It was spectacular timing — the “only in America” kind — that in the midst of a roiling controversy over his fight with Ben Roethlisberger and disappearing during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ final game of the season, Antonio Brown would dance out on national TV wearing a hippo costume and singing Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.”
It wasn’t planned. The appearance was taped months ago. Still, it was wholly appropriate for professional sports’ most maligned position: the wide receiver. To catch passes in the NFL is to skirt the edges of calamity: a run down the middle of the field could end with you speared in half by a streaking cornerback, with the risk of your career ending on the spot. There’s also the glory: the one-handed catches, the acrobatics of keeping two feet in bounds, the exhilarating speed of it all.
Both are reasons why wide receivers have long been referred to as the divas of the NFL. From Terrell Owens and Michael Irvin to today’s crop of Brown and Odell Beckham Jr., the wide receiver is the one guy on the team guaranteed to show out, sometimes while wearing a hippo suit. Their critics call them divas, but wide receivers are the iconoclasts in a sport known for its uniformity. They add color to a game that can sometimes feel gray and cold. Their personalities transcend the helmets that both protect them and obscure their identities.
For his part, Brown became a sports media talking point for an unspecified altercation during the practice leading up to the Steelers last game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Rumors are it involved Roethlisberger — the aging, controversial quarterback — who allegedly wasn’t happy with the way Brown was running passing routes. All of this led to Brown going missing in the lead-up to the game, according to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. When Brown finally arrived at the stadium, he was made inactive, stood on the sidelines and then quietly left.
The criticism from the usual corners was swift.
Time for Brown to be traded, said ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark, a former teammate of Brown’s on the Steelers. “This is where Mike Tomlin has to put his foot down and shop Antonio Brown,” he said during an ESPN broadcast. Brown responded by calling Clark an “Uncle Tom” on Instagram.
For the uninitiated, “Uncle Tom” is a reference to the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and colloquially used as a term to describe an African American who forsakes his race in order to curry favor with Caucasians. It’s a peculiar choice of words for a situation where a black sports analyst is being criticized by a black player for saying that player should be punished or replaced by his black coach. But pro sports is a Russian doll of power. The perception that black players are manipulated and taken advantage of by a majority white corporate structure hovers over much of the discourse about the NFL — to the point where LeBron James referred to NFL owners as having a “slave mentality” during an episode of his HBO series, The Shop. Of the 32 coaches in the NFL, only two are black. There are no black owners. Whatever terms you ascribe to this dynamic, it’s clear that the NFL has a particular cultural divide, one where players and owners are diametrically opposed — and one where if someone is to side with ownership, they’re betraying their principles and people.
Wide receivers are usually the first to blanch the most at the NFL’s conservative notions about expression. They’re the players who, for good or ill, demand to be seen as individuals with feelings. Emotions are, of course, something we tend to equate with women. There’s all that crying, menstruating, talking, etc. Stoicism and humility are the virtues of manhood. Vanity is a mirror women use to apply makeup — and otherwise the exclusive purview of the wide receiver.
The rise of the diva receiver cliché is directly connected to the increased prominence of the forward pass in professional football. For years, running attacks were preferred, leading to superstar careers for Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and O.J. Simpson. But by the 1980s, quarterbacks (and by proxy, their wide receiving corps) became the focus of NFL fandom. The 1980s were littered with legendary QBs — Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway and others. In turn, in the 1990s and 2000s, receivers became mainstream superstars who took full advantage of the increased media attention around football, using press conferences and interviews to make themselves larger-than-life figures.
The Dallas Cowboys’ Michael Irvin was one of the first “bad boy” receivers of the era. Controversy and scandal seemed to shadow him as much as any cornerback in the league. There was a 1996 sexual assault allegation that was eventually proven to be false, leading to the accuser spending 90 days in jail for perjury. That same year, Irvin was caught in a hotel room with 10 grams of cocaine and one ounce of marijuana. The motel room incident led to a five-game suspension that following season. In 1998, Irvin was alleged to have stabbed a teammate in the neck with a pair of scissors.
In short, Irvin has had real problems — problems that have followed his fellow receivers ever since. This trope was immortalized in Jerry Maguire, in which Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar for his portrayal of cocky Arizona Cardinals receiver Rod Tidwell. That role turned “Show me the money,” a self-interested plea by Tidwell to motivate the titular sports agent into getting him a bigger contract, into the most annoying catchphrase of the 1990s.
The generation of wide receivers since Irvin and Jerry Maguire haven’t done much to dispel that feeling. Maybe the biggest offender: Terrell Owens. When the then 49ers receiver posed on top of the Cowboys’ star logo in 2000, the pre-social media sports world was aghast at his hubris. Essentially, he’d declared his personal supremacy over an entire franchise. Despite needing someone else to throw him the ball, a group of people to block for that man and the failures of his opponents, Owens treated his catch as a purely personal accomplishment. One man in the spotlight, in a team game.
Then there was Randy Moss, the man who was fined by the NFL for mooning the crowd after a touchdown catch in 2005. In a now-legendary viral clip, a reporter asks if he wrote a check to pay his fine. Moss responded no, he didn’t write a check, because he’s too rich to bother with such things. How did Moss pay? “Straight cash, homie.” The clip ends with Moss saying, “Next time, I might shake my dick.” Imagine Tom Brady saying something similar after his Deflategate suspension. He’d sooner eat a whole frozen pizza and a case of warm beer.
It’s important to note, though, that the other side of that unfettered confidence is vulnerability, the kind that boasts and braggadocio tend to effectively hide. To that end, besides posing on the Cowboys’ star, Owens’ other signature moment is crying in front of reporters. The background: By 2008, he had made the ironic choice of joining the Cowboys and Tony Romo, the team’s phenom quarterback. Romo had become a subject of ridicule and perpetual second-guessing for daring to date Jessica Simpson and taking a vacation to Mexico during the team’s bye week. After a 21-17 loss to the Giants, Owens broke down defending Romo. “That’s my teammate. That’s my quarterback. We lost as a team. We lost as a team, man.”
This doesn’t fit how we tend to define the role of the NFL player, so we mock it and call it diva behavior. Because in football — at all levels, really — value is placed on control above everything else, a need to repress both our joy and sorrow. For years, the NFL banned touchdown celebrations. Only recently, in fact, has that ban been softened to the point where players can partake in elaborate celebrations after they score without being penalized or fined. In response to the growing popularity of the highly individualistic, colorful NBA, the NFL has loosened up a bit. Nonetheless, the prickly, sensitive geniuses who play wide receiver still get the diva label.
Now, when someone calls Lady Gaga or Ariana Grande a “diva,” it’s considered a precious honor. In music, a diva is strong, successful and formidable. But in the NFL, a diva is a locker room cancer — a malignant tumor on an otherwise healthy body. The NFL is a team game, perhaps the ultimate team game, played by anonymous drones almost completely covered in thick layers of body armor. Therefore, such intangible elements as “team chemistry” are loudly discussed on TV as though any of us can ever truly understand how such things work.
Still, one person’s diva is another’s iconoclast, standing up for their belief that the individual is just as important as the collective. I suppose how you look at it depends on your tolerance for outré. If you’re in the latter camp, you probably watched Antonio Brown rapping in a hippo costume three days after the Steelers’ final game of 2018, on FOX’s hybrid pantomime/vocal contest, The Masked Singer, and found it more than slightly surreal, but also fitting. After all, the timing of Brown’s guest appearance was both completely coincidental and totally appropriate at the same time — the diva wide receiver making a spectacle of himself on reality TV. The Steelers couldn’t find Brown for days, but there he is: the rapping hippo.
An NPR review of The Masked Singer episode speculated over whether any viewer who isn’t a football fan would recognize Brown during his post-elimination reveal. “Is he famous enough outside of football fandom to make that a fully satisfying reveal to a general audience when it’s the only unmasking in the episode,” writer Linda Holmes asks.
That question, though, can be answered with another question: Is any football player famous enough? In a way, every time a player takes off their helmet, it’s like a reveal on The Masked Singer. “Oh, that’s what he looks like,” you mutter to yourself. Most players, you know based on the tiny photo that accompanies their fantasy football player page. The offensive linemen, defensive linemen, special teams players and kickers might as well be RealDolls in football uniforms. The ones whose faces you do remember, however?
Those are the divas.