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Football star's battle is like office games

By Carol Hymowitz, The Wall Street Journal


A lot of buzz has been going through corner offices over the antics of Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles. The tempestuous wide receiver made news when, after a year with the National Football League team, he asked to renegotiate his seven-year, $49 million contract. He also landed in hot water when he lambasted the team's quarterback, Donovan McNabb, and argued with his coach, Andy Reid.

But T.O., as he is known, was back at training camp last week and working hard, according to team managers, after being sent home for seven days for disruptive behavior.

Many business leaders have a lot to say about T.O.'s in-your-face feistiness, and how they've dealt with similar behavior in their own employees, clients and themselves.

Though few admit it, the fascination is partly because many executives envy the role of the bad-boy superstar at the top of his game, unafraid to challenge the boss and win more recognition and money. Most also know the headache of managing a supertalent.

"T.O. wouldn't be a problem (to his bosses) if he wasn't so talented; he'd just be out of the game," says Dave House, former head of Bay Networks, now a unit of Nortel, and a former Intel executive. Such talent has to be cultivated and certainly can't be dismissed, he adds.

Still, he knows that "hugely talented people often feel, and have been treated, as special all their lives and so can be hard to deal with."

Mr. House learned that during his 23 years at Intel, where he launched the successful Inside Intel marketing campaign for the company's microprocessors, got to know Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs and did business with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. "Having dealt with both of them personally, I can tell you it's a challenge to work with brilliance," he says. "You've got to get their respect and prove you're up to dealing with them."

His strategy was just to listen when Mr. Gates talked about software. "I never tried to question him in areas he believed he knew better than me, even when I disagreed with him," Mr. House says. But he didn't hesitate to push his own ideas about semiconductor technology, "which I knew more about," he adds.

He figures Mr. Owens needs to be listened to by his coach and managers, and understands that stars often expect to be the center of attention. T.O. once pulled a pen out of his sock after scoring a touchdown, ran over to fans and signed an autograph. But he lives up to his hype. Last season he snagged 77 balls for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns, and made a quick comeback, against doctor's orders, from a serious leg injury to play well in the Super Bowl. "He is special, so why shouldn't he want to be recognized for that?" asks Mr. House.

Mark Cuban, the former Internet tycoon and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is more disapproving. "The things T.O. was quoted as saying to his coaches -- like 'don't talk to me' -- are so outrageous that if they were in a sports movie, it would get panned as being completely unrealistic," says Mr. Cuban, who sold his Broadcast.com company for $5.7 billion before the dot-com crash.

Mr. Cuban is known for his publicity-grabbing courtside antics at Mavericks games, and once denounced NBA officials as unable to run a Dairy Queen stand. That triggered a $500,000 league fine against him, and an offer from Dairy Queen officials to work at one of their stores for a day. He accepted -- and attracted 14 TV camera crews. "It could be that he is just a drama queen," he says of Mr. Owens.

But there is a difference between unruly talk and unruly play, he says. T.O.'s managers "might know he is going to say bizarre things and be incredibly self-centered, but trust his preparation as an athlete and his knowledge of the system as a player," he says.

Mr. Owens's request to renegotiate his contract was predictable, says Brian Sullivan, CEO of Christian & Timbers, the big executive-search firm. Executives know that if they don't ask for what they think they're worth they'll never get it. Eagles managers should have seen it coming, he adds.Under his contract, Mr. Owens earns a base salary of about $3.25 million this year -- not high compared with other NFL wide receivers. In the NFL, players can be cut and lose their contracted pay if they are injured or don't perform well.

His managers "should have sat down with him in the spring and said, 'We're aware your contract reads like this and you might want more. And even though we're not willing to negotiate, we want to know what you think,' " says Mr. Sullivan.

Eagles President Joe Banner suggests he and his coach did just that. "We aren't opening the contract," Mr. Banner says. "But we have talked and tried to convey that we have the same goal."

He calls Mr. Owens "a great player" who wants to win a Super Bowl. "Let's try to do something great together," Mr. Banner says he told the player.

T.O.'s current agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who didn't negotiate the Owens contract, says Mr. Owens will honor his agreement, but they will "continue to discuss" the situation. "If a player outperforms his contract," he says, "he should have a chance to reopen it."

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Football star's battle is like office games, Post-gazette.com

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