Afforded a plum slot coming out of ESPN’s Heisman Trophy presentation, “Youngstown Boys” is an interesting but slightly disjointed documentary from the network’s “30 for 30” franchise. Chronicling inequity in college football through two of Ohio’s native sons — former the Ohio State U coach Jim Tressel and running back Maurice Clarett — filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist devote too much time to certain aspects of the story and seemingly not enough to others. Kudos to ESPN for airing a tough piece on one of college football’s big nights, but given gilded the expectations associated with the “30 for “30” name, it’s no prize-winner.
Running close to 100 minutes sans commercials, the movie meticulously introduces Clarett as a kid estranged from his father, but with a gift for football, and Tressel as a coach who looked like a product of central casting. Together, they helped OSU win its first national championship in three decades in 2002, before Clarett was suspended for violating NCAA rules.
At that point, Clarett’s story turns first into a courtroom drama — he sued college football and the NFL, seeking the right to turn pro early — and then a tragedy. First winning his case, then losing on appeal, he had fallen apart and begun abusing alcohol by the time he finally got his chance to turn pro. Cut from the league, a robbery arrest and jail stint followed.
As for Tressel, he continued coaching for another eight years before choosing to overlook rules violations by several other players, which eventually led to his resignation. Yet despite the twin swirls of scandal, Clarett’s story — and his eventual redemption, as he labored to educate himself while incarcerated — significantly overshadows Tressel, whose own fall from grace is dispatched with in relatively slapdash fashion.
In its totality, “Youngstown Boys” (both coach and player hail from that working-class city) does contain some profound observations about the hypocrisy of collegiate athletics, and particularly the NCAA’s arcane system.
A parallel theme involves a media — particularly in football-mad states, where rivalries like OSU and Michigan approach life-or-death fervor — ready to pounce on any whiff of controversy, transforming a young star or head coach from adulation to condemnation at dizzying speed.
Still, with so many threads to follow, the Zimbalists (who previously did “The Two Escobars”) can’t quite close the circle, including what might be made of the fact that OSU propelled itself back into national-championship contention two years after Tressel’s exit.
Because ESPN is so in bed with these sports institutions, any willingness to focus on their warts — especially in this sort of longform journalism — is laudable. But while “Youngstown Boys” spins a yarn using Clarett as a microcosm, this look at the Buckeyes can’t quite dot all the “I’s.”