February 6, 2004

Clarett A LeBron Wannabe

Maurice Clarett is right where he loves to be. In front of the TV cameras, with his name on the lips of sportswriters, fans and broadcasters.

Beyond demonstrating that he has physical talent, this is a guy who has proven only a couple of things in his young career. One is that he has a hard time staying healthy enough to play a full football season at any level, including high school. Another is that when he stops being the center of attention, he'll do or say something to ensure that he will once again be the center of attention. And usually that means media attention.

As a Buckeye fan who warmly recalls that the last time Clarett wore the Scarlet and Gray he was vaulting into the end zone for two huge TD's in the National Championship game, I guess I'm predisposed to cut the guy some slack. And after all, he hasn't knocked over any convenient stores, beaten up a girlfriend, or been caught selling crack to teenagers. In fact he hasn't committed any serious crimes that we know about. But he has a knack for making even those people most inclined to forgive and forget want to say "screw 'im".

OSU fans remember the week preceeding the Fiesta Bowl when the Buckeyes were in Arizona preparing to play for all the marbles. It's the ultimate challenge for a coach, to prepare and focus a team for the most important game of their lives, amid all the media hype and all the distractions of a week-long fan party.

But the whole "team concept" thing was too much for Clarett, who chose this moment to stand in front of a TV media gathering and accuse Ohio State administrators of disrespecting and lying to him, since they had (truthfully) said they didn't yet have the proper paperwork completed to pay for Clarett to fly home to Youngstown for the funeral of a friend who had been killed in a street shooting a few days before the team left Ohio.

The issue was not the sincerity of his wish to attend the funeral, or the matter of who would have had to pay, or how good a friend this guy really was, or even the timing of the disagreement. The issue was that Clarett felt the need to make his case in front of the glare of the national media, and not in private with his Coach and Athletic Director, or heaven forbid, his teammates. He was publicly attacking his own university at a time when pulling together to represent that university on the field was the focus of everyone else around him.

I read that he once met LeBron James, and that the two exchanged cell phone numbers. Next he was proudly flaunting LeBron's name on his speed dial to try to impress a Sports Illustrated reporter. So is it insecurity, or just endorsement-envy? I think the thing that bugs him the most right now is that he knows James just celebrated his 19th birthday, and on the million$-meter, the 20 year old Clarett is currently about 130 units south of LeBron. The sad truth is that he is also light years behind LeBron on the personality, poise and maturity meters.

So we'll await the results of the appeal to see if Clarett will be eligible for the draft in April. I'd like to have a player with his talent on the field for the Buckeyes this fall, but I'm not sure if I could stomach the sideshow if he comes back. My sense is that Jim Tressel really wants no part of him on the team, and it's difficult to argue with that sentiment. Now the discussion centers on where he will be selected if he is included in the NFL Draft.

On talent alone, Clarett is a definite first round pick, and if I had to bet on it I'd say that some team will be convinced by pre-draft investigation and conversations with him (and his doctors and lawyers), that he is worth the pick. He was the USA Today National High School Player of the Year, and did nothing in his freshman season at Ohio State to suggest he was overrated as a running back.

That said, there are three factors that may keep him from being selected in the 1st round (not counting a legal process that could prevent his eligibility this year):

1) Image. There will be public and fan pressure on the NFL GM's not to select him due to all the bad ink he has received. Deserved or not, he's got a "bad guy" image now with all the attitude and selfishness issues. It has gotten so bad that the team that does select him will have to mount a PR campaign just to sell the choice to their fan base. It's never a good idea to sue the organization that you aspire to work for.

2) Injury history. Clarett has not played any season free of injuries going back to high school, and NFL teams invest too much in bonuses and salary for 1st round picks to risk that much on a guy who has never proven he can hold up under the pounding of a H.S. or college season, much less an NFL season.

3) Rust. By the fall of 2004 it will have been almost two full years since he played football. While this might be a plus considering factor #2, the fact is the guy has played a grand total of about 10 college football games in his life. It is said that he is coming out "a year early". In reality, a player who finishes his junior year, having completed three years of college football is considered to be coming out "a year early". Add two years to that, since Clarett has played only one year of college football, and you have a guy who is coming out three years early, from a football standpoint. Huge difference.

My feeling is that he would benefit from going into a supplemental draft, which might be the result if the NFL's appeal of the recent ruling takes a while to be adjudicated. If a team picks him in the first round, they would have to give up a first round choice in the next draft, but by that time the fans could be won over by his talent in the 2004 season. A later round pick in the supplemental draft would hold down the costs, and hence the risks for the team picking him. But on the upside for Maurice, he would probably have the whole draft, and all of the attention, all to himself. I suspect that would suit him just fine.

Posted by dan at February 6, 2004 9:30 PM