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Unloveable pariah

July 28, 2006

It’s been a slow news week for us Blue Jacket fans. Sergei Fedorov went for a ride with the Blue Angels, but there’s not much in the hockey sense to report.

In the past week:

The Reds have gone 4-2 and still lead the National League Wild Card race by 2 ½ games.

The Browns have lost their newly acquired starting center, LeCharles Bentley, to a knee injury on the second day of training camp. At least we can temper our expectations before the season starts.

Floyd Landis has failed a drug test and may be stripped of his Tour de France victory. I’m not sure which surprises me more; that the instantly loveable Mennonite might be a druggie, or that I don’t really care.

Hockey bloggers everywhere have struggled to maintain focus. In the aftermath of the beginning of free agency, so many are experiencing their first truly slow period since starting their blog. Many hockey bloggers seemed to start their current sites either during the lockout or during the beginning of last season (not me, I’m always behind the curve).

Last summer, there was the lockout to write about and plenty to fuel the stream of words. As the labor dispute was settled (however long it lasts), the community was giddy with anticipation for the return of the game. The season progressed (breaking only for more hockey during the Olympics), and the Cup finals went the limit. Scarcely had the Caniacs started partying when the entry draft took place, soon to be followed by the opening of free agency. Now, with over two months before the regular season starts up, things are a little quiet.

I, for one, think this is a good thing. Before we know it, the season will be upon us and we’ll all have more to write about than time in which to do so. Abel to Yzerman and Behind the Jersey will write about the Red Wings and their quest to maintain Central Division dominance. Cason and The Penalty Killer will chronicle the Canes’ victory tour. James and Eric will keep us updated on things everywhere. Jes will have the Balastik Monitor rocking to keep everyone apprised of the best shootout artist this side of Jussi Jokinen. And here at home, Army of the Ohio (with a newly redesigned site) and Death Cab for Woody will dutifully track the CBJ and their quest to crack the second season. There will be plenty of great writing. But everybody needs a vacation, and I think we’re seeing a little of that right now.

Keeping in spirit, today I’ll address a topic from a different sport (one that never gets a rest here in Columbus), Ohio State football.

I got to thinking today (with a little help by eavesdropping on a lunch room conversation) about everyone’s favorite athlete here in central Ohio, Maurice Clarett. In the last four years, Buckeye football fans have seen the best and worst of Clarett, and the best and worst of ourselves. I’ll condense the story for those of you who’ve heard it before.

In 2002, Clarett was a star in the making. The starting running back from Day One, Maurice helped lead the Buckeyes to a 14-0 record and a National Championship. His brash style and me-first attitude may have been disconcerting to those outside the Buckeye family, but those of us in the circle didn’t care because we were winning. Clarett helped lead the Bucks over the rival Wolverines, and in the title game he made a brilliant play when he stripped the ball from a defensive player who was returning an interception thus negating a potentially costly turnover. He scored twice against Miami, including the winning touchdown in double overtime. Many in Columbus were already working the bronze for his bust in the hall of great Buckeyes.

So often in sports (and in life), we see extraordinary feats by otherwise ordinary people. Surely this wasn’t the case in Columbus. Clarett was not merely ordinary, but surely superhuman. Carrying a team to victory as a freshman was surely only the start. Unfortunately for all involved this was not only the peak of his involvement with the OSU football program, it was also the end.

It’s been (all to) well chronicled, the downfall of number thirteen. Falsification of police reports, suspension from the football team, failed attempt to enter the NFL early, ESPN articles laying out the wrong-doings of the OSU Athletic Department, pitiful training camp showing with the Denver Broncos, aggravated robbery charges, and so on. In the span of less than two years, Clarett went from being the king of Ohio to being a pariah. Pilloried in the media, at the water cooler, and in the minds of many fans across the country; Maurice is the story we still can’t escape from. But it’s not his fault.

Don’t get me wrong based on that last sentence. Maurice Clarett is responsible for all the legal trouble (falsifying reports, burglary) he has lived through. His challenge of the NFL to lower/abolish the minimum age for entry into the draft was a valiant effort. However misguided it may seem in retrospect, it takes courage to single-handedly step out against a billion dollar corporation. What is not Clarett’s fault is that he’s still the lead story all too often. For eight months or so, he had the good fortune to play for one of the great college football programs in the country. In the years that have followed, he’s had the misfortune to suffer the wrath of the fans of said program. To paraphrase William Congreve, hell hath no fury like a Buckeye fan scorned.

If Clarett had been a backup and still made the same mistakes, it wouldn’t be a story at all. But because he had led the team to greatness, things were expected of him. Athletes, especially stars, live by a higher set of expectation in the eyes of the public. How some fans are able to reconcile their self-imposed conflict is beyond me. The same people who were dancing in the streets celebrating the Buckeyes on top of college football, were later joining the mob with torches in hand when Clarett spiraled out of control.

Athletes are human, and personalities in a clubhouse will be as diverse as they are in your family, office, or social group. Some you’d invite into your home and let them watch your children. Others you’d just as soon meet through inch-thick glass and a telephone. It is an interesting exercise to observe fans cheer for both types of people at the same time, something that seems somewhat unique in my experience as this doesn’t seem to happen all that often in “real” life. I do not know Clarett personally, but he helped a team I follow to a title. For this I am grateful. I did (and do) not expect more from him. Maurice Clarett does not owe me anything. I feel disappointment for him, but I do not vilify him for the choices he made. Each time his face appears on television, or his name in print I don’t wrinkle my nose in disgust like so many do. Maurice made decisions that have affected his life, not mine. The sooner the people in Columbus can allow the circus that he has become fade away, the better for everyone involved.

Is Maurice Clarett an extraordinary talent who squandered his gift, or just another ordinary soul suffering from the same problems as the rest of us? Ask a thousand Buckeye fans, and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench.

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