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30 For 30: Youngstown Boys

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It is difficult to watch the story of Maurice Clarett and know that it will air directly after the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The way in which the national sports media conversation turned on Clarett a decade ago, and now has circled the wagons around Jameis Winston reveals a selective and fickle lottery that can end in jail or a plush NFL contract.  Some grossly insignificant infractions like borrowing a car lead to mental unraveling and a prison sentence, but an alleged sexual assault can linger for a year and stink to high heaven of small-town justice with dozens of unanswerable questions. The circumstances of their criminal (or alleged) situations could not be more different, but by placing this documentary immediately following the award ceremony, I can’t help but think The Youngstown Boys is at least a slight rebuke to the way the NCAA conducts business, and how college football coverage demands tidy build up/tear down arcs for even the careful players.


Directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist previously made The Two Escobars, perhaps the strongest entry in the 30 For 30 series thus far (at the very least in contention with June 17, 1994 and No Crossover), so going in there was a lot of pressure on Youngstown Boys to live up to the promise of that earlier documentary. That’s not entirely fair, since the story of Escobar (the player) and Colombia at the 1994 World Cup had international interaction and a more global impact. But the Zimbalist brothers are astute in crafting Clarett’s significance at the time. Football was and still is bigger in northeastern Ohio than basketball, and Youngstown recalls the final high school days of LeBron James, when it was clear he was around the corner from a huge payday, as opposed to Clarett, who would be required to go to college for three years and maintain eligibility.

That parallelism evinces the hypocrisy of how the NCAA, and the American viewing public, treats athletes with respect to their earning potential depending on the sport. LeBron was able to jump directly to the NBA and rake in endorsements as a teenager. For years that was an acceptable move; now it’s after a mandatory year of college that requires bare-minimum eligibility before a player goes pro. Conventional wisdom suggests that college football players aren’t physically ready for the rigors of the NFL until after three years in college. Better scientific data would suggest that nobody is prepared for the physical demands of the NFL. Highlighting this thought in Clarett’s head during the BCS Championship season, when he was earning praise while getting banged up and keeping a mental tally of hits running backs could withstand, is one of the most enlightening observations the Zimbalists make in crafting the film.

Youngstown Boys suggests that the film gives equal weight to Jim Tressel, former coach at Youngstown State and OSU, and the man who “recruited” Clarett—interviews seem to suggest Clarett basically made up his mind without an official offer. The coach formerly known as The Senator had a reputation not just for winning football games with reckless abandon, but for being a genuine, caring man who still taught a class every year. The film treats him like a supporting player, a mentor, a father figure, but ultimately a man hamstrung by the system to hang Clarett out to dry when a star player flew too close to the sun.

When Tressel went down for NCAA violations, it seemed like a stoic and proud man going down for lying. But it also shed light on some of the ridiculous things that the NCAA will take a program down for. Tattoos and merchandise sales? Borrowing a car? These are the kinds of things that make people nervous enough to lie and protect others, leading to program-shifting roster and personnel changes. Worse still, it’s an insensitive and tone-deaf investigation process that left Maurice Clarett, by every account heard from in the film—friends, coaches, family members, so take that with a grain of biased salt—an exemplary person off the field, no way to participate in organized football in a meaningful way. The depression of that loss spiraled out of control.


Jim Brown has always spoken his mind, at times to the detriment of the people he tries to defend, and his attempt to stem the tide of negative attacks from Ohio State’s athletic department against Clarett was one of those instances, even if Brown’s inflammatory comments had more than an ounce of truth to them. Having said that, perhaps a guy like athletic director Andy Geiger—who rowed crew at Syracuse before a short stint as a crew coach at Dartmouth, then made the jump to the athletic department at Syracuse, then athletic director positions at Brown, Stanford, Maryland, and Ohio State—shouldn’t have stumped on pride throughout the entire scandal, throwing a kid under the bus for not properly groveling at the feet of a system that afforded the athletes few rights. Geiger comes off like a petulant missing Winklevoss brother, so conditioned to believe his education and management birthright gives him an imperative authority over any student that he either can’t see the damage he’s doing to a kid, or worse, just doesn’t care. If there’s one singular villain above all the others who turned “The Beast” from the football field into a monster on the streets, Youngstown Boys singles out Geiger.

The system in place denies athletes the right to seek fair market compensation for their abilities, and fan fervor is so rampant that fealty and collective pride is seen as more important than an individual more focused on providing for a family. As a Northwestern alum and Big Ten football fan, I didn’t really need more reasons to hate An Ohio State University more than I already do, but seeing the way an athletic department and then an entire fan base turned on a kid made me actually root for Clarett and Tressel, which is something I never thought I’d say after the Senator ran up the score in Evanston while I was a student.


Judging purely on body type, Clarett had the build necessary to physically handle professional football. The legal quagmire involved in Clarett first gaining access to the draft, then being denied access on appeal in a circuit court sympathetic to big business, is the tragic turning point where all hope slips away. The Zimbalists punctuate it perfectly with a judge’s words, knowing that Clarett is heading for a destructive path. On the other hand, LeBron is a generation-defining player, probably the most significant American-born player since Kobe Bryant (Yao Ming would get my vote with no restrictions). Clarett was looking for a career at a position with the shortest career of any major skill position in the NFL. Counting his hits in college was a good idea, and showed how Clarett was attempting to think long-term, when the sport demands that good college kid simply spout out the typical boilerplate teamwork information. So much of the information in Youngstown Boys feels like it will be immediately challenged by someone on the other side, an OSU official or someone who didn’t like Clarett as a player, as though sports stories can be politicized in the same way any big talking point between opponents can be multifaceted. But while watching Youngstown Boys, everything seemed like a straightforward, step-by-step account of how a young black man from a poor part of the country is only allowed to progress in the approved field of athletics if he tows the university line. Too much focus on individual personality, and the access to a way out through football gets denied.

This is clearly meant to be a personal redemption narrative, with long glares at the Ohio State athletic director, the NCAA, the NFL, and the justice system for contributing to the downfall of a player who wanted to do something as revolutionary as make money off of his skill just like everyone else already was. Youngstown argues that Clarett was pushed to the brink with no other option than committing crimes, no way to cope with life’s unfairness than drugs and alcohol. Sure, he made a lot of conscious bad decisions, but it could all be traced back to harmful decisions made by others. I’m not so sure I buy that hook, line, and sinker. It’s an argument made from The Trial all the way through comedies like Trading Places or Blue Jasmine, that circumstances of society should create sympathy for victims of situations out of their control. But there are certainly elements in Clarett’s story where he chose to associate with some disreputable people, engaged in excessive partying—contributing his own share to troubles that culminated in drunk driving with an AK-47 and a bulletproof vest, calling everyone close to him to express suicidal thoughts.


Which is why it helps significantly that Clarett is such a well-spoken and changed man today, who took his time in prison and actively worked. He’s still confident, witty, and charming, but now he has the humility and fortitude of rehabilitation. He’s now the poster child for how the spectral powers of college football can crush an individual with talent, but also how a person can hit rock bottom and claw back up to a fulfilling existence. Through his charity and motivational speaking work—a lot of it with Tressel, who does pop back in after the post-jail portion of Clarett’s story—the former running back continues to make an impact. His interview on Dan Lebatard’s show Highly Questionable is a great supplement to this film, featuring some more startlingly honest revelations about his dark times.

Youngstown isn’t as purely devastating as something like The Two Escobars, but it does contain similarly astute observations about the importance of sports in a country’s culture, and how a bad system can chew up and spit out good people for seemingly innocuous infractions. It’s the strongest film so far in this second volume of 30 For 30 films, aided by the extra minutes in running time to craft a comprehensive and highly detailed account of Maurice Clarett’s rise, fall, and survival.


Stray observations:

One of my favorite ideas for college athletics is the proposal of a major in Sports Performance. It makes me so optimistic that such a proposition even exists. Read it here.


Say what you will about the end of that BCS title game, I think Ohio State deserved to win. And as far as dirty programs go, I’ll tolerate OSU players selling merchandise for tattoos over the rampant institutional corruption at Miami any day. But none of it makes me okay with how the business of college athletics is infecting the university at large.

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