Hang on. Let me get this straight. An NFL player, late in the game — and it’s a close game, and it’s “Monday Night Football” — asks the trainer for a pen, stuffs it in his sock, goes out and catches a touchdown pass, then pulls the pen out of his sock and signs the football for a man in the stands who happens to be his financial adviser. And I’m the one who doesn’t get it?

Sorry. I don’t think so. You can call me square, flat, unhip, old-fashioned, old-school, no cool or dull. When writing utensils become part of your football gear, things have gone too far.

“I was just trying to be creative,” said San Francisco’s Terrell Owens, whose creativity always seems to involve a self-portrait. He once did a taunting dance atop the Dallas Cowboys’ midfield logo, and he is forever complaining that he’s not getting enough passes, or enough “props.”

So now he brings his own. Props, that is. A pen. In his sock. And maybe next time a player hangs a foldable bridge table around his neck and sets up an autograph session in the end zone.

“It’s a T.O. thing,” Owens scoffed, an arrogant suggestion that 1) we just don’t understand him and 2) he’s so big he can not only talk about himself in the third person but also use initials.

Hey, Terrell. Here’s a news flash. We get it. It’s a T.O. thing.

As in Totally Obnoxious.

The lowest of standards

The response to Owens’ self-indulgence has been interesting. While the opposing coach that night, Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks, rightly called it “shameful,” Owens’ own coach, Steve Mariucci of the 49ers, actually defended the move.

“I’m not aware of any rule that states no Sharpies,” he said. “There weren’t any obscene gestures. There was no taunting toward the bench or the crowd.”

This is what pro sports have come to. You defend pathetic behavior by holding up even more pathetic behavior.

But Mariucci is wrong. This was an obscene gesture, if you consider what sports are supposed to be about: effort, dedication, teamwork. The pen play perverts all that by suggesting the real goal is to grab the spotlight as hard as you can for as long as you can — even after the play is over.

Remember, this wasn’t some kid in a wheelchair Owens was signing for. It was his financial adviser. His stock guy! What’d he write on the ball? “Buy 10,000 shares of IBM”?

By the way, why are team trainers handing out Sharpies? This isn’t Office Max. Aren’t they supposed to have, you know, bandages?

A league of mixed priorities

Here’s another question: Where is the NFL? A league that fines you if your shirt is untucked? (Owens actually got fined for that.) This is a league that told Peyton Manning he would be levied $25,000 if he dared to wear high-top black sneakers to honor the deceased Johnny Unitas?

Hmm. If you want to celebrate a great player, you get fined. If you want to celebrate your own greatness, the NFL does nothing.

And you wonder why those referees look so confused.

I’ll bet if Owens’ pen had exploded and stained his socks, he would have been fined. Or maybe if, during a tackle, it somehow stuck somebody or drew blood. Of course, if Owens had been injured after running full speed with an object in his sock, he would have simply gotten a cast and charged people to sign it.

But there I go, being old-fashioned again. It’s amusing to hear players defend their preening, dancing, taunting and trash talking by dismissing critics as being uncool or from the wrong neighborhood. What they don’t get is that sports like football create their own neighborhood, where athletes from anywhere can come together under a set of shared rules and respect. That’s the beauty of it — and it’s worth protecting.

After all, the game wasn’t invented for Terrell Owens’ benefit. And using code words like “being creative” doesn’t fool anyone. We may not get the T.O. thing. But we know B.S. when we hear it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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