Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Unsympathetic Victims

Maurice Clarett had the world on a string. For one brief football season he was a god worshipped by a throng of scarlet clad minions screaming his name. Then, suddenly, the cheers were replaced with boos, insults and threats. As a freshman at The Ohio State University, Maurice faced long odds of getting significant playing time. Coach Jim Tressle had a reputation for diligently standing by his veterans while only the best and brightest of the freshman class would see meaningful playing time, let alone carry most of the load. Maurice increased his chances by graduating from high school in December and enrolling at Ohio State in January. This gave him the opportunity to get some reps with the varsity squad during the spring practice session. When he got his chance he proved to be a formidable weapon.

Mind you, Maurice wasn't some nobody. He was a record setting running back out of Northeastern Ohio, one of the most competitive bastions of high school football in the country. Texas might have gotten some notoriety thanks to Friday Night Lights, but if football is a religion, Northeastern Ohio is the Vatican. That's why the Pro Football Hall of Fame sits in Canton. People had big expectations for Maurice and he exceeded them.

What makes Maurice even more remarkable is the fact that Ohio State's offense was terrible. The line didn't control scrimmage, the passing game was inefficient at best and if it were not for the explosive running of Maurice Clarett, Ohio State's offensive production would have been rated dead last among the 117 Division I A programs. Somehow Maurice managed rush for well over 1000 yards in spite of every defense in the country keying on him. He even missed a few games, but fortunately they were against weaker foes. He was a major reason Ohio State went undefeated and he made the biggest play in the Fiesta Bowl against Miami to clinch a national title. Without Maurice Ohio State wouldn't have contended for the championship let alone win it. After that Maurice fell fast and hard, always finding a way to break through the cold hard tile of one low to reach a new depth. The story is well documented.

Now Maurice is facing potential charges that could land him in prison for 35 years. While it's unlikely he'll serve more than a fraction of that time it's clear that there is something wrong. He's mentally unstable, but it's doubtful he'll be ruled incompetent to stand trial. Maurice knows the difference between right and wrong. He just can't figure out why the rules should apply to him.

A lot of people are through with him. Most Buckeye fans closed the book on him the minute he insinuated that Ohio State might be less than perfect. Common sense leads one to believe that there was a lot of truth to the accusations levied at Ohio State, but it's also clear that Maurice had a vested interest in embellishing his story. Somewhere in the middle the truth is waiting to be revealed. However, as long as Ohio State brings in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, the NCAA would like to leave that stone unturned. But Ohio State didn't try to rob two people this past January. Ohio State didn't lead police on a chase with loaded weapons in the car. Ohio State didn't resist arrest. Maurice is an adult and must be held accountable for his crimes.

Of course, things went sour a long time ago, when Maurice was still a kid. Former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie claims that Maurice Clarett frightened him on a recruiting visit because the then junior tailback wanted to graduate from high school after his junior year to start college early. Maurice wanted to get on the fast track to NFL money and Bob Davie smelled trouble. He refused to work with Maurice on an early admission and Clarett went elsewhere.

It's clear that Maurice did not have proper guidance as a child. He grew up in a lousy neighborhood around lousy people. His family always had their hands out, taking money from anybody willing to purchase a piece of the little kid with NFL written all over him. He was recruited to play at a high school that was not in his school district and that move helped Maurice's mom improve her standard of living, but Maurice didn't get his. Rules prohibited him from getting paid.

At Ohio State, Maurice had access to more revenue sources and, like any major football program, Ohio State was well-versed in looking the other way. Maurice landed himself a nice off campus apartment, a sweet little ride and a tidy stack of cash for playing around. While Maurice's mom might have seen a little coin back in his high school days, the story of Clarett's impoverished upbringing was all over the news. Young kid from the ghetto makes good. So why didn't anybody at Ohio State ask Clarett where the goodies were coming from? Standard Operating Procedure. Schools like Ohio State are successful because they have the resources to make sure their players are taken care of. It's off the books and the paper trail rarely implicates the coach or athletic director, but anybody who has watched the football team show up to practice knows that there's something going on. Nice cars, nice clothes, and everybody seems to becoming from a nice pad off campus.

Maurice made the mistake of getting caught. He filed a police report that detailed enough booty to make the NCAA take note. He later claimed that he filed a false report but the NCAA was already on the case and it was clear that Maurice was on the take. Even if he was dishonest about what was in the car, there was still the question of how that car was acquired. Conveniently, Ohio State was able to deny any culpability and Maurice was suspended.

That's where he really spiraled out of control. To Maurice college was just an obstacle preventing him from capitalizing on his talent. He didn't want to take some scraps in secret, his jersey was selling out in every store at over $100 a pop and he wasn't getting a dime. Maurice was single handedly generating millions of dollars and he was getting room, board and some half rate education he didn't even want. In his mind it wasn't that big a step up from being a slave. All the while his counterpart, Lebron James, was driving a Hummer to school and inking shoe contracts before he graduated. High School. Maurice had just won a national championship in one of the highest rated college bowl games in history and he was borrowing cars from a program friendly dealership. You bet he felt like a slave.

Maybe not slavery, but at least indentured servitude, and the NFL likes it that way. If players could skip college teams would draft them and eventually the NFL will have to earmark money to develop young prospects that formerly honed their skills at the college level. The players who simply went to college would have to be on the payroll which would expand rosters and that means less profits. The NFL likes the free farm system the NCAA provides and the NCAA loves the revenue it doesn't have to share with the talent. There are a lot of reach people associated with the NCAA and none of them are current players. It doesn't matter what the average fan thinks of the system. What matters is that a lot of players like Maurice Clarett don't like their choices. They don't like being subjected to arbitrary academic standards that don't apply to other students. They feel that college is a distraction from their ultimate goal.

They could be wrong. Perhaps college is a shining opportunity and they should be grateful. Maybe they should make the best of it and prepare themselves for the possibility that football is not in their future. But that's not fair. Nobody seems to discourage singers, actors and dancers from chasing their dreams. Nobody busts Bruce Springsteen's chops for not going to college. He had a dream and chose to live it. We find that trait admirable. After all, they can always go to college later. So why are we so insistent that college athletes take education seriously? Especially when there are so many non athletes on campus that don't take it seriously. Why do we want jocks to pretend they care? For a headstrong young man who doesn't like being told what to do, this system alone would be enough to push him over the edge.

But athletes face different circumstances. Guys like Maurice Clarett show tremendous talent at an early age. Instead of instilling a sense of discipline, people tend to coddle the athlete and make excuses. The more talented the athlete, the more crap people will put up with. As a society we wonder why professional athletes exhibit such irresponsible behavior, but if we look at the way we treat those young superstars we can see it. They are never held accountable. Maurice was coddled throughout his childhood. His mother was always looking for a way to make a buck off her son's ability, shuffling him from one youth team to another. The coaches catered to him and everybody tried to curry favor with a kid who needed a little guidance. In high school it was more of the same. Special treatment, limited discipline and whatever they could sneak him under the table.

It's not just Maurice, but he epitomizes what happens when a child becomes a god. We call it self destruction but it's more like sabotage. Maurice is going to face the consequences of his actions but the reason he lacks good judgment is because every adult in his life let him down. Even at college he was surrounded by advisors who told him what he wanted to hear and those who had a vested interest in Maurice staying out of trouble chose to look the other way for fear of upsetting the petulant star. That's why he couldn't make the cut with the Broncos. Maurice actually thought that the NFL was going to kiss the ground he walked on just as everybody had throughout his career. When he was treated like just another football player he withdrew and the Broncos sent him packing.

A lot of people won't even give Maurice that much. There are people who simply don't want to hear the sob story, but for every athlete we lift up we destroy another. James Brooks was a successful running back in the NFL. He played for 13 years, most of them as the featured back for the Cincinnati Bengals. A few years ago Brooks was convicted for felony nonsupport and it was revealed that he couldn't read. After a long successful career in the NFL, Brooks was trying to hold down a job as a security guard to cover his expenses. Dexter Manley was a dominate defensive end in the NFL who spent 11 years terrorizing quarterbacks. After he was suspended for failing a drug test Manley revealed that he was illiterate in spite of spending four years at Oklahoma State. Brooks spent six years at Auburn.

How does that happen? Most of us are functionally literate by fourth grade, if not earlier. How can somebody get through all those years of school and not be able to read? While Manley and Brooks both had opportunities to learn to read as adults, somebody still let them down as children. What sort of message does that send to the child? Shame on all of the people who let that happen. It's not just bad parenting, it's lousy stewardship by all the people involved in the child's welfare. Teachers, coaches, tutors, even sport agents share the blame for something so reprehensible. If basic education can be circumvented in the name of sports, is it so hard to imagine that the more intricate aspect of developing basic social skills is neglected as well?

Maurice Clarett is a jerk and he deserves what's coming to him. Sadly there are some other people who had a hand in sending him in the wrong direction who will never be held accountable. Sometimes athletes are victims and the crimes committed against them place those kids on a collision course with disaster. That's another dirty little secret in sports and it negates all of the positive things we attribute to athletic competition.