SvoNotes: The Forgotten Revolutionary

Talk of NCAA reform and giving a bigger piece of the pie to student-athletes is one of the major debates of the day, but more than a decade earlier, Maurice Clarett was one of the first to be smart enough to realize the athletes hold the power in college athletics.

After taking part in ESPN's latest "30 for 30" film "Youngstown Boys," Maurice Clarett made it clear that he didn't want the project to be seen as another look into the amateurism rules that helped end his Ohio State career prematurely.

"I didn't make the film for it to be a stage for young guys to get paid," Clarett said. "That's probably a different forum, a different conversation."

Yet in watching the first hour of the story of the rise and fall of Clarett, it was hard not to think about how that was one of the key parts of the story.

Somewhat lost in the 30 for 30 film was that Clarett was suspended for the 2003 season for two violations of NCAA rules – one regarding amateurism after the body had determined he had accepted thousands of dollars worth of illegal benefits, and one regarding making false and misleading statements to investigators.

It's been 11 years since Clarett started making overtures at taking down the rule about players needing to be three years out of high school before being eligible for the NFL, and a lot has changed since the famed ESPN story with Gene Wojciechowski hit newsstands.

There seems to be unstoppable momentum right now toward an overhaul of the NCAA system, one in which the richest schools in college athletics would like to make it possible to at the very least cover the "cost of attendance" for full scholarship student-athletes – a generally close to $2,000 gap that current goes unfilled.

Others outside the system push for even more – perhaps ways for star athletes like Braxton Miller and Johnny Manziel, whose likenesses have been used to sell jerseys and video games, to profit on their likeness while still retaining eligibility to stay in school.

That could turn the whole concept of amateur athletics on its head, but it is an interesting, useful, beneficial and flawed system – one that someone with Clarett's charisma and talent could have changed forever.

Who knows whether increased benefits for student-athletes would have kept Clarett eligible and eventually on the right side of the law, but a day is coming when the people who make the money – the players – realize they actually have the power in the whole thing.

Clarett was one of the first athletes smart enough to do so, in fact, but he wasn't savvy enough to wield that power wisely. In the end, his actions backed him into a corner from which there was only one way out – to challenge the NFL's eligibility rules, a battle he first won but then lost upon appeal.

It seems ridiculous that that rule has stayed in place as long as it has – athletes are free to leave college basketball after one year and free to join professional leagues in all other sports at whatever age they so desire after high school – but I tend to believe that another Clarett will come along who will break that barrier some day.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for the first college athletes who truly upset the apple cart. My friend John U. Bacon has often told the story recently of the high-level college basketball team that was going to refuse to take the court had it made the Final Four, but that team simply just didn't make it far enough to take its stand.

It wouldn't surprise me if a day like that is coming, and it'll take an athlete or a group of athletes like Clarett – equal parts skill and savvy, someone with a true understanding of power dynamics – to break down that door.

A decade ago, it nearly was Clarett. When people talk about what might have been with Maurice, they generally mean in regards to his football skill. But while watching Youngstown Boys, I couldn't help but think Clarett was the revolutionary who came before his time.

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