I learned this morning that former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett is wanted for committing a robbery outside a south side nightclub.
For Buckeye fans, and I am one, Maurice Clarett's memory is bittersweet. One one hand his brilliant running was critical to OSU's 2002 National Championship. But he also defamed the school on his way to leaving early to try for the NFL and then failing there after attempting to sue his way in.
Fans don't really begrudge a player who wants to go pro a bit early. But we expect a player to comport himself with a certain dignity. OSU has had its problems, but Clarett left a wake of angry allegations made against the school, none of which were substantiated. He accepted blame for nothing, ascribed blame to others for everything. In short, he acted like a punk, and frankly I doubt if Ohio State fans felt any disappointment at all when he failed in his attempts to make the NFL.
But I cannot help but feel badly after this last episode. Clarett was an inner-city black kid. Many blacks see America as impossibly racist. That really isn't true. A lot of progress has been made since the sixties but no one should think that racism has gone away. Instead it has gone underground. I have seen this at work. You have guys who will joke around with black co-workers but behind their back will espouse the most virulent racism. At least in the old days a black guy knew who hated him. Today it might be the guy who just slapped his back.
And the times have also changed. Clarett is from Youngstown, and like many other parts of Ohio, Youngstown is losing jobs and population. The factory jobs that paid a living wage are going away. The economy is shrinking and as it does connections matter more and more while opportunities disappear.
For many young blacks sports is seen as the way to the top. If America is not totally accepting of black professionals, we do accept black athletes and entertainers, particularly if they're funny and self-effacing. Sort of like O.J. Simpson, who used to be popular among even marginally bigoted whites because he seemed so much like a regular guy. In sports race doesn't matter, production matters. Athletics is much closer to a pure meritocracy than many other parts of American life, and her many blacks feel like they not only can compete as equals, but have the advantage. Success in professional athletics moves kids right out of the ghetto and into the upper class, and allows them to walk with society's best and brightest.
But it's also a bit of a pipe dream. The NFL and NBA hire only a small fraction of the athletes leaving colleges every year. Most of these kids well leave school and get a job. Many have not done the coursework required to get a degree. Many have done the coursework for an irrelevant degree, one with little or no value in the marketplace. Their main goal was to stay eligible and play the sport they love.
Make no mistake, College athletics demands everything of an athlete. Between practice, film study, weightlifting, etc it's all they can do to keep even with their classwork. A side job for spending money is straight out. They are way more than full time employees. And the colleges do make money from their efforts. Some of that is obvious like ticket sales and the rewards that come from a bowl game or the appearance in the NCAA tournament. But the biggest reason for college athletics is that it keeps the school's name out there, and gives the alumni a reason to remember their alma mater and those Saturdays they sat in the cheering section flirting with their future wife. Those rekindled memories are what colleges count on when they call up and ask for money. That money is critical to funding the academic operations of any university.
If a kid comes to play at a place like OSU, their college career will be under some kind of microscope, as athletes are always visible in top-flight programs. But they'll have a chance to play with and meet the best. If their eligibility gets used up before the degree arrives OSU will keep them on scholarship while they finish up their degree. If they graduate and keep their nose clean the alumni and boosters who could not help them during their college career will help them get started in life after it. You may not earn the fabulous wealth of a superstar but an upper middle class life is all but guaranteed. I've lived an upper middle class life, it's a good one by any standard. It's worth sacrificing for and lots of other college students sacrifice hard for it without any real guarantees of anything at the other end of the tunnel.
Maurice Clarett could have had all that. He was talented, but talented kids draw sychophants who hope to ride their talent into access and opportunity. They get surrounded by yes-men and unless their head is screwed on straight the temptation to slack is always there. Clarett fell into this temptation. If he had stayed in, he would have had a better shot at the NFL. But even if he hadn't made the pros, he'd have had a better place at life.
Now all that is gone. The promise of his youth has given way to the folly of young men. Instead of nice house in Clintonville Clarett may be spending his twenties wearing prison stripes. Whatever he may have said in the past, this is not what anyone wanted. I cannot help wondering what he feels right now as he runs from the police, and thinks of what might have been.
Maurice Clarett was always an angry young man. Today the only person he has to be angry at is himself.