Of forests, trees and Maurice Clarett

Former Ohio State University football player Maurice Clarett  speaks during the OSU Legends faith testimony at Shiloh Chapel Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013.

Former Ohio State University football player Maurice Clarett speaks during the OSU Legends faith testimony at Shiloh Chapel Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013.

Maurice Clarett, the former standout running back for Ohio State who ended up spending more than three years in prison, was on Mike and Mike today to talk about his rehabilitation. Since being released from jail in 2010, Clarett has turned his life around. He has apparently tackled his problems with drugs and alcohol and now tours the country speaking to young athletes about how to avoid the kinds of mistakes Clarett made. Clarett was a superstar recruit and in his only year playing college football, he led the Buckeyes to their first national championship since 1969. Within a year, though, Clarett was embroiled in scandal and misbehavior. In 2003, The New York Times reported that Clarett was at the center of a scandal involving academic improprieties, of which Clarett was a particular beneficiary, replete with joke classes designed to keep Clarett eligible without his having to do any real work. Clarett also later accused boosters associated with the program of lavishing cash and other gifts on him. Clarett has said that he lived the life of an NFL player while he was in college.

Now Clarett has a clear message – learn to understand who you are, get on the straight and narrow and take responsibility for your actions. Listening to Clarett, I was quite impressed. Still only 31 years old, having grown up in very troubled circumstances and been through the ringer, Clarett speaks with clarity, humility and intelligence about his own experience and what he might have to share with young men, especially young black men who are coming of age in circumstances and in a “culture,” as he puts it, similar to his own upbringing.

While all that is admirable, and while Clarett is, ultimately and in the most obvious and immediate sense, responsible for the crimes that sent him to prison, the narrative around Clarett is troubling one. Specifically, by framing his own story -with eager encouragement from ESPN and the sporting machine more broadly – as one of personal struggle and redemption, ignores the institutional contexts in which Clarett’s life played out. In particular, the degree to which Ohio State cashed in on Clarett’s athletic gifts to revive its football program, bring new sources of wealth to the school, glory to coach Jim Tressel – with whom Clarett is now close – is emblematic of the kind of one-sided and exploitative relationship characteristic of big-time college sports. Clarett eventually sued the NFL over its rule barring players from entering the draft until three years after high school. Clarett was a physically imposing 18-year old who was unfairly denied an opportunity to earn a real livelihood because of the NFL ban. So, Clarett went to college, proved a boon to OSU’s coffers and ended up with noting to show for his efforts, except whatever under-the-table payments he received. Given Clarett’s own problems, being in the NFL at 18 would have presented its own challenges, to be sure.

But it’s hard to imagine a worse outcome for him than what unfolded at OSU, an outcome which marked his life profoundly, but which, ultimately, left OSU undamaged and in possession of its coveted national title. Again, none of this is to deny Clarett’s own profound missteps. But that’s the problem with assessting these cases – it’s impossible to separate Clarett the individual, from the desperate circumstances in which he grew up on the one hand, while keeping in mind the very compromised motivations coaches have for recruiting such players on the other – even when one can argue that they do care about their charges’ well-being – makes it awfully difficult to evaluate Clarett’s life in a vacuum.

But that’s precisely what Clarett’s presentation of his life story does. That Clarett, who’s done admirable work to change his life, would speak in the terms he does is perfectly understandable. It’s also all too convenient for his interlocutors at ESPN and elsewhere to view Clarett’s journey in such terms. It lets too many other interests off the hook, interests that benefit mightily from the use and disposal of bodies’ like Clarett’s.


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