Johnny Manziel can’t turn back the clock.
Last year, as Kevin Sumlin prepared Texas A&M for its first season in the SEC, the redshirt freshman quarterback was an anonymous redshirt freshman lagging in the quarterback race. The kid was so anonymous that he still carried fake IDs, two of ’em, and could get away with either alter ego (at least until he had to jump into help friends out in bar fights).
Per Sumlin’s team policy, the freshman was withheld from all media interactions, just another underclassman on the team, even as he used his legs and aired out the ball and improvised in Tuscaloosa and left many an SEC defense flat-footed en route to the Heisman Trophy. In the process, the kid became a legend — JOHNNY FOOTBALL, ALL-AMERICAN BOY!!! — in no small part because the media had no means to access the burgeoning superstar..
Along the way the Aggies not only adjusted but thrived in their new league. Remember, A&M was supposed to be the weaker of the two Big XII teams migrating over to the SEC. The team was losing a large chunk of talent, including starting quarterback and top-ten NFL draft pick Ryan Tannehill. A new regime was still getting a feel for College Station, and Sumlin had never been the leader at a power-conference school. His counterpart in the realignment, the Tigers’ Gary Pinkel, was entering his twelfth season in Columbia. Missouri, their recent pedigree more polished and their quarterback situation ostensibly settled, had been given a clearer path to early success with their geographically-challenged alignment in the SEC East.
Instead Manziel became just the fifth quarterback to throw for 3000 yards and rush for more than 1000 in the same season. He juked and darted and saved the upset of Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He was the catalyst that allowed the offense to improve on their top-ten numbers of 2011 rather than regressing in the aftermath of Tannehill’s lone season as the starter.
Without Johnny Heisman guiding the narrative on the field, Texas A&M is quite likely just another Missouri thrown to the lions of a talent-stacked SEC West. Without him, the Aggies probably don’t experience the giddy highs of their first 11-win season since 1998. Would last year’s Cotton Bowl rout of Oklahoma — the team that had defeated A&M eight of the last ten times they played as divisional rivals in the Big XII — ever taken place without Manziel taking the snaps?
And would Johnny Football have been able to become “Johnny Football, Heisman winner” without the boost from a press that was both legitimately impressed by his numbers and results and also nostalgically charmed by the notion of a young man who did his talking on the field and allowed them to romantically flesh out the filler.
Without Manziel to steer the storyline to the lowest common denominator, as college students in the Twitter area are prone to do, the media was able to craft their own romantic narratives about the young man. Once the bubble burst, once the fourth wall came down and the deliciously-cathartic kayfabe of Manziel’s freshman-imposed media abstinence faded like the smoke from the bonfire that used to burn annually before the game against A&M’s now-unscheduled rival in Austin, there was no turning back for the quarterback. Once he spoke, once he tweeted and interacted with the wider world, there was no retreating back to the safety of silence. His life was destined after winning Ol’ Stiffarm to be magnified and scrutinized — especially since there were so many possible paths a Heisman-winning quarterback with three years of eligibility left could take.
The wall was down. No longer could he retreat to the bowels of the stadium without answering questions from another reporter. Now he was unable to harmlessly vent on Twitter or Facebook like most of the other 52,000 students enrolled at Texas A&M. And there is no way in hell he could walk into a bar anywhere in the United States with a fake ID and still get away with it.
And yet, as the NCAA investigates allegations that the gunslinger under the microscope managed to clandestinely accept healthy sums of cash for bulk quantities of signatures, Manziel becomes an even bigger story than he already was this preseason. Already lampooned and lambasted for a series of stories about passing academies and frat parties gone awry, the Johnny Football saga now has the potential of turning truly sour.
Just as Manziel could no longer get away with the naively quintessential use of a fake ID to cavort around College Station’s bars, so too was it easy enough to understand that his every move was becoming scrutinized as he racked up the victories. In the beginning, while the legend was still forming and had yet to fully emerge from its chrysalis, people had little more than mind-bending gridiron theatrics, Scooby Doo costumes, a girl on each arm, sophomoric bar scuffles… the idyllic image of a charmed college existence, every burgeoning quarterback’s dream come true, came to mind when people thought of Johnny Football.
What, in all fairness, does the possibility that he sold his autograph for any amount of money do to change that idyllic image? The NCAA could crush the Aggies and dredge up the smoking gun that obliterates Manziel’s future college eligibility, and yet the legend has already burst forth.
Johnny Football hasn’t committed any felonies or misdemeanors. Manziel’s crime, allegedly, was to cash in on his personal success through channels that did nothing to enrich his team, his conference and the NCAA.
Part of the celebrity that has come with the success Manziel created through his freshman performances is the throngs of autograph hounds that clamor for his signature on jerseys and stickers and hats and anything else that can hold ink. The NCAA has no problem with Johnny signing footballs and helmet stickers until his hand cramps and his wrist locks, but even getting to keep the Sharpie would likely be viewed askance by the organization.
How in good faith can the NCAA still be considered a not-for-profit entity when its main mission is to prevent any and all “student-athletes” from diverting a single dime to their own pockets from the exorbitant amounts of cash flowing into the coffers of its member schools? With its credibility already shot — from its increasingly arbitrary enforcement of its own rules to its lackadaisical attitude toward precedent to its pick-a-penalty-out-of-a-hat punishments — the group ostensibly in place to protect the kids is instead showing its true colors.
Get scammed into charitably signing a sheet of helmet stickers for “troops overseas” by a grifter masquerading in uniform, only to find those stickers slapped on helmets and being sold by somebody else on eBay? Get suckered into signing your name on boxes and boxes of items for friends and family that they can legally sell off later? Get accosted in your hotel room by a memorabilia hound on a team road trip? That’s perfectly fine, says the NCAA… if you can’t fend them off, if you can’t say no, we can’t help you there.
But tell those same hounds you’re not signing another thing until you finally get something in return? Suddenly, in the NCAA’s eyes, you’re a greedy, boorish professional trying to siphon off the teat of Mother Amateurism.
Even if it ends up that Manziel is guilty of that which the NCAA accuses him, all Johnny Football is really guilty of doing is standing up for himself. By doing the purely American thing and capitalizing on his success, he allegedly exposed the hypocrisy in a system that only says — and never shows — that it is looking out for the young men and women that it purports to be protecting.