaps two.

"The fact that he attempted suicide doesn't mean that he's incapable of playing in the NFL (or doing any other job for that matter.)"

Of course not. Someone close to me once attempted suicide (poorly, I might add), and this person works at a typical daily job, and has for years. The difference is the person I know was told by friends and family - and co-workers/bosses - "Look, you have a problem, you need to get help. You ought to take some time off of work until you're feeling better. Concentrate on you, and the job is here when you are better." This could have, and probably should have, happened before the suicide attempt - like with TO, the signs of needing help were all there - but no one did anything until after it.

Time away from football could be good for TO as well, while he works out his issues. Or maybe not. But at the last, I hope someone would suggest it to him. It might be very beneficial to helping him concentrate on his own problems. I'm not a psychiatrist and I don't play one on TV. I just hope TO would get the same good advice from the people around him as the person I know who attempted suicide did. Including his boss Parcells and his employers Jerry Jones.

"Perhaps now would be a good time to quit ragging on T.O. and have a little sympathy for someone who grew up in a world that would horrify 99% of us. Or you can jump on the Self-Righteousness Bandwagon with all your fellow jealous jerks and just string him up for having a talent you envy."

I don't see any TO-ragging here, or jealousy, or envy, or self-righteousness. Its not ragging or envy etc to point out that TO has often acted as if the rules don't apply to him. He has.

If anything, the comments in this thread have nothing other than sympathy for the guy, IMHO.

2006-09-27 12:08:58
19.   Count Zero
18 Well here's what I'm most specifically referring to:

"But here is the thrust of it: Terrell Owens is clearly not a mentally healthy individual. This has been obvious for years. But because he is gifted with prodigious speed and miraculous strength, he has been allowed to continue without the medical attention needed to save his life. When Owens escaped the Eagles to sign with the Cowboys, the stories written were not about whether allowing him to continue playing football as if nothing had happened in Philadelphia was medically prudent."

I think this is a complete over-statement of the facts. People in the business world "throw their teammates under a bus" every single day -- they call this office politics and a sign of their intense desire to succeed. LOL. Nobody sees it as a sure indicator of impending mental collapse even if they don't have "prodigious speed" and "miraculous strength." Even if they're geeky guys who live at home with their moms. :-) If they change jobs, no one considers if it's "medically prudent" to allow them to keep working.

How is pulling out a sharpie to sign a ball in the end zone worse than Tom Cruise on Oprah? How is it worse than Fastow and Skilling's actions as officers of Enron? If you ask me, it's much less prudent to allow any of those three to walk the streets without restraint.

My argument is that if none of what T.O. has done prior to this incident has been an indication that "he needs medical attention to save his life." That he has problems? Absolutely...problems similar to about 25% of the general population...insecurity, need for affection, feelings that he gets no respect...all of them. But that "medical attention" comment is just so over the 20/20 hindsight...I just couldn't let it pass.

2006-09-27 12:23:42
20.   Chyll Will
17 You're right that this is pure conjecture at this point, but you're wrong to say that people here are automatically assuming the worse about T.O. As I pointed out, I have a first-hand experience with mental illness right in my own family, and it's right in any regard to shed light on that issue, regardless of who's involved. If we could remove the stigma attached to the subject for a minute, then you'd understand where I was coming from.

It's pointless to argue about whether there's merit to the story at this point because we don't know the facts and few people are saying anything. It is that very attitude that I'm attacking, that if anyone even mentions the issue regarding someone, famous or not, is a hater, a hypocrite or otherwise a witless jerk. I don't believe that.

Do I need to read his book to know that what he's said or done points to deeper issues? I see them everyday, I listen to people who would make most others cross the street to avoid them (I happen to be one of those peope they cross the street to avoid, for some reason), I live it as a black man in New York, it's beyond T.O. and it's personal.

I'm not afraid to discuss options. If it's a story, burn whoever for making it up. But if there's merit, yes discourage conjecture, but no don't assume that people who talk about it have an axe to grind.

2006-09-27 12:27:16
21.   Chyll Will
19 Okay, I'm chill. Good points. As I've said before, these arenas leave a lot to be desired in terms of timing what you say. No invective was meant, but the issue is a hot button for me, personally.
2006-09-27 12:37:31
22.   Count Zero
20 See 19. You honestly think that (prior to yesterday) T.O. had done things so clearly indicating serious mental illness -- SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS, not the garden variety depression and insecurity that 25% of our population experiences, but SERIOUS enough that it wasn't "medically prudent" to allow him to continue working -- that he should be singled out as an example of untreated mental illness in the US?

Sorry -- I don't buy it. You'll have to give me a specific instance I must have missed. Dancing on the Star at Irving Stadium, the Sharpie incident, his diatribes to the media, his complete dissing of McNabb -- I've seen behavior far more eccentric than any of that from numerous people all throughout my life. None of that is worthy of curtailing his civil liberties or denying his right to be employed in the profession of his choice.

I stand by my statement -- 20/20 hindsight and a complete over-reaction after the fact. And if T.O. had always been a likeable guy instead of an ass, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

2006-09-27 12:38:24
23.   Count Zero
22 Bad timing. I withdraw my question. :-)
2006-09-27 13:21:49
24.   Chyll Will
23 It's cool. The fact that we can even talk about this without complete disrespect is positive. I can't see this happening at many other sites. Peace, all >;)
2006-09-27 14:21:37
25.   das411
Wow, just tuned in and it looks like I missed a great discussion here. But nobody else thinks TO was just that afraid of going up against Brian Dawkins in two weeks? ;)
2006-09-27 14:35:07
26.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I guess you're entitled to see it as an overreaction if you like. But now that the coverup is in full effect, I still stand by what I said. It's not a single incident in Owens' record but rather his totaly body of work, and the rather striking disconnect between T.O.'s self-perception and everyone else's view of the man. He's never once showed an ounce of contrition or even understanding of how some of his actions might have hurt people, and that more than anything suggests serious underlying issues.

I don't want to get into a debate over whether mental illness is a nature or nurture issue. There are arguments either way. People from broken homes end up with mental illness, and so do kids from intact nuclear families in suburbia. It doesn't matter what the root cause of Owens' unhappiness is. It does matter that the NFL, and sports culture as a whole, are doing him a disservice in not directing him to the help he needs.

Mental illness isn't an excuse for any of the past behaviors Owens has exhibited. But looking at the other way around, we shouldn't allow his record of colossal obnoxiousness to keep us from feeling sympathy now, or even cause us to suspect that this is some sort of monumental publicity scam. What would he have to gain from it? As Colin Cowherd said this morning, such a thing would cost Drew Rosenhaus a lifetime NFL band, and Rosenhaus must have a little more common sense than that. Tim Cowlishaw said on the radio this morning and repeated on "ATH" just now that Owens received his painkiller prescription more than a week ago. The story of it just now reacting badly with his supplement regimen does not hold any water at all. In addition, Owens' home is so near to Baylor Medical Center that his publicist's calling an ambulance rather than driving him to the hospital herself is another element that throws suspicion on the official story.

We still don't know all of the facts, but it seems like Owens, the publicist, and at least tacitly the Cowboys organization are trying to pull the wool over our eyes so T.O. can go on playing as if nothing happened. You wanted to be commissioner, Mr. Goodell? Well, congratulations. Show some balls and save Owens' life by banning him right now. And make sure his publicist never works in sports again, and slap a hefty fine on Bill Parcells for good measure for continuing to insult everyone's intelligence by maintaining that this is a healthy athlete who's prepared to step out on a football field.

2006-09-27 17:20:48
27.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Hey. look, someone with a pedigree agrees with me, at least in principle:

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