Maurice Clarett: Leaving early ‘a battle that none of these kids have the resources for’
Unquestionably the best running back in college football, LSU star Leonard Fournette leads the FBS in rushing, averaging a full 40 yards per game more than his next closest competitor. A bowling ball in cleats, Fournette could almost certainly hold his own in the NFL tomorrow, and if there were some process by which he could, there’d be 32 teams eager to add him to their backfield.
Of course, that won’t be happening, and it probably won’t happen next summer, either. Only a sophomore, Fournette won’t be eligible for the NFL Draft until he’s three years removed from high school, meaning it’ll be 2017 before we ever see the most gifted back in the game earn a dollar in exchange for his immense talents.
With that in mind, there’s been a growing chorus of antiestablishment fans arguing that Fournette should stick it to the NCAA and sit out 2016 rather than risk injury and future earnings by continuing to play with so little to prove. To his credit, Fournette has virtually ignored the refrain — much like Jadeveon Clowney and other man-children before him — content to keep dominating, instead.
And if you ask Maurice Clarett, someone who’s been in Fournette’s shoes — albeit in somewhat different circumstances — that’s about all there is to do unless Fournette or someone else like him is ready to start a movement.
"I can only wish and hope that the rules were different," the former Ohio State running back said in an interview with FOX Sports last week. "Just like everything else, everybody doesn’t develop, athletically, at the same level. Some people accelerate that process faster than other people, and I believe I was one of them. And I believe that’s how Leonard is, how Nick (Chubb) is, and sometimes the arguments that they have are very silly. The guys they go out and play against, compete against, are the same guys that are getting drafted, and the same people that you dominate will potentially play (in the NFL) the next year.
I can only wish and hope that the rules were different.
"But my advice to these guys would be to not even fight the process," Clarett continued. "The process has more to do with who has the most money and who has the most interest vested in the situation, and you have so many businesses and so many people who benefit from the current state of college football right now that it’s a war, a battle that none of these kids have the resources for."
In 2002, Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman on an undefeated Ohio State team. He scored the game-winning TD in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, sealing a BCS championship for the Buckeyes, and was thought to be the next big thing in college football. However, things began to unravel for Clarett during the summer after his breakout year, and amid a series of scandals he was first suspended for the 2003 season, then dismissed from the team altogether.
With his options suddenly limited, Clarett elected to sue the NFL to allow him to enter the 2004 draft, one season before he was eligible. A federal judge originally ruled that the league could not bar him from playing, but the decision was eventually overturned on appeal, and Clarett was forced to wait until 2005 to enter the NFL after two full seasons away from the game.
"It seemed like the most intelligent thing to do at the time, and I guess the older you get and the more responsibility you take for yourself, the more you can understand that it was just an honest mistake — but it wasn’t even a mistake," Clarett said. "You put yourself in the position that you wanted to live in and exist in, and I thought it was going to work out."
Even so, the Denver Broncos selected Clarett in the third round of the 2005 draft, but after a lackluster training camp, the team released Clarett, who was reportedly already $1 million in debt thanks in part to legal fees related to his fight with the NFL. Less than six months later, Clarett was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. Then later in 2006, a second arrest on charges related to a police chase eventually landed Clarett in jail for three and a half years.
With the benefit of hindsight, Clarett is the first to admit that his troubles were his and his alone, but one can’t help but wonder what might have become of the former star had he been able to enter the league when he felt he was ready.
"I always say that had I been able to go to the NFL in 2003, I think I would have had a better chance of staying," Clarett said. "I was engaged, I had the support, I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing from an athletic standpoint, and I spent a great deal of time down in New Orleans getting in shape for it. But then when it didn’t happen, I just kind of fell out of football and I wasn’t competing anymore, sort of like what Mike Tyson did with boxing.
"If you sit out long enough and you’re not engaged, not training, not getting better — and not from a skill level, there’s an edge from your mentality that goes away — then you can’t reproduce that," he continued. "The only way to get better is to do it, to play the actual game, to lift the weights and be around it all the time. That’s the only way you get better, and the separation from the game and the not knowing, that’s what kind of kills some guys."
Certainly, Fournette’s personal situation doesn’t mirror Clarett’s, but Clarett still says there’s something to be learned from his experience fighting the system alone, just as he learned from the battles waged by Herschel Walker and Marcus Dupree before him.
"A lot of what happens is these kids don’t understand what they’re in because they’re so far immersed into the machine of college football," said Clarett, who now travels the country speaking to teams, hoping to encourage other athletes to learn from his mistakes. "They don’t see the situation because they’re too busy chasing their dreams, trying to accomplish everything on the football field. So they don’t see it the way someone who has been through it and has come out on the other side does."
The answer, Clarett says, doesn’t lie in one player but the masses. Clarett met Fournette when he visited LSU over the summer and remains in contact with the 20-year-old, but Clarett says he won’t get involved in discussions about Fournette’s future unless he’s asked. If he is, though, Clarett said he’d advise Fournette that if players want to receive compensation for their play in college or have the freedom to play professionally when they feel they’re ready, they’re going to have to band together to make it happen.
"The only way that you’ll actually get some sort of change, any sort of change in the entire collegiate system, is to have every player, collectively, decide to completely sit out," Clarett said. "That’s the only answer. I’ve gone through this a thousand different times. You’ll go back and forth with these unions and all this craziness, but the only way that you’ll get any traction, the only way you’ll get anything, is if all these kids just say, ‘You know what? I’m not playing any more until we address the conversation,’ and at that point, people have to do something.
"I’m not talking about one player," Clarett emphasized. "I’m talking about all of them, collectively, saying, ‘Hey, I’m totally fine living my life without football, and if you want football teams, then you’re going to compensate us adequately.’"
That being said, Clarett says he doesn’t expect to see a movement among collegiate athletes any time soon because of the selflessness such an act requires.
"It takes a whole lot of courage to say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to sit out in the hope that we can restructure things,’" Clarett said. "But for the most part, they’ll be restructuring it for the people who come after them, not for themselves. And that’s the biggest thing — can you collectively get guys to do that? I don’t know. I don’t know if you have your Muhammad Alis of this era. I don’t know if you have these courageous, socially conscious athletes who are willing to sacrifice what they’re working for with the understanding that it may benefit someone after them.
"I wish we had more guys like that," he added. "But you won’t be able to do anything until everybody decides, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit out and call this thing quits until we can have a more intelligent discussion.’"
But you won’t be able to do anything until everybody decides, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit out and call this thing quits until we can have a more intelligent discussion.’
If the players did stage a mutiny, however, Clarett figures it wouldn’t be long before they started to get the results they were seeking.
"What was put in place does not work now," Clarett said. "There’s so much money and there’s so much everything, but the people who do this, who make this happen, they don’t get compensated, and that, in itself, is wrong. … There’s a lot of stuff that hinges on these games, so what happens when nobody plays and there’s nothing to watch on TV? What happens when there’s no tickets and hot dogs, no parking, no merchandise? When all of that stops, believe you me, we’ll sit down and have a real conversation."
Now all that’s left to do is wait and see if it happens. For his part, Clarett isn’t holding his breath, but at 31, he remains hopeful that someday he’ll see someone finish the battle he helped start.
"Put it this way: Peyton Manning brings value to the Denver Broncos, and Peyton Manning gets compensated for it; Mark Zuckerberg has a level of value to Facebook, and he gets compensated accordingly," Clarett said. "Everywhere in America, we can make iPhones, we can make iPads, we can make Samsung Galaxies and 80-inch touchscreen TVs. We can figure out some of the world’s most complex problems, but when it comes to compensating these kids and educating these kids and figuring out how we can do this thing better, all of the intelligence just seems to jump out the window.
"They say, ‘Well how do we do it?’ You do it just like everything else. A guy has his value to a team, you create a value for him and he gets compensated accordingly. It’s a silly conversation to keep on having year in and year out."
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