Clowney’s Motor

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).

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4 comments

  1. There are three kinds of players: 1) those who are not particularly gifted, but they play so hard on every play that they end up helping their team; 2) those are who naturally gifted with whatever it takes to excel in their sport – whether it’s quickness, athleticism, size, shooting touch, height, etc. – but who take their gift for granted, don’t work hard at all, and turn out to be mediocre to decent players once they reach the professional level of their sport; and 3) those who are naturally gifted, but also work their butt off. The third type of player is the kind that becomes an all-time great. The second type of player can have a good career, but will never reach his “#1 player in high school expectations.” Clowney can turn out to be either a number two guy or a number three guy. Is it worth the risk? Probably. But it’s his “motor” that will more than likely effect the outcome. It’s not everything. A player can be effected by coaching, teammates, the team, even just a particular situation. Some guys get blamed for not having a high motor when, in reality, they just aren’t that good.

    1. Sydney,

      Good points here. We certainly don’t know what his career will look like and it will be affected by the factors you raise. I think sometimes when guys aren’t playing well, they look like they aren’t trying.

  2. I would tend to find placing questions about motor as reflective of latent racism or stereotypes to be a bit of a stretch. I think everyone is accurate in saying the conditions in which Clowney played his final season at SC are not appropriate variables for making an assessment on his overall drive or “motor.” However, I think the concern is valid, in general, and not at all motivated by anything other than wanting maximum value for a pick/signing/trade/etc.

    If you look at the case of players like Albert Haynesworth you start to see something of a corollary. Albert was a very intelligent and well spoken guy, who was born with undeniable god given talents to excel in the NFL. But he was also someone who really didn’t like football all that much and had a few off the field red flags as well.

    When you don’t like football all that much, you probably still try as hard as necessary to get that next contract. It would be a mistake to suggest player would not be motivated by outside factors, such as financial stability. But when that money comes, all the sudden your production precipitously declines. It also means that should a conflict arise between the player and coach (for example, playing in the 3-4) it results in more likelihood of undelivering on expectations/contract.

    So I think there are very real world examples of where “motor” matters. Especially when those concerns surround the number 1 overall draft pick which is at stake. And being honest, it appears that this has absolutely nothing to do with racism or stereotypes and would be just as applicable to a white quarterback known for not being mentally tough (http://espn.go.com/blog/nfcnorth/post/_/id/1620/finding-context-in-the-stafford-debate). So I would ratchet down the (usually spot on) agenda a bit on this one and amplify the context of Clowneys situation.

    1. I appreciate the comments. You’re absolutely right that people are going to worry about motivation with so much at stake. I do think those questions get raised more readily with black players than white players, but that doesn’t mean, of course, that they’re never legitimately raised about black players. Clowney’s situation this season was unusual in lots of ways.

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