Who You Calling a Showoff?

Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco test NFL limits.

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Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens at Bengals training camp. (Getty Images)

NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco aren't just hot dogs when it comes to the art of self-expression. They're foot-long knockwursts, known for their antics as much as their athleticism. From end zone dances to sideline tantrums, Owens and Ochocinco epitomize selfish showoffs -- to most old-school observers. Now that these prima divas are teammates in Cincinnati, the Bengals surely have risen on folks' "most hated" list.

But in signing Owens to play alongside Ochocinco, the Bengals have chosen sides in one of pop culture's most contested battlefronts: sportsmanship vs. showmanship. This act would never play in New England, where stodgy Bill Belichick seeks automatons for his assembly line, or in Pittsburgh, where cool Mike Tomlin must maintain his franchise's blue-collar tradition.

The pairing is also out of place in Cincinnati, an ultra-conservative town that once filed obscenity charges against Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Embracing one player who has his own VH1 show is bad enough. But two? If early ratings are any indication, Owens will trail Ochocinco in the fight for viewers as well as receptions.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Owens and Ochocinco make you watch their games. And that's the primary offense in their detractors' eyes, that the duo's touchdown celebrations are simply "look at me" actions.

The NFL has been dubbed the "No Fun League" in some quarters for its attempts to crack down on end zone dances and the like. But the league has nothing on college football. The NCAA was already draconian in trying to snuff out all emotion. College officials are known to come charging at players in the end zone after a touchdown, with body language that borders on menacing. They command the player to not even think about doing a dance, pumping a fist or raising a finger. Did they think they were Secret Service agents guarding the president, and the player was reaching for a weapon?

A radio commercial highlights these differences. The announcer asks, "What's the best touchdown celebration?" He answers that the best celebration is none at all, when you simply flip the ball to the ref because "you're just doing your job." Then he brags about his company's success in doing its job, delivering packages.

That's hilarious, comparing a dude in brown to a bunch of boxes, to a dude in pads with a brown football. The difference is that ‘Brown' doesn't have 11 angry men -- big, fast and strong -- trying to maim him before he reaches the mailroom. That's part of football's appeal, and the end zone represents the Promised Land. Nothing provides as much joy and excitement ... or fun. A touchdown demands rejoicing. It's just that some players rejoice differently than others.

Even crusty ol' Mike Ditka, who doesn't like celebrations, has said Ochocinco is fun to watch. The creative, exuberant expressions bring a smile to most except the worst curmudgeons. It's gotten to the point where Ochocinco has been booed for scoring and not celebrating. Fans felt cheated.

I don't have anything against players like, say, Barry Sanders, who always just tossed the ball to the ref. But I don't have anything against Ochocinco or others who are more demonstrative. It's kind of like church. If you prefer a service where everyone sits perfectly still, with neither a peep heard nor a hand clapped, you can worship with like-minded individuals and no one's mad at you. Personally, I prefer services with more life, where people sing and dance to vibrant music from the band and inspiring sermons from the pulpit.

Freedom of expression is especially desirable, and valuable, in pro sports, where athletes are essentially paid entertainers. It's fine if youth leagues, high schools and colleges keep a tighter rein on players (although the NCAA has gone too far), in an effort to maintain ideals of amateur competition and sportsmanship. But restrictions in "the show" should be far looser, allowing room for the range of characters and personalities.

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