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No Fault of His Own

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has become the victim of a media-driven negative campaign.

One of the great perks of working in the realm of sports media is that you, either directly or subconsciously, have the ability to set the tone for which topics of discussion become trendy.

As has become evident with the seemingly never-ending introduction of allegedly bigger and better sports reporting outlets, Americans have become crazed with the idea of being able to easily access sports information.

It is that insatiable demand for sports coverage which has allowed the media to steadily gain its stranglehold over how the public views the sporting landscape.

The people in charge of the biggest and most influential sports media entities are the ones responsible for deciding which storylines will become the latest topics for conversation around the water cooler.

Sometimes, albeit infrequently, the national media can even seem to “invent” stories out of thin air in order to drive a certain topic of discussion and boost their ratings.

Unfortunately, this is what we have seen come to pass in the tale of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

In the final game of his sophomore season, Clowney became a figure of legendary proportions with his demolishing hit against Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Capital One Bowl. The play ultimately won Clowney an ESPY for “Best Play of the Year” and propelled his celebrity to previously-unimaginable heights.

Clowney’s popularity certainly did not stem for one singular play, however, as he was voted a first-team All-American for his season-long performance.

Heading into the offseason, there was serious talk of Clowney being the most dominant defensive player in the history of college football. At the very least, numerous national pundits considered him to be a legitimate contender to become the first full-time defensive player to bring home the Heisman Trophy.

At that time, his status had never been higher. Media members raved over his immense talent and potential, while most fans spoke of him as if he were a mythical being playing against mere mortals on the gridiron.

But, suddenly, it all changed.

And what made it worse, is that it all changed neither due to something Clowney said nor one of his actions, but because the media created a story out of thin air.

It all started with a single reporter – Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer – suggesting that maybe it would be in Clowney’s best interests to sit out his junior season. Such a move, Sorensen argued, would ensure that Clowney would not get injured and jeopardize his certain future as a top pick in the NFL Draft. 

Sorensen’s article made no mention of Clowney ever actually insinuating that he would consider skipping his junior season in Columbia. The column was simply written to suggest that not playing would be the best move for Clowney’s professional prospects. It was a hypothetical and thought-provoking piece. 

Inspired by Sorensen’s article, the debate over whether or not Clowney would consider skipping his junior season soon became a hot national topic. Steve Spurrier was asked multiple questions regarding the status of his star defender prior to the start of spring practice, saying that he didn’t see any reason Clowney would not participate.

Once again, none of these media events were inspired by any actions from Clowney himself.

The All-American from Rock Hill quickly put that speculation to rest when he announced that he had no intentions of sitting out his junior season as a Gamecock.

But despite participating in spring practice, the public perception had already been changed to lead many fans to believe that he was, in their words, “abandoning” his teammates.

Even with some fans across the country beginning to view Clowney in a negative light, nobody who had watched his highlight tape questioned his talent. He was still expected to piece together a junior season to remember, dominating the competition and posting ridiculous stats on his farewell tour through the SEC.

In the first game of South Carolina’s season, a Thursday night title with North Carolina, Clowney was still battling the effects from a stomach virus which he caught earlier in the week. Not playing at 100%, Clowney found himself standing on the sideline more frequently than usual, and also was highlighted by ESPN analysts for his alleged lack of effort on specific plays.

Likely due to the amount of attention dedicated to him by television cameras and the manner in which the analysts discussed him that afternoon against the Tar Heels, the common perception about Clowney very quickly became that he was lazy, out of shape and does not hustle consistently.

As my good college friend, Josh Norris, wrote for RotoWorld, however, there is nothing statistically unusual about Clowney’s playing time or effort. To steal a stat from Norris, in the games in which Clowney has suited up for the Gamecocks, he has played over 78% of his team’s defensive snaps. Compare that to a couple of first round picks in last year’s NFL Draft, Sheldon Richardson and Sharrif Floyd, who played 72.3 and 66.4 percent of their teams’ snaps respectively.

Also, the notion that a defensive end would take an occasional play off is no novel concept. Due to the nature of the position, it is impossible to give maximum effort on every play, especially when the offense’s play-design effectively neutralizes you from even potentially making a tackle. In such a situation, it does not make sense to intensely chase a ball-carrier you have no chance of tackling.

Now, Clowney’s recent decision to sit out South Carolina’s contest against Kentucky due to sore ribs has only served to further his spiraling national perception.

The Gamecocks expected to have Clowney in uniform against the Wildcats, but he came to the coaching staff at the last minute and informed him that his injury was too painful for him to play.

Head coach Steve Spurrier admitted to the media that he was disappointed with the way in which events unfolded in regard to Clowney’s injury, but he also later went on to say that he was frustrated because Clowney’s injury was not fully diagnosed until after the game.

Even with his coach attempting to clear the air surrounding the situation, most fans nationally seem to have taken this recent incident as just another example of Clowney’s supposed selfishness and lack of commitment to his team and program.

If you are one of the fans who feel this way, ask yourself this question: has Clowney really done anything that out of the ordinary to single himself out as a reprehensible human being, as many people appear to be portraying him?

The notion that Clowney has any of the aforementioned character traits is downright laughable.

Just exactly what has this guy done to deserve all of this overwhelming negative press?

How dare he force media pundits to speculate that he may skip his junior season to preserve his draft status?

What nerve it must have taken him to take himself out of a game for a few plays when he was recovering from an illness and playing in the August heat.

How could this monstrous human being refuse to play a football game when he was in significant pain? Surely no other football player in the history of the world has missed a game due to injury.

The fact is, Clowney has become the most-recent victim of the sports media vilifying him for their own selfish purposes.

So let’s all stop pretending like we are witnessing the evil doings of an inherently evil individual who is willing to put his own well-being above that of everyone around him, and start treating Clowney like the person he really is: an exceptional football player who cares deeply about his team, his school and his sport.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.