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Thursday, August 24, 2006
Why Do We Love Hating Maurice Clarett?

Harvard Law professor Jon Hanson and I have an op-ed in today's Providence Journal:

Jon Hanson and Michael McCann: The psychopathology of athlete worship

Providence Journal
Thursday, August 24, 2006


TO SPORTS FANS, it probably wasn't a surprise to learn that former Ohio State University football star Maurice Clarett was arrested again the other week. The evasive running back who had carried the Buckeyes to the 2002 National Championship was unsuccessful in evading the police in a car chase that occurred near the home of a witness in his upcoming robbery trial. As if his location and the arsenal of four loaded guns in his car weren't suspicious enough, Clarett was sporting a Kevlar vest at the time.

Much like Clarett in his glory days, the story has legs, powerful legs. Everyone has now seen the post-arrest photos of Clarett, dressed in a jail-issued jumpsuit and looking beleaguered. Sports writers around America have penned countless condemnations of Clarett and his bad life choices. The following sample of news headlines give a flavor of the indignation:

"After Saying He Had Changed, Clarett Goes Down Familiar Path" (The New York Times).

"Maurice Clarett in Dire Need of a Reality Check" (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

"Clarett's Misplaced Sense of Manhood Meant Nothing but Trouble" (The Akron Beacon Journal).

Editorialists ratcheted up the righteousness. Scott Soshnick, of Bloomberg News, told readers in a column entitled "Maurice Clarett Doesn't Deserve Your Sympathy": "Clarett has no one but himself to blame for his latest incarceration." An editorial said, "all [Clarett] ever has been is a knucklehead." Another, entitled "Don't Cry for Clarett," attributes his failings to "self-absorption," "ego, and arrogance."

Letters to The Columbus Dispatch got even nastier (Ohio State is in Columbus). One: "Big Mo's actions only confirm what my pappy always said: 'Beauty is only skin deep, but stupidity goes clear to the bone.' " Another called for "a citywide ban against Maurice Clarett," saying that "[a]nyone wearing No. 13 this year during Buckeyes games should be encouraged to burn their jersey."

It is obvious that people care about this story; what isn't so clear is why. Why are Americans so interested in an event that, with a different culprit, would have spread no further than the local crime blotter? And why are so many sports writers preoccupied with a man who never played a down in the National Football League and who hasn't played college football in over three years? Most perplexing, why the vitriol? Why do we pile insults on a young man who is already a has-been?

Is it because a young black man was arrested and jailed? Nope. After all, we barely notice that over 15 million Americans are arrested each year and one out of every four black men will go to prison in his lifetime.

Might it be because he was carrying concealed weapons? Uh-uh. Thousands of people are arrested each year for that, and it is not a crime that elicits general outrage. In fact, more and more states are passing laws making it easier to carry a concealed weapon.

To understand why we Americans enjoy villainizing certain sports figures (Ron Artest, Terrell Owens, Rafael Palmeiro, Lawrence Phillips, Mike Tyson), it is helpful to understand why we make super-heroes of others.

Consider the most celebrated athlete in recent memory, Lance Armstrong. He has been the recipient of too many accolades to count, including Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year," the Associated Press's "Male Athlete of the Year" (four times), and ESPN's ESPY Award for "Best Male Athlete" (again, four times). Is Lance talented and successful? To be sure. And, yes, he won the Tour de France seven times -- more than any rider in history.

But those successes alone are not what make Armstrong our hero. In fact, not long ago Americans cared as much about French cycling races as they do about English cricket tournaments. In Armstrong's case, it wasn't so much the race that made the man; it was the man who made the race. And what we admire in this man is not that he is a winner, but that he is a winner after having nearly lost his life to testicular cancer.

We love loving Lance because his success confirms our faith in the power of perseverance. The message for us all is the American creed: We can overcome our situation, no matter how grim, if only we work hard and choose wisely.

Consider also ESPN's award for the "best sports moment of the year." In the single basketball game that Jason McElwain played in high school, he scored 20 points in just 240 seconds. Sure, that was an outstanding accomplishment, but what made it the "best moment" is that "J-Mac" is autistic and had spent the rest of the season as the team manager.

Oh, we love those stories! Indeed, we pay good money to see movies about fictional sports figures (from Radio to Rudy to Rocky) who overcome their situations.

This brings us back to the more tragic Clarett story. Why do we love hating Maurice? For the same reason -- just from a different angle. Clarett was at the cusp of fame. Had he simply chosen better, as one editorialist wrote, Clarett "would be signing autographs in some National Football League training camp right now. He'd be the face of a franchise. He'd be a millionaire. He'd be wearing Nike shoes and getting paid to do it. He'd be posing for magazine covers and billboards, instead of mug shots."

The message of Clarett's story is just the flip side of the same creed: If we work hard and make good choices we will succeed, but if we are lazy and make bad choices, we will fail.

And why do we love that message? Social science provides several reasons, but among the most important is our subconscious craving to believe that our world is just and that anyone can overcome circumstances. When our heroes are "good guys" who make "good choices" and our villains are "bad guys" who make "bad choices," that craving is satisfied.

If someone succeeds, he deserves it; if someone fails, he has no one but himself to blame. Feels good.

Jon Hanson and Michael McCann -- professors at, respectively, Harvard Law School and the Mississippi College School of Law -- are writing a book on how sports shape beliefs about law and policy.


Very thoughtful and well-written. When will the book be out?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/24/2006 12:52 PM  

I think it has to do with the dream that every child has growing up of playing professional sports. Maurice Clarett had it and threw it away. He also tested a system, and no one likes when systems are tested. I think that is why we hate him.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/24/2006 12:58 PM  

Looking at what's happening to A-Rod and Jeter is a great example of fans responding to an affable person (Jeter) and not liking a more self-reserved player (A-Rod). If you look at the stats, A-Rod is clearly better (the reigning MVP, a better defensive player) and A-Rod hits as well as or better than Jeter in clutch situations (postseason, close and late, runners in scoring position).

The knock on A-Rod is his clutch play but for some reason it’s just that all of his late strikeouts are remembered and Jeter’s are forgotten. Also, it’s not pay- there’s a very strong argument that Jeter is the more overpaid player between the two (if not the most overpaid player in the game). Second, even if you disagree with that argument, the Yankees are paying more of Jeter’s salary than they are of A-Rods (Texas is paying a significant amount). Lastly, can anyone fault A-Rod for accepting that contract from Texas? If a new employer offered you $100 million more than your current at-will employment, would you say no you don’t want to be overpaid? (These are merely rhetorical, debatable, and off-topic.)

A strong point in favor of Jeter is when he first came up the team won the World Series in 4 out of his first 5 seasons. But that seems distant and the fans are thirsty for another WS, so I don’t think that’s a reason why Jeter gets fan reprieve for being human and A-Rod does not. There’s actually a second point in this, Jeter’s “homegrown” and we had to give up a homegrown stud, Soriano, to get A-Rod. But A-Rod isn’t culpable for that and it is a trade that should be made any day, especially since it gave Cano the opportunity to play.

Just wanted to know if your research as had to any further insight in this matter. The crux of my issue is that it’s not talent, pay, or anything that’s proven on the field as to why Jeter is a hero and A-Rod a villain.

Anonymous George -- 8/24/2006 3:27 PM  

I have to think that being black has a hand in some of the villainizing. America loves a criminal black man as much as a murdered white girl.

But I do think that the social science theories explain a lot. Humans love to categorize and simplify. Heroes and villains are more palatable than complex beings (like ourselves!).

Personally I'm rooting for a few good-doing black athletes (LeBron James, for instance) to be the next American heroes. We need them to balance out the Clarett-type stories.

Great piece, thanks.

Blogger SunsGossip -- 8/24/2006 3:41 PM  

Nice piece. I think your point that we ascribe so much to the conscious choice of the athlete is exactly right.

It's the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade metaphor - there's a cup that will grant you immortality, and a cup that will kill you. We like that scene because the good guy makes the good "choice" and the bad guy doesn't.

Using your Clarett example, we don't like to think about the atmosphere of yes-men, vice and indulgence that surrounded Clarett after his initial success - we just like to look at Clarett and blame something inherently defective in his choices, and by association, in Clarett.

Looking at Armstrong, everyone wearing a Livestrong bracelet isn't thinking about how he may have been a bad husband or how his drive may have negatively impacted other aspects of his life; to them, the features of their idol merely depict his ability and drive to overcome obstacles.

The same problem extends to how we judge college sports and professional sports. We like to project our view of college as some kind of black box, in which one enters an immature teen, and emerges as an adult ready to take on the world, on our athletes, when there is ample evidence that for many NCAA football and basketball players, the experience is completely different.

For a good example of this, take a look at Greg Easterbrook's latest column on Even after he acknowledges the problem of diploma mills, the college experience is still undiminished in value.

Blogger Satchmo -- 8/24/2006 5:00 PM  

I believe Sunsgossip mention of race does deserve some discussion. How about Barry Bonds- he's turned it into a racial issue as well. Jason Giambi was let off lightly for his "coming clean" (although never noting what he was apologizing for). He even won comeback player of the year. Was this won for his comeback from using steroids? (enough moderate Yankee bashing for the day, I'm a Yankees fan)

Again, I think it's Bonds attitude (more than his race) that has held him in an infamous light. He's also chasing possibly the most cherished sports record in America- baseball is our national pastime with homers being the “sexist” state (“chicks dig the long ball”). As far as McGuire, he’s been out of site, out of mind.

Anonymous George -- 8/24/2006 6:09 PM  

Thank you all for these excellent comments, I really appreciate them.

Anonymous 1: Jon Hanson and I are working on several projects, and the sports law book is one of them. We hope to make significant progress over the coming months. We are also writing a more extensive version of the Clarett op-ed piece. It will probably be in the neighborhood of 5,000 words and hopefully we secure publication in a magazine.

Anonymous 2: No question about it: people who question systems often irritate other people. That begs the question, of course, of why are we irritated by those who find a system illegal or wrong? It's their right to challenge a system, and yet (and as you note) there often seems to be resentment when they do so. If people in our own country didn't challenge systems, God only knows what kind of discriminatory systems we would feature.

George: I love the A-Rod/Jeter example you detail, it is very creative and quite compelling in this discussion. We haven't considered that particular topic, but based on your points, it clearly fits. Thank you for writing it--it is fantastic analysis that I hope people read. It would seem to be a nice fit for the book, although my only reluctance would be in writing about the New York Yankees!

SunsGossip: I agree with you (and George in his second comment) about the role of race in looking at Clarett and villains in general. Our magazine article on Clarett will feature a discussion on that.

Satchmo (Will Li): Love the Indiana Jones analogy! That is exactly right: we like to see the good guy (Indiana Jones) making the right choice and the bad guy (the Nazi) make the wrong choice. And your points about Clarett and Armstrong are fantastic. We do, as you note, tend to focus on the bad choices, rather than of the situation or circumstances, of those who we deem "villains," while we tend to overlook the bad choices of those who deem "heroes." And as you know, there is a great deal of literature in the field of social psychology on that very point, which I think is neat when applied to sports.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 8/24/2006 8:27 PM  

Michael, good luck with the book, I will look forward to reading it someday. If it's half as thorough as your essay's, it will be well worth to read.

As for Maurice, I'm neither his supporter or detractor at this point. I'm NOT a bandwagon person at all, I believe in the, "a person is innocent til proven guilty" court system. I'm just sitting back and observing at this point.

Now, that said, being from the same general area where he grew up and played his high school football, I know of how rough it can be around here putting up with, and dealing with outside forces, and so forth. I know that his brother has been in alot of trouble with the law, and not of a minor degree. I do believe he was wearing a vest to protect himself, I also believe it was merely a coincidence that he was supposedly "closeby" a woman set to testify against him. Also, without knowing the facts, I have heard the cell phone he stole was his to begin with. Now, if true, how someone steals his own phone is beyond me. However, if as reported he's had deals with and been in contact with mobsters is very disturbing to say the least and will be more his downfall than anything else.

If anyone would care to contact me about such information, please feel free to do so at

Anonymous Dave Burkey -- 8/24/2006 8:39 PM  

Maybe - I said maybe - some people don't like Maurice Clarett because of what his supporters during his challenge of the NFL Draft rules tried to make him out to be. He was an oppressed soul; he was a man ready to be an NFL athlete; he was being abused by the NCAA because he made them millions while he got nothing. Sound familiar?

OK, I didn't care to debate any of those posturings when they were freshly minted and I don't care to try to deal with them now because intervening events have made some of them too easy to shoot down. Here's what seems to be "far closer to true than false" about Maruice Clarett then and now:

1. He was in it for the money and the fame and the celebrity.

2. He had prodigious physical skills within the framework of NCAA football; perhaps - I said perhaps - those skills would have manifest themselves at the NFL level had his life taken the "normal course".

3. Maurice Clarett exhibited lots of behaviors at OSU and since his OSU days that would make him a poster child for "self-absorbed/feeling of entitlement athlete of the decade".

4. Relative to other people who had been admitted to colleges of the stature of OSU, Maruice Clarett showed himself to be malilgnantly anti-social and horribly immature within the context of American society in 2004-6.

Many folks can let all that pass as long as they don't recall that his advocates tried to make Maruice Clarett out to be the latter-day version of Mohandas Ghandi. He's not and the folks who tried to position him in that light did him no favors.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 8/24/2006 9:14 PM  

I can not speak for America, but it seems the whole race card stems from the fact that "America" feels that they are given the African-Americans the ultimate chance to succeed now, and do not like it when players like Maurice Clarett screw it up. I think that has a lot to do with it. Unfortunately, you do not make it here, until its "ok" for your people to go to jail like any other group of people.
Anonymous 2

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/24/2006 11:33 PM  

As a Buckeye fan and a citizen of Columbus I don't believe you can understand unless you live here. Ohio State made an investment in Clarett and gave him a chance. Scholarships do not come cheap especially in the competitive Division I-A. That's a chance some other kid did not get. His actions do not only affect himself, they have a ripple effect. Besides, after OSU he was drafted by Denver, cut and then slated to play in NFL Europe. Let's not pretend that he didn't have a myriad of opportunities to get it right and that this is his first arrest.

"Character is measured by getting up one more time than you fall down."

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/25/2006 12:53 PM  

Prof. McCann, let me know when the book is released. This is a very interesting subject that overlaps with many aspects of law and society.

Anonymous Lance M -- 8/25/2006 4:25 PM  

The sociological aspects of sports law. Interesting. Very interesting. Clarett is a victim. We must work harder to understand where his is coming from. NOT. At least we do not have to talk about how the NFL and NFLPA screwed him on the age limit thing anymore...well, for a while...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/25/2006 6:41 PM  

Terrific piece. ... Clarett didn't just test any system. He tested our beloved system of athletic servitude to institutions of higher education. That's why people hate him.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/26/2006 9:27 AM  

Very insightful article. I look forward to reading the forthcoming magazine article and book.

It's been my experience that children are more accepting and forgiving of human shortcomings in their favorite athletes than adults. Adults seem to demand pefection - on and off the field - and turn on an athlete when that high standard is not met.

This seems to lend credence to the idea that society conditions us to respond in certain ways to athletes' successes and failures. Children just haven't received as much of this conditioning, and thus they tend to treat athletes in a more rational, realistic fashion.

Just my opinion . . .

Blogger Scott Gunem -- 8/27/2006 6:49 PM  

It's been my experience that children are more accepting and forgiving of human shortcomings in their favorite athletes than adults. Adults seem to demand pefection - on and off the field - and turn on an athlete when that high standard is not met.

Scott - that's an interesting point. To continue along the same line of thought, how are our considerations of athletes as adults shaped by our adoption of athletes as role models as children?

In other words, we are more forgiving of athletes (and by extention, celebrities) as children, because when we elevate them as role models or condemn them as villains, they embody certain morals rather than appear as human beings.

Thus, when athletes do something that may lie outside the moral boundaries with which WE ascribe to them, we react differently than we do with everyday individuals.

There are certainly other factors at play, but I think how athletes are promoted as role models have a lot in terms of conditioning our responses to their actions.

Blogger Satchmo -- 8/27/2006 8:12 PM  

Thanks for indulging me on this point, Satchmo. I suppose it's rather counter-intuitive to say that children can be more realistic in their expectations than adults, but I think that's exactly the case with expectations of individual athletes.

And your extension of the point makes sense to me, too. Once athletes become role models, they become "dehumanized" in some sense.

My observations are based entirely on anecdotal evidence and limited anecdotal evidence at that (my 9yo son and his friends who are avid sports fans), but maybe there's something here.

They want their favorite teams to win and their favorite players to do well, and they get as disappointed as anyone else if things don't go well. However, there is no villainizing of any particular player. Disappointment, yes. But no villainizing. In fact, they tend to "feel sorry" for individual players who don't measure up - on or off the playing field.

Well, I'll stop. I may be over-generalizing from a rather limited sample.

Blogger Scott Gunem -- 8/27/2006 8:46 PM  

Thank you for this blog, and this information


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