That’s the subject of a typically spot-on piece by Drew Magary yesterday.
Jadaveon Clowney is a remarkable athlete and he did nothing to tarnish that reputation when he ran a 4.53 40 at the combine yesterday (Magary describes the combine as “an inherently silly non-event that feels more and more like an act of mass sublimation.”) But there’s a persistent thrum of doubt about his drive, “character,” heart, motor and all of those other markers of dedication that are supposed to separate the merely “naturally gifted” athlete from the actually great players.
Magary finds all of this particularly aggravating:
You do not have to love football to be great at it. It’s just like any other pursuit in that those who are gifted with ability are not always the ones gifted with passion. Philip Roth hated writing, but he was very good at it. Andre Agassi famously hated tennis, but he was very good at it. Look at every fucking decent actor who can’t wait to direct instead. Enjoyment is not the sole engine of ambition. People are driven by a whole shitload of varying factors in life: money, family, vanity, duty, a pack of hungry coyotes chasing after them, etc. Desire is just one of them.
A long time ago, Bill James wrote about Butch Hobson – who played third base for the Red Sox back in the 1970s – that he played baseball like a football player. Hobson was what we would now call an especially “high motor” guy. He’d crash into dugouts chasing foul pops. He seemed to go all out on every play, every day. James regarded this mindset as both admirable and stupid. Baseball, James pointed out, is not football. You’ve got to play 162 games. You can’t realistically go all out on every play. If you do, like Hobson, you end up hurt a lot, and then you’re really not helping your team at all. You have to save *something,* to live to fight another day. I never got so exercised about the fact that Robinson Cano didn’t play the game with veins popping out his head. He’s a wonderful player, a pleasure to watch and a guy who adds as much to his team’s win column as just about any player in baseball.
Maybe Clowney doesn’t look like he’s killing himself on every play – or, at least, looked that way this past season. I don’t actually presume to know how hard he’s trying. I know he’s playing a brutally demanding game. I also know he watched a teammate, Marcus Lattimore, who was forced to play for little more than lunch money for three years have his career prospects seriously compromised by catastrophic injury. So what if that was in the back of Clowney’s mind? What if he was playing the long game, worrying more about his and his family’s future for the next several decades then about the next play during the 2013 season, one in which it’s been widely reported he really didn’t want to be in college?
Let’s be honest and acknowledge that the “red flags” being raised about Clowney’s heart and character and motor and whatever smack, at least in part, of an old racially inflected trope about laziness and bad attitude. Maybe Clowney won’t be a great pro. But it would be nice to be able to focus on whether he’ll be a good football player, as opposed to whether he indulges a fantasy sensibility about how great players have to be ideal human beings (and that’s granting the premise that the typical sports world denizen is a credible arbiter of good character).