Face facts: Clowney decision circus now the rule, not the exception
Monday, top recruit Jadeveon Clowney picked South Carolina on national TV
The college football equivalent of free-agency is a valuable media commodity
Some are outraged by circus, but this will happen for top players every year
ROCK HILL, S.C. -- During one of several pregnant pauses in Jadeveon Clowney's version of "The Decision" on Monday, Ron Morris turned and asked a not-outlandish-considering-the-circumstances question.
"Did ESPN tell him which school to choose, too?" asked Morris, a longtime columnist at The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
Meanwhile, on stage, a voice belonging to someone in Bristol, Conn., passed an update into the left ear of the nation's No. 1 football recruit through an IFB device. Clowney, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound defensive end who had actually decided to attend South Carolina a week before his nationally televised announcement, kindly relayed the news to the horde of media packing the front rows of the auditorium of South Pointe High.
"Forty-five seconds," Clowney said with a nervous laugh. Then he glanced up at a flat-screen hanging on the wall. A commercial played. In less than a minute, his image would fill the screen. Despite the ESPN The Magazine cover, the recruiting service stars, months of national attention and a documentary crew following his every move, Clowney looked like what he was -- a kid on his 18th birthday excited and nervous at the same time because he was about to be broadcast to the nation.
This is the part where I'm supposed to rip the entire circus to shreds. This is the part where I'm supposed to compare the wall-to-wall coverage of the decisions of high school students to child pornography. This is the part where I'm supposed to declare that we're better than all this.
But we aren't. I was originally hired by SI to cover only recruiting. The people at Rivals.com, Scout.com and now 247Sports.com make their living chronicling these decisions. You're reading this not because you're interested in a media critique of the handling of Clowney's decision. You're reading this because you want to know if he's really as good as he looks in that YouTube clip where he runs down the tailback like a jungle cat chasing lunch.
Face facts. LeBron James' decision drew a huge rating. The best player in the NBA was a free agent, and he announced on live television where he would play in the fall.
Well guess what? College football is more popular than the NBA. The NFL is king, but college football is either the No. 2 or No. 3 sport in America in terms of media consumption. Recruiting is college football's free agency. It's the hot stove league for the major American sport with the longest offseason.
Millions of people wanted to know where the sport's No. 1 free agent planned to take his talents. That makes Clowney's announcement very, very valuable from a television standpoint. This will happen again next year. It will happen the year after that. And the year after that. Eventually, the people who drop in once a year and get outraged will figure out that while relatively new, these circuses are part of the fabric of the American sports media landscape.
Sure, Clowney could have signed on National Signing Day, but he got a bigger pop announcing 12 days later. Why announce on the same day as 20 other top prospects? Why not goose the ratings with a standalone?
I've been in the same general vicinity as Clowney for about two hours of my life, and I've known him long enough to know that he isn't media-savvy enough to know that. Someone else pulled the strings here. "I wish I'd did it on the second," Clowney said Monday.
So why didn't Clowney say no? Why didn't he tell everyone that he and he alone would dictate the terms of his decision? "I ain't good at saying no," Clowney said.
This is the part where I'm supposed to rip Clowney's parents for not stepping in and keeping powerful forces from taking advantage of a kid. But that won't happen, either. Clowney appears to have received excellent parenting and grounding from his mother, Josenna, who worked hard to raise her son despite the fact that his father, David Morgan, was locked up for almost 12 years of Jadeveon's life for robbery.
Josenna Clowney is a processing technician at the Frito-Lay plant in nearby Charlotte. She helps make Doritos. (She worked a 3 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift Sunday and has another one coming up Tuesday.) She has no formal media training. She had no way of knowing that a certain level of fame -- a level her son shot past months ago -- robs a person of any semblance of a normal life.
It's easy to sit back and criticize Josenna for not shielding her son from the horde, but try it when it's your kid. If ESPN comes knocking and wants to make him the poster child for an entire recruiting class, would you say no?
I might, but only because I work in this business and I know how quickly we raise up and then chew up these high-profile recruits. Josenna, who was too busy trying to support her children to worry about such frivolous things, only recently learned the difference between the SEC and the ACC. "I'm just a mom," she said. "I just went to games." How could she -- or any normal parent thrust into this situation -- be expected to know exactly how the fame that comes with being a freakishly good high school football player can turn into a runaway train?
"Sometimes, I wish people would just leave us alone -- let us go back to normal," Josenna said Monday as camera shutters clicked and flashbulbs popped. "I have sympathy for those people who have to be in the spotlight at all times. I'm hoping it'll die down."
Consider her situation. She probably never imagined when she realized that Jadeveon was an exceptional football player that his skill would be the reason her son's grades became fodder for a story in The New York Times. No mom wants the world to know her son has D's on his transcript.
(A word about the grades: Clowney said he will meet the NCAA's initial eligibility standards and play this fall at South Carolina. Bobby Carroll, who coached Clowney at South Pointe, was more emphatic. "I'll bet my paycheck on it," Carroll said.)
So what is a parent to do when wolves like myself begin prowling? The best way to handle it might be the way Mark and Velzina Nugent handled the recruitment of their son, Karlos Williams. Williams, from Davenport, Fla., could have been in Clowney's shoes on Monday. Williams is the No. 1 safety prospect in the class of 2011. Like Clowney, Williams also dominated in ESPN's Under Armour All-America Game.
But Williams committed to Florida State 358 days ago. When Williams signed on Feb. 2, it had all the drama of a trip to the post office. True story: A documentary crew wanted to follow Williams and his parents through the recruiting process. In early 2010, the crew got clearances from various schools to film Williams on unofficial visits. Then Williams went to a Junior Day at Florida State and committed. The following Monday, Mark Nugent's phone nearly exploded with messages from the documentarians. By committing, Williams had ruined the entire show.
The Nugents didn't worry about hurting anyone else's feelings. They worried about their son's feelings, and he felt Florida State was the best school for him. But they had inside information about the recruiting process. Two older sons already had gone through it. They knew the endgame.
Most top recruits' parents are more like Josenna Clowney. They are thrust into a situation where coaches and large media companies define the rules of the game, so the parents and the players must navigate the minefield with little guidance. At the end of the day, the only real choice a player in that situation has is where he goes to school.