“Youngstown Boys,” the newest installment of ESPN’s esteemed 30 for 30 documentary series, premiered Saturday night following the 2013 Heisman Trophy ceremony.
While the documentaries consistently draw national audiences for their intriguing storylines and high quality, Saturday’s film was of considerable interest to the Ohio State community. It set out to tell the story of two former Buckeyes greats, running back Maurice Clarett and coach Jim Tressel, from their rises to fame in northeast Ohio to their glory and subsequent downfalls in Columbus.
Or at least that was how it was promoted. Though the pluralized title of the film and the hype leading up to it gave the impression that it would delve into detail about the stories of both men, it focused on Clarett. Tressel was an important character in that story as the head coach of OSU, but the film's inclusion of Tressel came within the context of Clarett's story.
As for the story of Clarett's rise and fall, it was well assembled by the film's directors, brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist.
One of my favorite parts about the film was its use of various footage, from game highlights to press conferences, to capture the emotion from the championship to the controversy.
I appreciated that the highlight package shown from the 2002 OSU-Michigan game was assembled entirely of video and audio clips from the game itself, not littered with retold stories of the game. Footage of that season’s BCS National Championship Game, though segmented by a few interview clips from Clarett, Tressel and OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel, was shown in largely the same fashion.
Presenting the highlights in this way allowed the excitement and anxiety present for OSU at the time to be captured as it was. Additional context was not needed for the clips at this point in the film, which the directors recognized.
Outside of that footage, the two hours included on-camera interviews from Clarett, Tressel and many of the story's key figures. Multiple attorneys who have defended Clarett, family members and close personal friends of Clarett and some of Clarett’s teammates from OSU in 2002, including Krenzel and wide receiver Roy Hall, were included in the film. Even Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who came to Clarett’s defense when he was suspended by OSU and when he challenged the NFL’s rule requiring players to be three years out of high school before entering the NFL draft, made an on-camera appearance.
The interviews with all of those key people helped connect the story and drive it forward.
As one who watched the film live during its television premiere on ESPN, another unexpected positive to the experience was Clarett’s live tweeting of the film on his Twitter account, @ReeseClarett13. Throughout the film, Clarett added context through his personal thoughts regarding the part of the story that was being shown on television at the time, such as the following tweet about why Tressel did not take an active role in coming to his defense when OSU suspended him:
As aforementioned, the film was not all it was billed up to be. Tressel played a significant role in Clarett’s story, as Clarett said himself he chose OSU because of Tressel and his Youngstown ties, but I was not alone in the expectation that more of Tressel’s story to be presented.
The film only touched briefly on Tressel outside of Clarett, barely going into any detail at all about the improper benefits scandal that cost Tressel his job in 2011.
The film was about Clarett, and it seemed to have his presence stamped all over it. Though the film told a compelling story from many quality sources, it felt one-sided.
Throughout the film, Clarett was painted as a victim of a system that didn’t give him fair chances. Both OSU and the National Football League, on the other hand, were painted as villains for the suspension and the appeal that cut his OSU career short and forced him to wait on his shot at the NFL.
That's not to say the film was vengeful toward OSU and the NFL, as Clarett admitted himself during the film that his mistakes were largely responsible for the consequences he faced (following tweets not sequential).
But while I would guess that former OSU athletic director Andy Geiger and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue were reached out to in the making of this film, their sides of the story carried little weight in this film. Even if Geiger and/or OSU representatives, and Tagliabue and/or NFL representatives declined to be interviewed for the film, their viewpoints should have been more clearly represented.
The film’s subtle bias wasn’t the only objectivity-related concern found in this film.
Though it used some footage very well, there were a number of examples in the film of clips being used out of context. One example construed ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit's pregame prediction of the 2002 BCS National Championship Game being in favor of Miami, even though Herbstreit, who often takes heat from Buckeyes fans for picking against his alma mater, actually picked OSU to win that game.
A number of other deceptive edits were found by David Briggs of The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) in a version of the film shown at its Columbus premiere Thursday night and sent as a review copy to media members.
Among the examples: The score on the ABC broadcast is changed to make it seem as if Clarett—not Maurice Hall—scored the game-winning touchdown in the 2002 OSU-Michigan game; a celebratory shot from after the 2011 Sugar Bowl is passed off as the ’02 national title celebration—current safety C.J. Barnett and former linebacker Etienne Sabino are in the foreground; and two quotes taken out of context.
As the film builds up to Clarett’s hyped first game in 2002, Tressel is shown talking to reporters.
“It will be exciting because everyone’s been talking about him so much,” he said. “He’s a great kid. He’s trained hard. He’s nervous like any freshman. I’m sure he didn’t sleep last night. I’m anxious to see him out there. We’ve got 103 other guys out there if you want to talk about them.”
Problem was, the scene was from 2008, when Tressel spoke about Terrelle Pryor’s debut. Yet those with a soft spot for comeback stories will enjoy the film.
The examples found by Briggs were not present in Saturday night’s nationally televised version. An ESPN spokesman told The Blade between its Thursday showing and its Saturday television premiere that the company was making late adjustments to remove creative liberties that ESPN “did not feel were appropriate.”
Criticisms aside, I would still highly recommend this film to anyone who loves (or hates) OSU football, is a fan of sports films and/or wants to learn more about the ups and downs of Clarett’s life. It was a thought-provoking documentary that explores numerous angles of Clarett's wild journey of stardom, self-destruction and redemption. That said, because the filmmakers sacrificed some of the film's accuracy and objectivity, the documentary does not paint a full picture.
Author's Note: The example involving Kirk Herbstreit's selection for the 2002 BCS National Championship Game was not included in the original version of this article.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also a journalism student at Ohio State where he has covered OSU football for The Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper.
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