Friday, August 11, 2006

When Sports Fail
By Zach

The recent news about disgraced former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett has generated a number of different reactions. Some folks have expressed a fair amount of glee, while others have wondered what went wrong. In the end, the only question I see worth asking is "what can the decline and fall of Maurice Clarett tell us about sports, and America?"

Three and a half years ago he was completing one of the most breathtaking freshman seasons in college football history, capping it with a game-winning touchdown run in double overtime of the national championship game. Today, his future in football seems non-existant, and he'll have to struggle mightily to avoid a significant jail term. Along the way he's lobbed serious allegations at OSU, taken the NFL all the way to the Supreme Court, and proved that not all running backs can succeed in Denver.

Clarett's problems begin in a social setting in which professional athletics are seen as one of the few ways out of a lifetime of crime and poverty for many young black men. Couple that with the explotive nature of youth athletics, and you have a scenario in which a preternaturally talented young man such as Clarett learned quickly that as long as he kept scoring touchdowns he could get away with just about anything, whether it was in middle school, high school, or college. People would give him money, clothes, cars, and whatever else he wanted just to say that they were near him. Given that kind of treatment, are we surprised when Clarett (or many other star athletes) turn out to be less than stable?

I'm currently reading the fascinating book The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, which details Strawberry's high school baseball team, perhaps the greatest collection of baseball talent in American high school history. For Strawberry (and his teammates), baseball was the golden ticket out of the ghetto: for Clarett, it was football. We've seen what the perks of being a star athlete did to Strawberry, and we're seeing the same forces at work in Clarett.

This isn't meant to exonerate Clarett. Ultimately, his choices, his behavior is his responsibility. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to learn from his failures, to try and understand and prevent them. The first step is to create an environment surrounding youth sports which teaches kids that just because they can hit a ball farther, or run faster, or jump higher then their competition, it doesn't mean they know how to be a sucessful person. Besides, most high school stars don't ever make it to the professional ranks. Unfortunately, with all the money in pro sports there will always be kids (and parents) who have unreasonable expectations, and sleazy boosters, coaches, and others who will take advantage of that desperation.

The other step is to make sure that sports, and other long-shot careers (like music/acting/whatever) don't seem like the only way that poor kids can achieve. Again, this is a broad, idealistic suggestion, and I realize it. But the important thing to realize out of Maurice Clarett's life is that he's not some freakish anomoly...he's just self-destructed in public because he used to be really good at carrying the football. Until we as a society see that people like him are the products of our ignorance, our intolerance, and our apathy, we'll continue to see our current and former stars fall apart. While it might seem entertaining, it's mostly just sad.

The title of this post is "When Sports Fail," and I mean that. Sports failed Maurice Clarett. Being a star running back didn't teach him how to deal with failure, or adversity, didn't teach him how to live his life. From a young age he was told how great he was, and in many ways he remains that teenager, unable to interact with the world around him in a measured, healthy way. But unlike most of us, who grew out of that mindset (because we realized that things wouldn't be handed to us on a silver platter), Clarett remained warped: he expected his NFL millions to be handed to him (even a year or two ahead of schedule). Again, his choices to violate NCAA regulations and to take the NFL to court are his responsibility. But there's a much more complex explanation than that he's crazy. He worshipped at the idol of sports, and he learned that if such a god exists, it's capricious at best.

30 Comments:

Blogger Matt Brown said...

The Darryl Strawberry comparison reminds me of an experience I had two years ago. On a Delta flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Los Angeles, a familiar face boarded the plane and sat next to me. It was Darryl Strawberry. I made up my mind that I was not going to talk to him; another passenger did ask for his autograph and he signed it, but I wanted to leave him alone. He only had one item with him on board - he was reading a Christian book. He appeared clean and had his act together. As Darryl was napping, it occurred to me that if I did ask him anything, it would be about his faith. And he would likely have been happy to discuss it. My point is, Darryl has come a long way. He is out of trouble, he is doing positive work for the church. I was struck because there were no agents around, no ESPN cameras. This was not a publicity stunt to craft an image. He was legitimately reading this book.

Something similar may never happen to Maurice Clarett, but it could. I have never met the man so I can't judge his exact personality, but he obviously has a lot of issues. Given what has happened, I seriously doubt Clarett will ever play professional football. That's probably for the best. He will also likely be serving some time in prison. That is also probably for the best, as he is a danger to the public and himself right now, and must lie in the bed he has made. Even prison can help in some cases. A person very close to me personally spent a year in prison some time ago, and has emerged a much better human being in the aftermath.

None of us know if that will happen with Clarett. Perhaps the odds are against it, but you never know if in 15 years he will wind up like Darryl Strawberry is today or in a far worse state. At least Clarett will always have some high-powered connections at Ohio State, and maybe he will fall in with the right influences to straighten him out and redeem him. Like I said, I don't know Clarett, but as a Christian, I can pray for him. No matter what your religious stripes, you can hope for him to turn his life around. I think that's what we all need to do right now. Even if the odds may be stacked against them, when troubled sports heroes like Strawberry and Clarett DO turn their lives around, they can use their public voices to affect a lot of young people's lives for the better. And, if that happens, sports will not have failed anybody. Let's hope it does.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Kranium Kracka said...

"The other step is to make sure that sports, and other long-shot careers (like music/acting/whatever) don't seem like the only way that poor kids can achieve."

I couldn't agree with you anymore. We need to teach kids that becoming a musician/actor/athlete is very unattainable, but in a way that doesn't discourage them to dream. Its ok to want to be something when you grow up, hell i'm 24 and I still don't know what I want to be. But in the mean time I've made ends meet by getting a degree and a job. Kids these days expect that by just living a normal life, you are entitled to eventually getting a "big break"...they don't understand that 99 percent of the people in this world are destined to be normal. They also need to be told that there is nothing wrong with that. I guess its a catch22 though because my father raised me to be practical and i gotta tell you, looking at the world with a realistic point of view, it ain't that great.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I happen to look at it another way....Clarett failed sports. He had the world by the proverbial balls. The chance to secure a financial future for generations of his family. Maybe even the chance to be a sports legend (in a good way). He chose the avenue of avarice, greed and taking the easy way whenever possible. HE failed sports. Any other characterization absolves him of the inherent and undeniable personal responsibility that is his alone.

2:37 PM  
Blogger g.m.s. said...

For what it is worth Clarett didn't exactly grow up in Poverty, he was raised by his guardians in a fairly middl-class neighborhood. Clarett's problems seem to me to be the result of addiction, and possibly even mental sickness. I'm not sure that the culture in which he was raised has much to do with it.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For every Clarett there are 1000s that excel in sports and life without incident. Let us not blame sports. There are too many positive examples to possibly mass any argument that sports is the culprit in cases like this. Let us blame the choices that Clarett made and the people that he surrounded himself with....

2:46 PM  
Blogger Frogurt said...

I refuse to see Clarett as a victim.

Every step of the way from the playground to the big time, there are people out there trying to exploit them AND people trying to help them develop properly and succeed.

HE chose to listen to the wrong people.

Thousands of others currently playing pro ball from similar backgrounds chose differently.

It's as simple as that.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Dude's 22 though. Let's not forget that. He gained some weight and people stopped caring about him.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Bo said...

This is among the dumbest posts I've ever read, with the zenith being: "Until we as a society see that people like him are the products of our ignorance, our intolerance, and our apathy, we'll continue to see our current and former stars fall apart."

Really? Is it my job to make sure that spoiled college and professional athletes develop life skills? Give me a break. Maybe we should actually blame (gasp!!) Maurice Clarett for screwing his life away. How many damn chances did this kid get, anyways?

And how am I intolerant? Is this supposed to be a race thing now?

3:22 PM  
Blogger MSR said...

Couldn't agree more, Bo. Beyond ridiculous.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Vomitonme said...

Nice piece. I am currently a student at tOSU and although people around here would prefer to not hear his name I still feel sorry for the guy in terms of his bad decision making. He is a casualty of the college and pro sports world.

I don't want to make it seem as though he isn't responsible for his actions because I believe he is, but one can't deny the fact that the people around him (guardians, parents, coaches, friends) didn't help him in his mental/social development through his youth.

He's basically a guy who can play a certain position in a game really well and somehow everyone expects this type of person to be able to handle the pressures of life exceedingly well. But we know this isn't the case time and time again.

And I'm sure going to tOSU didn't help either. A big time program that does have a questionable side is/was a recipe for disaster at times as it showed to be in this case.

But more than anything, people are mad that he didn't play the "game" set out by the universities and the NCAA of just playing ball for a couple of years while you get pimped and then if you make it to the NFL, you are allowed to cash in. Clarrett tried to bypass much of this from one good season and ended up screwing himself over.

I hear it now on the local radio stations with people bitter that he "sold" out the school and turned his back on it. He could have been in the shoes of AJ Hawk or Santonio Holmes now if he had better guidance or even in a worst case scenario he would have had a more than comfortable existance in Columbus living off of past college football glory.

It's a sad situation and it's in everyones best interest that he go to jail now as he's a threat to people in the community and to himself. Hopefully he comes out of prison a better person but I know that being surrounded by criminals 24/7 will probably only make him worse in the end.

3:46 PM  
Anonymous nyythurman15 said...

Why would it be assumed that Maurice Clarett grew up in a poor background? Because he's a black college athlete? And, secondly, I don't dispute some of the value of your points, but let's face it, an asshole is an asshole. Clarett is pretty obviously a stupid asshole. There's not much you can do to change that.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is garbage. This type of thinking is what is wrong in our society today. We always are asking, "what could we have done as society to prevent this?" This is the typical liberal ideology that eschews personal responsibility for one's own decisions. IT'S HIS FAULT!!

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Anon (4:06 PM)

No one is denying that he made bad personal choices.

But to think that we all live in a vacuum and are immune to the pressures of society and the standards it sets out is ignorant.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sad reality is that superior athletes will be exploited to the extent of their ability and then left for dead. We can only hope that a growing number of these kids can see through all the bullshit and take an education away from the experience. It is hard because we don't seem to value that path and every teenager has unrealistic expectations. I just hope that consider a fall back position to life.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember when Jim Brown and a number of "black leaders" were "helping" Maurice against the NFL a couple of years ago? Instead of telling him to shut his mouth, go to class, and play football at the college level for a couple of more years they railed against "the man" who ran the NFL.

Where are they now?

5:17 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Where to begin? First of all, while it's true that numerous former athletes have become productive members of society, many of them don't. They're warped by the pressure and the fame and the money and whatnot, because from a young age they've been told they're the greatest just because they're good at basketball/football/whatever. That sort of culture doesn't tend to create healthy, well-balanced people.

Second of all, while this blog and this post aren't about politics, I have to take umbrage with the postings of several anonymous folks (by the way, get a damn Blogger ID and put your pseudeonym on the line, hiding behind anonymity is either cowardly or lazy, or both). If you really want to live in a world in which every person is out for themselves, with no sense of communal, society, or cultural good then fine. But please stay the hell away from me, preferably by moving to a compound in the middle of Montana or Wyoming. For the rest of us, especially us sports fans, we have to realize that our ravenous consumption of professional, collegiate, and now even high school athletics creates a place where a guy like Maurice Clarett can be lavished with praise, money, and fame before he ever accomplished much, either as an athelete or as a person. We're the ones who pour billions of dollars into the sports world, and that's the reason which youth athletics have become such a big, sick business: because one kid making the pros can pay off a whole lot of people.

The reason I made the connection with Strawberry is that I happen to be reading a book about his adolesence, and how baseball was viewed as a way out of the ghettos of LA for him and his teammates. It struck a chord with what has gone on with Clarett and other athletes (almost regardless of Clarett's situation as a child and his race).

As I stated in the piece, Clarett deserves and and all punishments that come his way. He made his choices, and he must pay the price. But I wanted to try and find a reason behind his actions besides "he's an asshole." And I wanted people to realize that in a world where LeBron James can be on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old, we as a group (sports fans) deserve a portion of the blame when our phenoms turn out to be undeveloped specimens.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Ersatz Academic said...

It's not your fault that you wrote such a superficial and essentially dull-witted analysis of the Maurice Clarett situation. It's not your fault. You have no control over what you think or what you write. You are merely a product of your environment. The schools that failed you. The college professors who just handed out B+'s just for showing up for the final exam. Parent(s) who never demanded your best. You're just like Daryl Strawberry and Maurice Clarett: having absolutely no control, input or effect on your own destiny because of environmental determinism.

What a crock of feces.

I hate the whole "no one's responsible for anything" attitude that shallow thinkers believe is depth and sophistication. It's not. It's condescension. And that's not intellectual.

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Vomitonme said...

Ersatz Academic:

Are we reading the same piece? The author has stated not only in the original piece but in the comments as well that Clarett made some bad personal choices and now has to face up to this.

If you'd sit down and use your brain for possibly 2 seconds you'd also realize that while personal responsibility plays a large role, it is not the only thing.

Like I said before, if you think you are immune to the pressures/demands of society than you're just lying to yourself. I'm a firm believer in personal choice but that personal choice is shaped by our experiences, values, culture, and our community. I'm more of a hard science guy, but you can't deny the effects of our surroundings on our behavior.

Please see the famous Stanford Prison Experiments (http://www.prisonexp.org/)
and Stanley Milgrims well known electrocution experiments (just google for the experiment).

What the author is attempting to examine is what the fuck went wrong with Clarett. Because I'm pretty sure that ending up in prison and pissing away his future isn't where he wants to be. More likely, he'd rather be making millions playing a sport he probably loves/is good at.

Again, say it with me, no one is denying that Clarett has made bad choices. If you read the article and many of the comments that are sympathetic to Clarett, you will see that nearly all of them recognize he made this mess and must face the consequences. But there has to be a better reason for this self destruction than just he's an idiot or he's a jerk.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

ersatz: see, the problem for you is that you don't want to believe that people who make mistakes are really people at all. By branding them as idiots, or assholes, or whatever, it allows you to feel ok about a sports world which systematically exploits young (mostly black) athletes and except for an elite few gives them next to nothing in return. I know former college athletes, and the vast majority of them were never forced to go to class, or study, and as a result either don't get a degree or if they do get it in something useless. More than that, they don't get prepared for a life when athletic ability is no longer a golden ticket.

If you choose not to see any of this as your own concern, then fine. But it's really you who's being superficial when you expect to pawn off a complex problem by calling the guys jerks...

10:40 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Man, I'm surprised at the negativity here. For starters, I don't even like Clarett since I'm a huge fan of the University of Miami. But the fact is sports, espeically collegiate sports, did fail Clarett.

College sports, especially football and basketball, are multi billion dollar industries, built off the backs of young men who don't see much return. Yes, I know you can claim they get a free education for it, but remember, that equates to what over four years? Anywhere between 80,000-120,000 thousand bucks over four years. So they're making 20,000-30,000 grand while making their schools millions. Sound fair to you?

Ohio State is a shady university when it comes to it's student athletes, so as an earlier poster said, it probably wasn't a good situation for him. Is Clarett at fault too? Of course, we all have to take responsibility for our actions. But ask yourself, if Clarett played for Coach K at Duke, do you think he'd have ended up like this? Or do you think his antics would have been stopped early on?

Again, Clarett is at fault for his actions. But very rarely are things as cut and dried as "it's all his fault."

12:07 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I find it interesting that those bashing the piece don't have the balls to actually post with a name, even if it's just an online name.

Clarrett, and other athletes, lived in a system that rewarded them for athletic prowess and getting it done on the field to the point that they were given passes in learning and maturing as individuals. Is Clarrett a dope? Most certainly yeah. Could he have been a dope w/o committing crimes if he was given another option besides football? Most certainly yeah IMO. That's partly his fault and partly the system that ALLOWS people to take the fast lane. And don't tell me you wouldn't take the fast lane in life if you could.

2:34 AM  
Blogger ojarhead said...

" But there has to be a better reason for this self destruction than just he's an idiot or he's a jerk"


Why? Why can't someone just be a dirtbag? I refuse to believe that everyone that ends up in a shitty situation that was the end result of horrible decisions that they made is the "victim" of societal pressures and a product of some sort of system that has used and abused them. Some people are stupid. Regardless of how we try and sugar coat it. If you have an IQ of 60 and can't tie your shoes. That isn't society's fault. You were born an idiot. We ALL face choices and pressures every day. We ALL are put in positions in which we can make choices that can ruin our lives. Why is it that MOST of us can weigh the pros and cons of those decisions and be productive members of society? Now, I am not saying that sometimes people make bad decisions and ruin their lives without influences from societal pressures...BUT, not always. Some people do it on their own. Why does there have to be some hidden reason for Clarett blowing his future up? Why do we have to ration out the responsibility? It is quite possible the guy IS just a jackass......the evidence certainly is pointing in that direction.

11:19 AM  
Blogger ojarhead said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:22 AM  
Blogger ojarhead said...

"But ask yourself, if Clarett played for Coach K at Duke, do you think he'd have ended up like this? Or do you think his antics would have been stopped early on?"

Once again, it all goes begins with choices. Clarett's choices. You submit a hypothetical, "what if"...but the reality is....Clarett CHOSE to go to OSU. Even your hypothetical...one which, if played out, would probably be answered the way you like; "No. It wouldn't have played out this way. Coach K and his iron fist would have stopped the madness." However, it is of no consequence. Even your hypothetical is overwhelmed by the reality of the personal choice that Clarett made. Try as one might....you can't avoid the culpability of the man that made each and every decision and choice here.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Can people be born "dirtbags" or whatever? Maybe, I don't know. But I do think it's a bit unfair to say that "you can't avoid the culpability of the man that made each and every decision and choice here."

The problem is, so many of those choices were made when Clarett was a high school student, when he had tons of colleges throwing themselves at him, and probably was being told by most of the people around him that he was the greatest thing ever. You try making a wise choice in that situation.

If you all want to throw up your hands and say "a certain percentage of athletes are going to be dirtbags/criminals/whatever," then fine. But don't get angry when the rest of us want to try and find a way to create a healthier environment, especially for young athletes.

1:45 PM  
Blogger ojarhead said...

"The problem is, so many of those choices were made when Clarett was a high school student, when he had tons of colleges throwing themselves at him, and probably was being told by most of the people around him that he was the greatest thing ever. You try making a wise choice in that situation."

Ok, fair enough. Use that reasoning to explain the 1000 other kids each YEAR that go thru the same thing and are pumped up with the same hype...and don't travel down the road Clarett did. How come every year 1000 other kids CAN make a wise choice...and don't end up as inmates? Avoid the reality all you want...the mitigating factor in all this is NOT the societal pressures and entitlement bestowed on Clarett. Those things are the COMMON denominator in this... The mitigating factor is Clarett himself.



"If you all want to throw up your hands and say "a certain percentage of athletes are going to be dirtbags/criminals/whatever," then fine. But don't get angry when the rest of us want to try and find a way to create a healthier environment, especially for young athletes."

No one has said a certain percentage of athletes will be anything....and now one is angry. Helping young athletes is a wonderful endeavor. But don't lose sight of the fact that NOT everyone can be helped and NOT everyone is willing to participate in helping themselves. :)

9:52 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

You make it sound as it we're talking one in a thousand here. That's not the case. The uncommon thing about the Clarett thing is the level of stardom he had reached before his fall, not the fall itself.

You're right, thousands of kids go through it in football and basketball. But you only hear the stories of what... maybe sixty or seventy? And usually those are the success stories.

Also with Clarett, he got more press because he tried to challenge a rule. Countless numbers of college hoops players make the same mistake of blowing off school and attempting to go into the draft before they're ready, but because it's a common mistake in the NBA, it's not a big story. Where is Leon Smith today? How about Erik Barkley? Omar Cook? They may not be in prison but they're not success stories.

Sadly, the Clarett story isn't uncommon at all. But we just usually hear about it in depth once a year or so about one failed athlete. The rest go unnoticed.

5:00 PM  
Blogger shmooth said...

glad someone is going here in a less racist way than is typical. there's enough of that to go around already.

i'm enraged that Clarett got shafted like he did. it's not just black players, either.

everyone should get familiar with the League of Fans.

and everyone should read this book.

it's not fair the way they use these kids and them toss 'em in the compost heap.

5:45 PM  
Blogger ojarhead said...

"They may not be in prison but they're not success stories."

Unfortunately, in the real world, not everyone CAN be a success story. In a perfect world, they would all be Michael Jordans. The reality is, there are only what...like 350-375 spots on NBA rosters...and maybe 1650-1750 spots on NFL rosters? Not a lot of room there, regardless of forcasted "potential" and hype. I guess I am cold hearted. But my heart doesn't bleed for these guys that don't get the chance to make millions because they do stupid things. Especially in this day and age...the idea that these guys are ignorant about the system is preposterous. Clarett was complicit until his greed overwhelmed him.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous zinger13 said...

anyone thinking that clarett was the victim needs to rethink their position. we all have choices to make in our lives. he made choices that negatively affected him.
people, stop patronizing him! he was the abuser. he choose to follow a path that led him to that midnight ride.

4:37 PM  

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