Thursday, August 10, 2006

"Keep This Nigger-Boy Running"

Many people have been writing of late when former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett’s downward spiral began. Tony Kornheiser, co-host of the popular ESPN program Pardon The Interruption recently offered up the theory that Clarett’s downfall can be tied to the ascent of Lebron James. Kornheiser contends that Clarett must have gotten jealous of all the attention being lavished upon his fellow Ohio prep-school phenom. Unlike James, Kornheiser points out, Clarett did not have the NBA waiting for him after graduating from high school. Instead, he’d have to toil as a “amateur” athlete in college football, he’d have to wait three years for his big payday.

We all know how impatient young people, so three years must have felt like an eternity for Clarett. That eternity surely seemed longer when in the second game against Washington State during his lone season at Ohio State Clarett hurt his knee, forcing him to sit out his next game against Cincinnati. He’d miss another two games after injuring his shoulder in the Wisconsin tilt, an injury that forced him to sit out part of two others. These injuries were on top of the ones he suffered while playing at Ohio’s Harding High school, all of which combined must have exacerbated Clarett’s anxieties that his chances at scoring it big with an NFL payday are fleeting.

I have always thought however that it was not any of Clarett’s injuries that really led to him making a tragic series of decisions after launching a legitimate contest to the NFL’s policy that players under the age of 20, or whose high school classes have not completed two years of NCAA football can not be drafted. Clarett like anyone else watching the ACL tear that Miami tailback Willis McGahee suffered during that game undoubtedly shook 2003’s Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Ohio State. Many initially thought that McGahee’s injury was going to severely damage his NFL prospects and all but guaranteed that he would not be drafted in the first round of that April’s draft. In one fell swoop, all of McGahee’s college accomplishments seemed to have been nullified by an injury that jeopardized his professional career.

As Clarett’s life continued taking one tragic turn after another I imagined him standing on the opposite sideline as McGahee was carted off the field muttering to himself, “that ain’t gonna be me.” Ever since that game Clarett has been hell bent on getting into the NFL on his own terms. When his battle with the NFL over their draft policy ended with a defeat, he became even more resilient in showing the world that he was still the star tailback whose goal line strip of Miami safety Sean Taylor as he scuttled downfield with an interception return helped propel Ohio State to a National Championship.

In a tragic irony McGahee, the tailback whose team not only lost the double overtime classic, but who also appeared to lose his NFL career, has become a pro-bowl caliber NFL player. He has posted two successive 1,000 yard rushing seasons and looks as if he is settling into the peak of his career among the upper echelons of professional tailbacks. Clarett on the other hand looks to have imbibed the nightmare that everyone thought laid ahead of McGahee as he laid on the ground writhing in pain.

When he was arrested this past Tuesday with a half-finished bottle of vodka and a horror-movie assembly of weapons, two assault rifles, two handguns, and a hatchet, Clarett had fallen deeper into his nightmare. He was no longer wading in quicksand, but on the verge of putting himself in a casket.

Reporters on all the sport shows have returned to mouthing off about how Clarett is a waste of talent, using sports cliché’s like “he could’ve had it all,” “he had everything in the world,” “he’s a disgrace to ____.”

In truth, Maurice Clarett is none of those things. He is a young man that fell out of one pipeline program and into another. His “character issues” are our own societies “character issues:” materialism, greed and a penchant for luring young people into prisons. When you read the stories about him never do you hear anything about any outside interests, stints in the high school band, chess team, or volunteer work that provides the reader into who he was other than a football player. Thus one is left to conclude that Clarett could not have been anything else but a football player, and as long as he was playing football no one had a problem with that because he did it well. Or as he said in a recent phone conversation with ESPN writer Tom Friend:

I haven't done s---. I have done nothing but f------ run a football. Don't confuse yourself. I've done nothing but run a f------ football. Don't try to make it bigger than it is.'

Clarett’s quotes shortly before his arrest reminds me of the note that the protagonist in Ellison’s Invisible Man is prompted to read by his grandfather after the battle royale:

“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep this Nigger-Boy Running.”

Three years after he last ran a football, after Lebron became a mega-star and after McGahee embarked on one of the best comebacks in the last decade, Maurice Clarett is still running. Liberated from the battle royale that passes as college football Clarett embarked on a journey not unlike Ellison’s Invisible Man. His journey has been as surreal, as tragic and most importantly, as enlightening—or rather as visible as the Invisible Man’s. America is getting a front row seat to its closeted sport: watching niggers run. Ellison knew it, Wright knew it and if you’ve read Beloved you know that Morrison knows it.

Clarett’s name will not be place alongside Brown, Sanders, Smith, the NFL’s great tailbacks, but alongside the Invisible Man, Bigger, and Sethe. If those names don’t fit, maybe they’ll call him OJ if the jury decides to acquit.

Still none of these characters really provides us further insight into who Clarett is or what motivates and interests him. Through his conversation with Friend he’s told us not to make his plight any “bigger” than it is, so the lit-theorist in me has to oblige, even if I feel that it is a bit Biggerish.

2 comments:

jb said...

battle royale is an apt comparison but there is an earnestness to the protagonist of IM, or sethe and even bigger that i don't see in maurice. when thinking about clarett i'm more inclined to quote pryor than ellison: "that nigger's crazy." a hatchet?! good God!

i think a lot of black men are tethered to stereoptypes of virility and violence that they can sometimes shortsightedly not see as integral to racism, which is why bell hooks white supremacist patriarchal formation is so insightful. Desire and fear aren't bad things in patriarchy but they power racism.

alternaviews said...

great article.

Clarett can also be compared to Ricky Williams -- another college star who has had trouble fitting in.

In both cases, I think that the athlete lacked a good agent and good legal advice.

Ricky shd've known he'd own the Dolphins $8.6m for quitting early.

Clarett shd've known the dangers of challenging the corrupt system. Unfortunately, the system favors people who "KILL THEM WITH KINDNESS" but not with direct confrontation, to borrow from Ellison...