The following op-ed, co-written by Professor Jon Hanson, The psychopathology of athlete worship, appeared in The Providence Journal on 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.