Would-be champions need
talent and character

Aug 15, 2006 9:48 PM

Some 2,500 years ago, in the golden age of Greek drama, the actors wore mask to depict duality, to play more than one role. The masks became the symbol of the theater, and still are today, one depicting comedy, the other tragedy.

I thought about these masks last week, as the tragedy of Maurice Clarett unfolded in Columbus, Ohio. Here, on the stage of American athletics, a real tragedy is being played out, and has almost reached its end.

Clarett, of course, was the hero of Columbus, and of all Ohio, just four years ago. He was the freshman phenomenon, a brilliant running back, who scored the winning touchdown for Ohio State in its national championship game against Miami.

He was 18 years old at the time, and a bad actor even then, although his athletic prowess and the adulation of Buckeye fans overlooked that. A year later he was out of the limelight and out of football, and apparently out of his mind as well.

He had a run-in with the police between that 2002 glory season and the scheduled start of the next, in which he claimed more than $10,000 had been stolen from a car he borrowed from a dealer in Columbus. The police said it never happened.

Jim Tressel, Ohio State’s coach, and Andy Geiger, then athletic director at OSU, had tried to get Clarett straightened out. They knew he was a problem, and Geiger, commenting on that in an interview with writer Jere Longman last week, said that perhaps he and Tressel and Ohio State bore responsibility "because we took him in the first place."

The pressures to win at any major football school is huge, and particularly at Ohio State, with one of the most rabid fan bases in the country. Coaches and athletic directors and, yes, college presidents, all find the prospect of a brilliant star tempting, but they are dealing in many cases with flawed character, and they know it.

They knew they had a huge problem in Clarett. and after his run-in with the Columbus constabulary they cut Clarett loose, declaring him ineligible for the 2003 season. He asked Tressel if he could stand on the sideline for Ohio State’s opening home game that year with Washington, and Tressel agreed, as long as Clarett remained in the background.

Showing his deep appreciation, Clarett committed a parking violation and showed up on the sidelines wearing his OSU jersey.

Shortly after that, Clarett was gone, trying to get in the National Football League draft. He was turned down, and sued, unsuccessfully.

Then two bizarre developments: First, Clarett was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, allegedly accosting two people outside a bar in an alley late at night, and taking a cell phone from one of them. His lawyers called it mistaken identity. But shortly after he was arrested again, this time near the home of a witness to that incident. His lawyers said he meant no harm.

Then, last week, supposedly worried about threats from people who had loaned him money, he was stopped by Columbus cops after a traffic chase. The police say they had to subdue Clarett with mace. His lawyers say he did not resist arrest. Either way, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and had three handguns, a loaded assault rifle, and a half empty bottle of vodka in his car.

While Clarett was headed toward doom, another athletic tragedy was still playing.

By the time Floyd Landis winds up his fight to clear his name, he will have spent all his money on lawyers. His credit with the public already is shot. He will wind up a broken figure in his Amish home town in Pennsylvania.

And he may be innocent. He reiterated last week that he was tested eight times on the tour, while wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, and only one test — the final one — showed anything. He says he does not know how his testosterone level got so high, but said bitterly that 200 sportswriters suddenly had become experts on the subject. I happen to agree.

Regardless, neither Sophocles nor Aeschylus, the guys who started all this tragedy stuff 500 years before Christ, could have written two beauties like Clarett and Landis.