National Columnist

In Spurrier-Clowney blame game, there's only one bad guy

Steve Spurrier's mouth is the root cause of questions surrounding Jadeveon Clowney's heart.   (USATSI)
Steve Spurrier's mouth is the root cause of questions surrounding Jadeveon Clowney's heart. (USATSI)

Steve Spurrier did this to Jadeveon Clowney, and I don't mean he did some of this -- he did all of it. Yes, it was Jadeveon Clowney who decided he was too hurt to play Saturday against Kentucky, but that's not where it went wrong. That's not the reason Clowney has gone from South Carolina's freakish, helmet-popping superhero to its selfish, team-abandoning jerk.

Steve Spurrier is where it went wrong.

Spurrier, the South Carolina coach, is the reason.

It's Spurrier's fault that Clowney's passion for football has become a prominent storyline this week -- and though Spurrier tried halfheartedly to fix it, he can't stop what he started. Nor can Clowney. The Gamecocks play Arkansas on Saturday, and if Clowney plays and plays poorly, well, that won't be a good thing.

And if Clowney dominates Arkansas? That might be worse.

Couldn't have been THAT hurt seven days ago ...

Spurrier did this. Spurrier's the bad guy in this story, the only bad guy in this story, though you haven't been hearing that from the national media. ESPN's Paul Finebaum called Clowney "the biggest joke in college football," and ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit wondered aloud whether Spurrier should just kick Clowney off the team. That's the narrative Spurrier started and the media immediately promoted, and fans around the country are piling on. They've made Clowney a trending topic on Twitter this week, and not to defend his honor. Clowney was on a pedestal, see, and for some of us there's nothing better than watching him fall.

Spurrier did this. He did it after the Kentucky game when he did one of the things he's really good at: shooting off his mouth. Spurrier is good at some other stuff too, like coaching football and running a newspaper, but he's a savant when it comes to saying what's on his mind, even if what's on his mind is mean-spirited petulance. And petulance was on his mind after the Kentucky game when Spurrier implied the following:

Clowney didn't play because he's selfish.

That's what Spurrier said, basically, when he launched into this poisonous attack on the most important player he's had in nine years at South Carolina.

"He may not be able to play next week, I don't know," Spurrier said Saturday. "But we're not going to worry about it, I can assure you that. If he wants to play, we'll welcome him to come play for the team if he wants to. But if he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play. It's as simple as that."

If he wants to play ...

There's no going back from there, and Spurrier hasn't really tried. On Tuesday he conceded that Clowney was injured for the Kentucky game, but when asked if Clowney was committed to the team -- a question that was asked only because of Spurrier's mean-spirited petulance on Saturday -- Spurrier buried Clowney again:

"You'll have to ask him that."

After turning Clowney into a national punch line, Spurrier didn't say he messed up. He said everybody messed up.

"Obviously, we all handled it poorly," Spurrier said. "All of us did."

Wrong, ball coach. You handled it poorly -- you did.

If he wants to play ...

There's no defending what Spurrier did to Clowney, but for some reason the media has continued Spurrier's dirty work. Clowney didn't practice the Thursday before the Kentucky game -- he was too injured -- but the insinuation that he was soft on Saturday is everywhere, whether it's Finebaum or Herbstreit saying their piece on ESPN or it's other media outlets giving anonymous NFL scouts free reign to savage Clowney as they wonder "if he really loves football" while noting that they see "more and more red flags."

That's where the discussion is now on Jadeveon Clowney's NFL prospects. No longer are we debating whether a defensive end is worth the No. 1 overall pick. Now we're debating whether the 20-year-old loves the damn game.

Sickening, and Spurrier did this. Let's go back to that Kentucky game, to Spurrier's postgame press conference, when he was asked why Clowney hadn't played. You already know what Spurrier said:

If he wants to play ...

But imagine if he'd said it just a little bit differently. Imagine if he'd replaced "want" with "able."

"If he's able to play, we'll welcome him to come play for the team. But if he isn't able to play ... "

Spurrier says that, and the narrative changes. It doesn't go away, of course, but it changes. Instead of this noxious discussion of Jadeveon Clowney's selfishness and desire, we'd be talking about how injury-prone he is. That's not a great discussion for a top NFL draft pick to be the subject of, but it beats the living daylights out of having his loyalty and desire dissected on national television.

Spurrier did that to Clowney, and he can't undo it. He's not all that interested in trying.

And for some reason, he's getting away with it.

 
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