Unnamed sources. Incomplete reports. Explosive allegations. Forget Biogenesis -- the most confusing sports scandal du jour revolves around Johnny Football, and what he may or may not have done with a pen.
Perplexed? Sports on Earth is here to help:
I don't follow college sports. Who is Johnny Football, anyway?
"Johnny Football" is Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore at Texas A&M. He also works for the school, performing marketing, campus entertainment and alumni outreach duties.
Wait. I thought this involved football.
It does! Manziel is the starting quarterback for the Aggies' football team, won the Heisman Trophy and is arguably the best-known player in college football.
So where does he find time to do that other stuff?
College football is that other stuff. Big-time sports success diverts and delights current students. It attracts future students. It encourages former students to feel good about their alma mater -- and more importantly, to express said feelings via monetary gifts. Within the increasingly expensive and competitive field of higher education, it's a slam-dunk branding strategy to make Jay-Z and Samsung gaze ruefully in Ozymandian despair; when Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp recently said that a planned $450 million renovation of his school's football stadium would act as "a megaphone to the world," he wasn't exaggerating. Here's how it works:
… in 1984, Boston College defeated Miami on a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass thrown by Eagles quarterback Doug Flutie. Over the next two years, applications to the former school went up by 30 percent. Academics and marketers alike call this "the Flutie Effect" -- that is, the admissions uptick that accompanies high-profile athletic success, like Georgetown's applications increasing by 45 percent between 1983 and 1986, the same period in which Patrick Ewing led the school's basketball team to an NCAA title and national prominence. Numerous academic papers have found that winning big-time football and basketball teams spur increased donor and alumni giving, too, the same way a slick Apple marketing campaign spurs sales of the latest iPhone. When the St. Mary's (Calif.) men's basketball team reached the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA tournament, a study found that the total publicity value to the school was roughly $9.3 million …
Got it. So Manziel is a college student who also works as a campus spokesmodel.
Is he good at his job?
Good? More like great. He was the fifth player in NCAA football history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards in a single season. He led the Aggies to a shocking road upset of top-ranked Alabama and a Cotton Bowl rout of Oklahoma. Manziel was the first freshman to win the Heisman, and vaguely resembles a 1950s movie star.
Of course, all of this has been very, very good for Texas A&M, the Southeastern Conference, college football as a whole, the sport's network and corporate partners and the media that covers the preceding list. As ESPN.com's Rick Reilly explains:
… a study by Joyce Julius & Associates found that, last season alone, Manziel was worth $37 million in "media exposure" (free advertising) for the Aggies. By December, the school bookstore sold out all 2,500 replica jerseys it had. There's a guy on eBay who says he's sold 625 "Johnny Football" T-shirts at $20 each. The Collegiate Licensing Company figures that winning a Heisman increases your sales and royalties by 27.5 percent over five years …
Sounds like a real rainmaker. Still, I hear Manziel might be in some kind of trouble. Is he not meeting his sales targets?
Hardly. Even though it's the college football offseason, Manziel is more talked about -- and more therefore more monetizable, like a Kardashian -- than ever before. According to a report from ESPN.com's Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar, the real trouble with Johnny Football is that he may have been paid for signing autographs on photos and sports memorabilia.
OK, but what did Manziel do wrong?
Supposedly accepting money for signing autographs.
That's a crime now? Man, Congress has been a lot busier than I thought. And I feel bad for Pete Rose. It would be a shame if he died in prison.
Relax. Money for autographs is not a federal crime.
So what's the problem?
Money for autographs is against NCAA rules.
The notion that certain athletes should not be paid or compensated for their sports-related fame or labor.
Even if people want to pay them?
Because as a former NCAA president once explained, if certain athletes were paid for those things, they would then be professionals.
Why does that matter?
Because as the same former NCAA president also explained, if they were professionals, they'd no longer be amateurs.
That's some catch.
Are amateurism rules that forbid payment for services rendered enforced or accepted in any other aspect of American life?
Nope. Not even "amateur" pornography.
So Manziel can't sell his autograph?
No. As an amateur college athlete, he can't be paid for selling his autograph.
What's the difference?
The difference is that Manziel can sell his autograph so long as his school, athletic conference or an affiliated organization pockets the profits.
The NCAA. Rule 126.96.36.199, which reads as follows:
Student-Athletes. Institutional, charitable or educational promotions or fundraising activities that involve the use of athletics ability by student-athletes to obtain funds (e.g., "swim-a-thons") are permitted only if:
(a) All money derived from the activity or project go directly to the member institution, member conference or the charitable, educational or nonprofit agency;
(b) The student-athletes receive no compensation or prizes for their participation
It sure does.
What else can Manziel sell so long as someone else gets paid for it?
Hundreds of thousands of tickets to his football performances; multimillion-dollar broadcast rights to the same; thousands of hats, jerseys and T-shirts featuring his number; his video game avatar likeness. Oh, and also a $20,000 table at a school banquet.
And the NCAA allows this?
The association and its member schools encourage it.
Because otherwise Manziel would be a professional, and if he was a professional he wouldn't be an amateur.
Bingo. Besides, it would be a shame to leave all that money and value just sitting on the table. This is still America, after all.
Is amateurism an American idea?
Nope. It was created by Victorian-era English aristocrats who scoffed at the lower class practice of paid manual labor -- how unrefined! -- and didn't want to row crew against their unwashed, farm- and factory-strong inferiors, who were believed to have an unfair physical advantage. Probably due to said manual labor. Anyway, English universities and athletic clubs happily adopted the idea, and American schools followed suit.
I thought it had something to do with the ancient Greek Olympics and the purity of sport.
You're thinking "Chariots of Fire." According to archeologists, ancient Olympic athletes like Milos of Croton were feted with prize money, prime amphitheater seats, generous pensions and civic appointments. Historian Tony Perottet once told me that one Games winner parlayed his victory into a senatorial seat in Athens. Moreover, the ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for amateur. The closest term? Idiotes.
Does Manziel get anything in return for being a college spokesmodel?
Duh. Of course. He gets a college athletic scholarship.
What's a scholarship?
A one-year renewable contract -- with a maximum of four years of on-field eligibility -- in which athletes agree to play for a college team in exchange for full and/or partial tuition, room and board payments.
My kids are in college. It isn't cheap. Don't tuition, room and board all have financial value?
That sounds like compensation. Wouldn't compensation make Manziel a professional?
No. It makes him a student-athlete.
What's a "student-athlete?"
"Student-athlete" is a legal fiction conjured by the NCAA to avoid having to pay medical bills and worker's compensation for injured college football players. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch explains:
… the term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen's-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school's contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."
The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA's signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms …
So if Manziel hurt his throwing shoulder while being paid an athletic scholarship to work as a college spokesmodel and was permanently disabled, Texas A&M would owe him nothing?
And if he hurt his shoulder and wanted to trade a testimonial/endorsement for free surgery from sports orthopedic superstar Dr. James Andrews, doing so would be against NCAA amateurism rules?
Is Manziel being singled out, or do amateurism rules apply to all "student-athletes?"
They apply to everyone. Case in point: In the summer of 1997, former Michigan triple jumper Deji Okusanya had an opportunity to work as a film and television extra in Los Angeles -- that is, until he ran his plan past the school's NCAA rules compliance staff.
"I was told that if I went ahead with those plans my [playing] eligibility could be at risk," Okusanya says. "When I asked why, I was informed that to even work as an extra, that would be me getting paid as a result of the way that I look, and that wasn't allowed.
"When I asked for clarification, the woman basically explained that the way I looked was largely as a result of my daily participation in athletic activities -- so to make money from my image meant I was no longer an amateur."
So if a girl liked the way Okusanya looked -- thanks to his athletic training -- and wanted to buy him a drink, that could qualify as an amateurism violation?
By the same logic? Definitely.
Besides scholarship contracts, does the NCAA make any exceptions for amateurism?
Yes. Athletic spokesmodels are allowed to receive gifts when they compete in postseason bowl games.
What kind of gifts?
Laptop computers, recliners, gift cards, video game consoles and clothing and bags festooned with corporate/game title sponsor logos.
And that's OK?
Sure. As long as you ignore NCAA rule 188.8.131.52, which states that:
After becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual:
(a) Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind; or
(b) Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual's use of such product or service.
But isn't ignoring that same rule the reason Manziel might be in trouble?
Come to think of it, isn't Manziel breaking that rule by playing college football in the first place?
Arguably. His No. 2 jersey features Adidas, Texas A&M and SEC logos.
It sounds like amateurism is whatever the NCAA says it is.
Amateurism is whatever the NCAA says it is, because if it wasn't, it wouldn't be amateurism.
That doesn't make any sense.
Now we're getting somewhere.