King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Maurice Clarett, the suspended Ohio State star, isn't evil. He's just trying to take what he can from an evil enterprise he can't yet escape.

By Salon Staff

Published August 18, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Allow me to go into high pundit dudgeon for a moment and say that Maurice Clarett, the suspended Ohio State running back, is a blight on sports, a dishonest, immature, self-centered man-child who has jeopardized what might be a repeat national championship season for his teammates.

I don't believe that, but the typists union has its rules.

Clarett is the evil amateur athlete du jour after a series of embarrassing revelations. The 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo he'd been driving, complete with TV monitors in the back seat, was broken into this spring, and he told police that more than $10,000 in cash and merchandise was stolen. The car was registered to a Columbus dealership, and he said he'd been test-driving it -- 19-year-olds are often allowed to take tricked-out late-model cars home for extended tests, you understand -- and later admitted exaggerating the cost of the stolen goods. The university is investigating.

And the NCAA is looking into charges of academic fraud at OSU in the wake of charges that Clarett was allowed to pass a class by taking an oral exam after he walked out of a midterm, a courtesy apparently not extended to students who didn't rush for 1,237 yards as freshmen last season. A teaching assistant told the Times that Clarett told her and a professor about academic fraud involving football players.

There was also a very public sideline argument with an assistant coach last year, and a flap at the Fiesta Bowl where Clarett wanted to fly home for a friend's funeral. He says he filled out the proper form to be allowed to get a ticket without violating NCAA rules, but university officials said he didn't, and he accused the officials of lying.

My gosh, my fellow pundits are saying, What is this young man thinking?

I'm not wondering at all. I figure he's thinking: I'm not really interested in going to college. I just want to play football, and since football is a huge business, I ought to be getting my share of the profits. That's not allowed, but if somebody's going to offer me the free use of a car -- even if it is a Monte Carlo -- or the chance to pass some class without studying, I'm taking it, baby. There's an old saying that the horse does the work and the coachman gets tipped. That's sure how it works in college football. I'm the horse and the coach man gets the coin. Forget it. I'm taking what's mine as best I can.

That's what I'd be thinking, anyway. Of course, you can time my 40-yard dash with a sundial, so I actually got an education in college, and that gave me the proficiency to look up old sayings on the Internet.

But Clarett's not at Ohio State to get an education. He's there to run the football, win games, keep ticket prices high and sell jerseys with his name and number on the back, the profits from all of which he's not supposed to see. Like his friend LeBron James, he ought to be in the pros. His inability or unwillingness to play by the college rules puts in jeopardy not only his eligibility but the school's ability to stay out of trouble with the NCAA. It's just a bad fit all around.

The problem is he can't turn pro because the NFL has a rule -- part of its collective bargaining agreement with the weak players union -- that a player's high school class must have been graduated for three years before he can play in the league. The purpose of this rule is to protect the status quo of college football as a no-cost minor league system for the NFL. Why spend good money paying 18- and 19-year-olds to learn the game while their bodies are maturing when there are well over 100 colleges who will do it for you for free?

I don't know Maurice Clarett. There's a pretty good chance he's just an immature, self-centered kid who's always been catered to because of his football abilities, and it just never occurred to him that the rules apply to him. But whatever his motivations, his actions are pretty damn logical. Without resorting to arguing about the purity of amateurism in college athletics, a concept whose purpose is to allow athletic departments to avoid paying their revenue-producing employees, it's awfully hard to think of a reason why Clarett shouldn't take whatever he can get.

I suppose one could say that rules are rules, and if you're going to play you should follow them. That reminds me of another old saying, from Henry David Thoreau: "Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it."

I don't mean to say that Clarett's actions are OK with me, that all college football and basketball players should grab what they can and disregard the rule book, though I would have to be convinced that that's not happening to a large degree already. What I mean is that instead of pillorying this kid for doing what many of us would do if we were in his (free) shoes, we ought to look at the corrupt, hypocritical system in which he has no choice but to operate.

It's a system that uses dewy images of ivy-covered buildings and bright college days to hypnotize customers into buying into the idea that the kids who are performing for their entertainment are "student athletes" playing for the love of the game and a free education. The system calls it amateurism. Anyone looking at it with open eyes calls it unpaid labor.

This is the same system that, down in Texas, made it logical for Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss to try to besmirch the name of his own murdered player. An assistant coach secretly taped Bliss, a week before his resignation, trying to convince others in the program to help him make it look like the murdered Patrick Dennehy had been dealing drugs. That would explain how Dennehy, who was not on scholarship, had been able to pay his tuition. In fact, the school had paid it, which was a violation, one of many that came to light at Baylor in the wake of the Dennehy tragedy.

And as I've said before: This was at Baylor, a perennial doormat. Imagine the shenanigans that have to go on to keep a successful program afloat.

Clarett has been meeting with university and NCAA investigators in the hope of clearing up his messes and being allowed to play his sophomore season. He said over the weekend that his experiences of the last few months have humbled him and taught him a lesson about how to deal with his fame.

Perhaps he'll be reinstated and, chastened by the tongue clicking of the typing and chattering herd, will even go to class. Maybe he'll run across another quote I like from Thoreau, one that has some relevance in this matter:

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

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