By Jeb Lund
Here's a good rule of thumb: If you're reading a column about college athletes and can hear it in the voice of that male relative who forwards you emails about the Decline and Fall of everything, it's safe to close your browser window. Sophomore Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has done things, and, by God, that wasn't how we did whatever they were at some unspecified point in history. Hell, back whenever it was, we had to make all our passes uphill, our arms draped with communists.
Since it seems as if the predominantly middle-aged and male sportswriting profession is going to spin itself up into full Dad Outrage about Johnny Football, it might be worth looking at exactly what he's done.
• While walking around town in June 2012, a friend of Manziel's reportedly shouted a racial slur at a man across the street. When the man crossed the street to confront the friend, Manziel interposed. The offended man pushed at Manziel; Manziel pushed back; the man swung; a short fight broke out before cops broke it up.
• Manziel was carrying a fake ID at the time.
• In June of this year, Manziel tweeted, "Bulls--- like tonight is a reason why I can't wait to leave college station ... whenever it may be." He was apparently mad about a parking ticket.
• Last week, Manziel left the Manning Passing Academy early, amid conflicting stories. He and his representatives maintained that he was suffering from dehydration, while rumors claimed that Archie Manning dismissed him for "partying." It turned out that all of that was wrong, or perhaps disingenuous. Manziel said he overslept.
My default assumption with people in college is that they will be, irrespective of intelligence, some kind of screw-up. I assume that Manziel uses the word "hella" both as an adjective of praise and also as a unit of measure. I imagine these things and have low expectations of his doing something infamous and high expectations that I'll nod at some lunkhead transgression and say, "Well, whatever." Like I would for any college athlete doing anything short of non-mutual violence or outright theft.
But I don't have to fill column inches or airtime daily, and if I did, I might want to try to have every part of an argument about him. A lot of daily sports journalism arguments tend to follow that old Hegelian dialectic of thesis + antithesis = synthesis. Or, "Outrage + Counter-Outrage = Finally a Nuanced Opinion." It's not that these people are slow thinkers but rather that making their thought process so protracted creates three days' worth of takes, eyeballs, page clicks, etc. At least, I want that to be the explanation -- let there be money or laziness there! -- because the alternative is terminal boneheadedness, old-guy grumpiness and moralizing, all of which are exhausting.
Addressing the things Manziel did in a balanced way takes scarcely any more effort than penning or sputtering disgust. "College guy gets in questionable fight with questionably violent outcome while questionably drunk" describes the college experience of virtually every guy I know, and I went to a school full of weed-smoking pacifists. As for the fake ID thing, well, is there a YouTube video that's just an endless loop of Inspector Reynaud from "Casablanca" being shocked -- SHOCKED!!! -- that there is gambling in this establishment? The real stand-out from the altercation is that Manziel hung out with a guy who thought yelling racial slurs was cool. Here's hoping he ditched that moron, which we don't know.
Then there's tweeting about wanting to get out of College Station. Dumb. Twitter's ability to virally disseminate information to millions makes fools of lots of people. Many of whom are journalists, who on a weekly basis say something that verges on racism, sexism, homophobia, slut-shaming, fat-shaming and -- of course -- drunkenness. On the last note, many of them now hashtag drunk tweets with "#drunj," in homage to the drunk-tweeting of former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass). For that matter, if saying irresponsibly stupid things on Twitter disqualified you from "leadership," you could eject probably 50 percent of a joint session of Congress -- none of whom are, by constitutional mandate, 20 years old.
Sure, no journalist tweets about wanting to ditch his current job, and no politician says, "I can't wait to ditch [constituency]." True, but those people aren't 20, and they're using Twitter professionally instead of the way Manziel (and most college athletes) do: to pump up things they dig and dump on guff they're sick of. College Station is a small place in terms of geography and population, and the latter probably drops 50 percent during the summer. Places like that are stultifying and overly familiar even for an average citizen. I lived in Gainesville (a place bigger than College Station) for the Ron Zook era, and even in misery, the program overwhelmed the citizenry and ground the city to a halt whenever something "UF" was going on.
Can you imagine how much it would drive you mad if you were the most famous person in a city that size -- where every bar is filled with avatars of the guy who wants to hump your leg, the guy who wants to fight you to prove a point about himself, the guy who seethes with resentment at your ability to get girls, girls who want to climb on you and piggyback to trophy wifedom, and people you can't trust in general? You'd have to be a screwheaded jerk not to fray in those circumstances. Drew Magary drove part of this point home about Manziel, while also focusing on the opportunism of the sports-journalism commentariat.
Last, we come to the Manning Passing Academy, which, if the tone of the initial coverage was to be believed, is a non-profit fantasy camp for crippled orphans displaced by hurricanes and promiscuous college kids who didn't have the courage to become responsible dads. Johnny Football told them he'd show up and spend all his time with them, and then he bailed, and now they have polio.
The MPA is a pay camp for middle and high school quarterbacks, featuring drills, coaching and presentations from Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning, as well as college and NFL coaches and stars. The MPA's site FAQ explains that the coach/athlete staff will be fluid and uncertain ahead of time, so it's unclear whether any "academy" attendees had any expectation or guarantee of Manziel's presence. Regardless, Manziel left only one day early, which didn't seem to ruffle Peyton Manning, who later went on to explain that they have counselors who leave early all the time and that young Eli Manning also skipped a meeting once. More to the point, the last day that Manziel missed seems like a pretty thin offering, with more of a focus on religion, breakfast and keynote speakers than anything Manziel could do with footwork or the ball.
But, whatever, Manziel might have been drunk or recovering from being so. Ignore that journalism has teemed with stories of heroic drunkenness for decades or that many of the people who will sigh down from Word Olympus at Manziel about drinking and poor judgment still romanticize the lifestyles of misogynist sots like Faulkner and Hemingway or that of the iconic alcoholic spouse-abusing journalist Hunter Thompson.
The trick, when imparting lessons to the youth about shortcomings you can't firmly establish, is to keep it vague. You can be just as mad about Manziel oversleeping as you can about his allegedly being hungover, so long as your point is to be scandalized first and have a reason for it later. That's why Manziel's leadership is so important. It's an intangible, like momentum or Derek Jeterity. It means as much or as little as you want from column to column, which is why you can use the same argument to write three columns on the same topic in that sportswriter dialectic.
Reality is intrusive, messy and largely unwelcome. Discussing leadership in terms of real-world impacts would require engaging journalism's docile herd mentality as it celebrated Mark McGwire (and all but ignored his having a bottle of Androstenedione visible in his locker in 1998), then swerved into full-scold mode the moment there was a readership market for questioning all the dingers that had been sold so rhapsodically from 1998-2002.
Perhaps this condition was exacerbated by Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's freshman no-interview policy that shielded Manziel last year, but the difference here is only one of degrees. Smart or stupid, Manziel will do what every kid in college does and make mistakes, like you did. Only, unlike your doinking your girlfriend's roommate or blowing off a pre-req class that would have made some of those upperclass seminars easier to understand, his actions will be processed through the narrative needs of the next 12-24 hours and rewritten ad nauseam.
And he can't win; no student athlete can win in that environment. (The thousands of players you don't hear about every year stay out of the news not because they're perfect but because they're unprofitable.) There's no margin in evenhandedly looking at his behavior, but there are several in chastising him severely on either side. Johnny Football gets loaded and whoops -- he's a partyboy who doesn't care about doing the work for his team, like journalists on a newspaper team do. He studies tape all the time and never goes out -- he's a machine being controlled behind the scenes by agents to create a processed personality, not a creative individual, like us! He studies too much and doesn't LOVE football, which we would if we had the body for it. He blows off classes, so he's an entitled jerk who doesn't respect academics the way we did.
Give it enough time and degrade the discourse enough, and the op-eds might start to read, "Johnny Football Scores With Chicks More Than We Did Back Then And That's Why He's A Bad Person." Overtly. There's enough of that subtext with college players already.
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