AN UNFOLDING TRAGEDY IN COLLEGE SPORT
Jonathan Paul Manziel, affectionately known as "Johnny Football," enjoyed the most dazzling career in 2012 of any freshman football player in the history of the sport. He won the coveted Heisman Trophy. As team field general, he led the Texas Aggies to an 11-2 season in the SEC, college football’s most bruising and bone-crushing conference, with sensational victories over Alabama’s Crimson Tide and the Oklahoma Sooners. Texas A & M University finished fifth in the Associated Press's college football rankings, the school’s highest since 1956. Veteran quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton and Doug Flutie watched the young man’s style of play and made no secret how extraordinary they thought he was. Overnight Johnny Manziel became a living legend. Only a novelist might have dreamed up the young man’s incomparable flight to stardom. Even the seventeen-year old Bob Mathias, who won a gold-medal in the 1948 Olympic Decathlon and ascended to the title of “The World’s Greatest Athlete” did not achieve Manziel’s level of notoriety.
Fame is happy chaos that often exacts a terrible price. Manziel, whose primary goal was initially that of a university education, was forced to exit the conventional classroom, where students interact with one another socially and intellectually and engage professors in discussions. He was compelled to settle for “distance learning,” where in the solitude of a room he stares at a monitor and takes notes. He had no choice. His adoring fans were a distraction to him and others. Even a casual walk on the College Station campus could, for this young gridiron warrior, be compared to Elvis Presley’s shopping in downtown Memphis the day after Thanksgiving. One would be as risky and as dangerous as the other. Johnny’s stardom soon gave way to the surreal, in which the world itself became his courtier while he became its captive.
The boy's prince-like post-season attitude of entitlement explains, in part, why he had the temerity (some might say, “los cajones”) to create a stir by attending University of Texas frat parties, to make derogatory public statements about his own university, and to take an embarrassingly early departure from the Manning Passing Academy. These actions go hand-in-hand with his excessive drinking, sybaritic partying, and emotional volatility. Watching Johnny’s recalcitrant behavior up close, his father expressed his own and many other observers' helpless and troubled concern, “Yeah, it could come unraveled. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad.” But, of course, in the end the boy’s stardom trumped parental red flags, when the old man purchased his son a brand new Mercedes Benz. Not bad for a twenty year old kid, but a major mistake for an indulgent father.
The elder Manziel's premonition has now actualized into vexing fact. Johnny Football became the perfect object of prey for sports whores and hucksters. They offered money to the young man as his life was unraveling in the wake of blandishments from the game. Theirs was a simple proposition: money for autographs. The trouble is that their quid pro quo violates NCAA rules and renders an athlete ineligible to compete. It would be stretching credulity to suggest that Johnny did not know how serious such violations are.
Texas A & M University and the NCAA are investigating these allegations. Pardon me for laughing. It's not as if there's that much to investigate, right? Either he did it, or he didn't.
If the many allegations prove true, Johnny’s career as a collegiate athlete should end as abruptly as it began. Those who paid six and seven thousand dollars a seat to watch the young man “do his thing” against Alabama on September 14, 2013, at Kyle Field, should be sorely disappointed, but so what? Their hero was nothing but a tin man anyway, right? Finally, the heart of the mythical “Twelfth Man” ought to be broken, always left to wonder “what if?” All this may seem harsh, but I'm sorry, these are some of the consequences which result from breaking the rules.
As I say, the question to be answered is simple enough. The video that one broker of sports memorabilia has shared shows the boy calmly signing helmets and footballs, but cautioning the broker “you never did a signing with me” and warning him that, if he ever leaks the information, he will never again have access to the star. The video does not, however, show any money changing hands, although the broker offers additional payment, which Johnny declines.
But hold on a second! There's another aspect to this. A most simple and unsophisticated question of fact has a way of becoming hopelessly convoluted in today’s sports arenas, where a man’s thirst is measured by the amount of beer he can drink and his morality is generally defined by his belly. I dare say the only thing that will matter in the final analysis for either Texas A & M University or the NCAA is whether a “legal” case can be made against Manziel, a case that is "credible, persuasive, and of a nature that reasonable people would rely [upon it] in the conduct of serious affairs." The standard reeks of legalism, doesn't it? It sounds rather like the “clear and convincing” burden of proof utilized in some court cases.
Be assured that Texas A & M views the issue in legal, not moral, terms. It has, without surprise, retained the law firm that represented Auburn University and its star quarterback Cam Newton in allegations against them of wrongdoing. If the point isn't clear by now, then allow me to be blunt: Texas A & M is out to clear its star quarterback if that is feasible. It knows that lawyers are “hired guns” and that money talks. Make no mistake about it: Johnny Manziel's future in college sport depends squarely upon money and lawyers. All this hardly comes to you as a revelation from on high, I'm sure. It's the way our world is structured, nothing more and nothing less.
Yet, on the other hand, nobody wants to initiate a fight that he cannot possibly win, especially a lawyer who prides himself on his long list of courtroom victories. Even Percy Foreman, the legendary criminal defense attorney, would occasionally throw in the towel when he had no viable alternative. If there’s a case to be made for Manziel, these lawyers will find and make it; otherwise, they will advise the university to cut its losses. If there is no direct and compelling evidence that dollars have actually changed hands, I personally think that Manziel may retain his eligibility by the skin of his teeth, and for him that’s as good as a country mile.
Never mind the fact that, morally speaking, he’s probably guilty as sin. But since when has morality been relevant in American life, especially in sports? Ask Jerry Jones; he’ll tell you.
Never mind the fact that, if Manziel escapes punishment, he will conclude for all time to come that the rules don’t really apply to him as they do to others. His values, if he has any, will become more pliable, distorted, and corrupted than they are now.
Never mind that nobody cares about this kid enough to help him find the structure in life he needs. People gravitate to him because he’s a gifted athlete, and I dare say for no other reason.
One day, as an old man, if he should be blessed with longevity, Johnny Football may think back over his time in the sport with wisdom and insight that usually come only with age, and muse, “You know, when I was playing the game, setting records, and catapulting myself to rarified realms of stardom, my pocket book became heavy – yes, it did -- but my life was a dry well. I woke up years later to realize that most of the people around me were there simply because they were trying to elevate themselves by getting a piece of me. That depleted me in every way that really counts. It's a tragedy that I discovered it so late in my life.”
I for one feel sorry for this boy. His character is obviously not as strong as his throwing arm. He’s a captive of his own fame, which in the broadest reach of things is ephemeral and will count for little or nothing. He lacks what some unsung heroes his own age (and younger) already have – solid core values and an ever growing depth of personhood.
I will probably watch the Texas A & M – Alabama game this Fall, but I’ll have one less hero to cheer.
August 11, 2013