Opera star Kathleen Battle once chastised a pianist for not playing along to a song she was singing—in her head. Or so goes one of many legends attached to the famously difficult soprano, who was fired from the Metropolitan Opera for "unprofessional actions," as Maria Callas had been for similar reasons 36 years before. Even the biggest divas, it pays to remember, are eventually ushered offstage.
Sometime around 1994, the year Battle was banished from the Met, the word diva—Latin for goddess—migrated from female singing stars to NFL wide receivers, to men like Michael Irvin of the Cowboys and Andre Rison of the Falcons. Rison's mother, Merdice, named her son Andre Previn Rison after the pianist, composer and opera conductor André Previn, who worked with Battle.
In his playing days, Rison had an operatic existence—his pop-star girlfriend, Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes, burned his Atlanta mansion to the ground—and retained in retirement a larger-than-life ego. In June 2009, some eight years after his last game, Rison called himself the "best receiver to ever play the game." And Irvin, with his multiple Super Bowl rings and drug arrests, was better than that.
The pair introduced a two-decade era in which wide receivers were rivaled only by heiresses as America's preeminent divas. In the 21st century Chad Johnson insisted we call him Ochocinco—and we happily complied. Terrell Owens celebrated his many touchdowns with popcorn, pom-poms and a Sharpie concealed in his sock. Randy Moss pantomimed mooning the crowd in Green Bay and said without embarrassment, "I play when I want to play." (The diva was almost always coaxed from her dressing room, such was the beauty of her voice.)
The reign of the NFL diva seemed to be drawing to a close last week. After holding a profane press conference six days into training camp with his new Dolphins teammates, Johnson—he dropped the Ochocinco over the summer—was arrested on Aug. 11 for allegedly head-butting his wife of two months, a reality-TV cast member named Evelyn Lozada (once the fiancée of NBA star Antoine Walker, she's on the VH1 show Basketball Wives), who then filed for divorce. Miami coach Joe Philbin responded by cutting Johnson, on camera, on HBO's Hard Knocks.
An athlete who once celebrated a touchdown with the Bengals by donning a fake yellow Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer was reduced to awkwardly appealing for his job on HBO. "Coach," the 34-year-old Johnson said to Philbin, "I've never been in trouble before, and I buy into your program...." Still, the ax fell and with it, perhaps, the curtain on his career.
At the same time, a continent away, Moss was practicing with the 49ers, having signed a one-year contract after sitting out the entire 2011 season in a "retirement" he now considers premature. Moss is trying to find a niche in San Francisco among younger pass catchers Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham. The star receivers of today's NFL—Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings—are low maintenance. Perhaps recognizing that, Moss has been described by Niners teammates as football-obsessed, with a winning sense of humor and an exemplary work ethic.
The superstar in Minnesota who drove his car into a female traffic warden and reportedly belittled a team caterer is surely aware that diva acts don't play well at age 35. Like Johnson, Moss went through the rinse cycle of Bill Belichick's locker room in New England, from which everyone emerges—at least for a time—less colorful, more uniformly gray. Or perhaps that gray is the natural maturity of an aging man.
Thirty-eight-year-old Terrell Owens also missed all of last season (after knee surgery) and signed a one-year contract on the West Coast (with the Seahawks). In his first practice with Seattle, Owens was driven face-first into the turf by All-Pro cornerback Brandon Browner. Afterward, T.O. pronounced himself a changed man and said that his life was now about "being part of something rather than being the center of something."
It was a startling climb-down for the man who, more than any other athlete, exemplified the diva—from his reality TV show to the shirtless sit-ups he did in his driveway during his celebrated suspension from the Eagles. Asked earlier this year why no team had yet signed him, Owens replied, "Character issues. People have said I've been negative in the locker room, I've divided the locker room. And I will take the blame and be accountable for some of those things."