Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 23 News List

T.O., A-Rod, Ali and what it takes to be truly great

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PHILADELPHIA

Heavy security was in force Friday afternoon as the national news-media obsession with Terrell Owens and the Philadelphia Eagles focused on the latest installment of the drama at a hotel here: the arbitration hearing.

I was met at an upstairs entrance by a hotel employee and escorted down to another security chief, who took me to the front desk to make certain that I had a room reservation.

The lobby was filled with reporters and attendees of a convention who seemed happy to be caught in the T.O. crossfire. Outside, rows of photographers shivered in the cold as they waited to get shots of Owens entering and exiting.

The football news this week is that Jeremiah Trotter, the Eagles' star linebacker, wants Owens back. Defensive end Jevon Kearse, trying to be diplomatic, said: "We're cool if we do get him back. That would be special. But if it don't happen, we got to keep going."

The Owens-Eagles drama has involved a ferocious debate over the past few weeks about the erosion of sportsmanship, the death of values. The argument has raged for a number for years, but this situation has illuminated a deep division.

This week, it became clear to me that members of the news media, the image-makers, had lost their way. The cat-and-mouse game we play of building up and tearing down has created a schizophrenic sports culture of reporters and fans. We no longer know who or what we want our heroes to be.

For all of the talk about players and money and priorities, the fans and the members of the news media are the ones in the wilderness, not the athletes.

On Monday, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez was announced as the American League's most valuable player. I was flabbergasted by the critical reaction to A-Rod's selection. This was his second MVP award. He won his first as a hard-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop. He won his second as a hard-hitting, slick-fielding third baseman.

I think we gloss over A-Rod's accomplishments.

Rodriguez was the best shortstop in baseball when he joined the Yankees. Then, in an act of selflessness, he made the ultimate team gesture: In deference to Derek Jeter, he agreed to play third base.

The next thing we know, A-Rod is one of the top third basemen in baseball. The MVP again.

Rodriguez kept the Yankees afloat. He was great at shortstop. He is great at third. And I suspect that if you put him in the outfield, he'd be the great there, too.

But we ignored his body of work, focusing instead on a two-week window during the playoffs, and came down hardest on him when the entire team crashed.

The persistent criticism of A-Rod is that he is dull, disingenuous, never rocks the boat, too corporate. He is too polished, trying too hard to cultivate a pristine image.

Those may be legitimate criticisms. At the same time, virtually in the same week, we vilify Terrell Owens for representing traits that, as it turns out, are the opposite of those we dislike in A-Rod.

Owens is a media hog. Owens shoots off his mouth. Owens criticizes teammates and is impudent toward his superiors.

T.O. is the anti-A-Rod and A-Rod is the anti-T.O., but both of them get blasted in the same week. I'm baffled.

What do we want from our superstars? Performance, behavior, fantasy? Is the model the 6-foot-5 quarterback with blond hair and blue eyes? The Rhodes scholar who married his high school sweetheart and landed in a suburb near you?

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