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Politics the Only Thing Keeping Terrell Owens from His Rightful Place in Canton

DENIS POROY/Associated Press

It’s Hall of Fame weekend. This year, like many before it, will be one of the most emotional and important moments of the NFL season.

There will also be something missing. Actually, someone: Terrell Owens.

That name is sure to evoke a variety of responses, from brawls on social media to endless screaming on television. Go ahead and brawl. Or scream. Or whatever.

The purpose here isn’t to inspire fights. It’s to remind people as they watch the inductions in Canton this year, the second- or third-best receiver ever will not be among them. Indeed, to me there are only two players in history better than Owens at his position: Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. And Moss is definitely arguable.

As glorious as this weekend’s festivities will be, it still will feel a little like watching a Star Trek episode without Mr. Spock. And that’s a shame for two very distinct reasons that have nothing to do with how good of a football player he was.

First, Owens doesn’t have forever to wait for induction. Yes, many say that if Owens hasn’t gotten into Canton yet, he eventually will. That may be true, but the same thing was said about one of my football heroes, Ken Stabler. The Raiders legend was one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and should have been inducted years ago. Instead, his candidacy dragged on so long that Stabler wasn’t inducted until last year—posthumously.

Hopefully, the universe will allow Owens the good heath to keep doing driveway sit-ups for years to come, but you never know. People who are uber-overqualified like Owens need to just go in, period. The waiting game is unfair and potentially reckless.

Terrell Owens offered plenty of fodder for sports fans and media to debate with his often provocative interviews.

Terrell Owens offered plenty of fodder for sports fans and media to debate with his often provocative interviews.MATT SLOCUM/Associated Press

Second, and more important, a troubling precedent has been set. Politics has derailed Owens’ candidacy, at least for now, and that shouldn’t happen when taking someone’s standing as an athlete into account.

We’ve all become political animals, especially in the past few years. Some of us admit this (raises hand). Some us refuse to but still are. We are all like this. This is what our country and our sports have become.

Owens has been ensnared in this hyper-political time. The criticism was masked under euphemisms like “bad teammate,” but much of the dislike of Owens really ran much deeper. It’s part of that previously mentioned political divide. We retreat to our respective corners. Facts and data are ignored.

I was reminded of this when a prominent NFL journalist tweeted earlier this week about how Cowboys tight end Jason Witten epitomized a Hall of Famer.

This is nothing against Witten (or the journalist), but in terms of the Hall, the debate isn’t close. I can name 10 tight ends in history better than Witten: Rob Gronkowski, Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe, John Mackey, Mike Ditka, Tony Gonzalez, Jackie Smith, Kellen Winslow, Dave Casper and Antonio Gates.

That doesn’t mean Witten shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer (although I think he is a borderline case), but think for a moment about how many times you heard someone exclaim that Owens exudes that Hall aura? And yet he ranks second all-time in receiving yards, third in receiving touchdowns and eighth in receptions.

Jason Witten has long been liked by teammates and media, factors that certainly won't hurt his candidacy for the Hall of Fame when he retires.

Jason Witten has long been liked by teammates and media, factors that certainly won’t hurt his candidacy for the Hall of Fame when he retires.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

True, Owens didn’t take crap from anyone. If a player or member of the media needed to be told off, they were told off. This led to the perception that he was a bad teammate. Could he be selfish? Sure. Could he be a jerk? Of course. But we can all be jerks. As a Trekkie, you should see how I treat Star Wars fans. (But they are losers.)

Once, when I interviewed Owens, I pronounced his name, “TERR-ull.” He stopped me mid-question.

“It’s pronounced Turr-ELL,” he said.

Oh, my bad.

I couldn’t have cared less he rebuked me. He was right. I pronounced his name wrong, and he corrected me. So what? But a lot of writers and others were bothered when Owens challenged them. To some in the media, players are supposed to be deferential. If they’re not, they’re viewed as trouble.

It’s all part of the culture wars, a divide that has grabbed onto the Hall of Fame.

We are seeing this with Colin Kaepernick. As Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman told USA Today‘s Jarrett Bell about teams not signing Kaepernick: “It’s about, ‘Boy, stay in your place.'”

In a profession that relies on strong-willed men, the league and some in the media actually hate when men use those wills for something other than being a compliant football player.

It is true that the Hall of Fame is slow to induct receivers on their first try, but there have been few with the credentials of Owens. And this February’s vote was Owens’ second attempt. He didn’t even make the top 10.

That doesn’t seem logical for someone who was valuable enough to play 15 years and skilled enough to post nine 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He’s went to six Pro Bowls. He played in Super Bowl XXXIX with a broken leg and still had nine catches for 122 yards.

Despite playing with a broken leg, Terrell Owens caught nine passes for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Despite playing with a broken leg, Terrell Owens caught nine passes for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX.Al Bello/Getty Images

In my 25-plus years of covering the NFL, I’ve rarely seen anyone terrorize defenses like Owens. No receiver playing today is better than him. Not one.

So enjoy this weekend of NFL pageantry, but remember that there’s a key piece of football history missing, and it’s because of the nature of America today. We are divided.

Even when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.


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