In Defense of Terrell Owens: Letter to Jeffrey Lurie and Paul Tagliabue

November 10, 2005

Jeffrey Lurie
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Philadelphia Eagles
1 NovaCare Way
Philadelphia, PA 19145

Paul Tagliabue
Commissioner
National Football League
280 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Dear Messrs. Lurie and Tagliabue,

I am writing to urge you to rescind the misguided suspension and planned inactive designation of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. If the Eagles management declines to remedy its mistake, Commissioner Tagliabue, you should intervene to overturn the team’s decision, which dishonors this country’s traditional respect for free speech and cheats fans of an opportunity to see arguably the best receiver in football. Let him play.

There is no question that Terrell Owens’ comments have been boorish and unwarranted. However, the comments were just that — comments.

It should be the policy of the Eagles and the National Football League, as well as other sports teams and leagues, that players not be punished merely for what they say.

There is a great tradition in this country of respecting free speech, and the Eagles and NFL should express those values in handling even churlish speech. This is not a matter of law: U.S. constitutional speech protections and most state speech protections do not extend into the workplace; and the NFL collective bargaining agreement affords teams the right to suspend players for “conduct detrimental” to their team, a provision that has been interpreted to cover speech and other expressive conduct. No, it is not a matter of law, but of principle. And the principle should be: employees are not penalized for speaking out, even if what they have to say strikes management as ill-informed or offensive.

That the Eagles’ proposed punishment for Owens — a four-game suspension followed by an inactive designation for the rest of the season — is so harsh, and so far in excess of punishments applied to other players who have engaged not in ill-considered speech, but criminal conduct or serious wrongdoing, points to how injudicious the Eagles’ approach is.

There is, as well, a consumer issue at stake here. Fans have purchased tickets for Eagles’ games, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, on the assumption that they will see one of the game’s most exciting receivers, so long as he is healthy enough to play. The Eagles’ action denies them this opportunity.

If the Eagles do not want Terrell Owens on their team, then they should release him. Instead, the Eagles propose not just to suspend him for the term permitted by the collective bargaining agreement, but to make him inactive for the duration of the season. This vengeful approach keeps him as an effective hostage — kept away from the fans who would like to see him play.

I look forward to your response, and would be pleased to discuss these matters with you further.

Sincerely,

Ralph Nader
Founder, League of Fans

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