The Bengals recently signed Terrell Owens (T.O.) and as a Steelers fan, I first laughed at the upcoming media circus. But as I thought about it more, it seemed odd that they would sign a player with such baggage. T.O. has a history of having a diva-like “me first,” destructive attitude (one commentator has deemed T.O. as Team Obliterator). The Bengals had no pressing need to sign T.O. – recently signed Antonio Bryant is a serviceable starter and T.O. probably won’t produce any more than he would. So why sign him?

Upon further review, there seems to be something more to this signing than what you would expect from a typical professional football franchise. While the NFL as a whole has instituted a strict discipline policy against players who make “poor choices,” I believe that the Bengals see it as their counter-cultural mission to offer grace to the rejected and ungodly of the NFL. The Bengals have a history of signing and drafting wayward players – T.O. is the rule, rather than the exception.

Last year, the Bengals signed Tank Johnson though he was previously arrested for firearms possession, drunk driving, aggravated assault and resisting arrest. The Bengals signed receiver Matt Jones who previously was charged with possession of cocaine and was released by the Jaguars after he failed another drug and alcohol test. The Bengals signed Adam “Pac-Man” Jones even though he had previously been arrested for assault, felony vandalism, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, spitting in someone’s face, and drunk driving. Even more, the Bengals seem to have it as their policy to draft players black listed as “high character risk” like recent picks Frostee Rucker, Andre Smith, Bernard Scott, Ray Maualuga and the late Christ Henry- the list goes on and on.

All these players were known “bad apples” before they were drafted or signed and yet the Bengals still invested draft picks and/or millions of dollars in them. The Bengals sign those players who have struck out with often multiple previous teams. They sign the players that no other team wants. Without an intervention of grace, these players would have their artistically transcendent gift of athletic ability taken from them in exchange for the common and dubious title “ex-con.”

This grace is not without a cost to the Bengals. Teams face stiff monetary fines from the league if their players are arrested an inordinate amount. For better or worse, the Bengals are now known by the players the sign and draft. Despite a recent resurgence of winning, the Bengals are still regarded by many around the NFL as a second-class franchise. This dubious status is a direct result of the risks the Bengals take on the team’s personnel. Yet in Christian terms, the Bengals are the class of the NFL. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “In a world of Fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away”

[EDIT – see also this article from a couple years back]