Breaking down perception of Johnny Manziel; more mail

Wednesday August 7th, 2013

Johnny Manziel's alleged autograph scandal is just the latest development in his polarizing offseason.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Most boring Mailbag ever last week. Can we please get back to the SEC and Johnny Football?
-- Chuck, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Yeah, I don't think there will many Johnny Football-free Mailbags again any time soon.

You can't avoid it now. Johnny Manziel. Without delving into conspiracy theories, why does Manziel have such a huge camp who defends him? These same people happily and quickly threw Terrelle Pryor, among others, under the bus for basically the same offense. Is it really because everyone hates the NCAA more now? Or is it something worse? (Manziel is a rich, affluent, connected, white kid from the upper-crust suburbs. Pryor ... is not.)
-- Rob, Seattle

The general consensus, from what I can tell, regarding Manziel's alleged autograph payout boils down to this: He knows the rules, so if true, he should pay the price -- but the rule he'd be breaking is unfair. A player should be allowed to profit off his name and likeness. In some corners, Manziel's imbroglio is already being billed as a possible tipping point in the budding public revolt against the NCAA's amateurism policies. Clay Travis sent out a tweet yesterday asking, "... does any college football fan actually want to see Manziel ruled ineligible over selling his own autographs?" to which he said more than 90 percent of respondents "want Manziel to play regardless." I suspect the more general percentage is lower and that plenty of people would still send Manziel off to CFL purgatory, but the point stands. He has a lot of sympathy, whereas Pryor and his Ohio State cohorts had almost none two-and-a-half years ago when they committed essentially the same NCAA crime. Something has changed.

To begin with, let's note a few key differences between the players. Manziel is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. People love watching him play, and most had never even heard of him a year earlier. On the other hand, as of December 2010, Pryor was widely viewed as an underachieving, overrated former No. 1 recruit (despite going 31-4 as starter). He was not universally embraced by his own team's fan base, much less a national audience. Plus he played for Ohio State, one of America's favorite programs to loathe. (Texas A&M was too unthreatening for too long to garner any such animosity outside of Austin.)

And yes, there is a racial and sociological undertone at play here. While many chafe at Manziel's affluence, much of the Johnny Football mythology is, at heart, a product of the Friday Night Lights small-town Texas quarterback archetype. Pryor, by contrast, was a guy who was permanently labeled as a thug following his clumsy attempt to support Michael Vick when the formerly incarcerated star returned to the NFL. The tattoo element gave the story an even seedier feel, as opposed to a case of someone like A.J. Green, who straight up sold his jersey for money.

STAPLES: Online jersey sales highlight NCAA's hypocrisy on amateurism

But I do think the larger dynamic centers on just how sharply public sentiment toward the NCAA's century-old amateurism policy has turned in a short amount of time. People have long criticized the NCAA for its thick and inflexible rulebook and its seemingly arbitrary punishments against schools. The pay-for-play debate is certainly not new. But criticism has taken on a distinctly different tone over the past couple of years, with an increasing number of high-profile figures like Jay Bilas hammering the subject. In particular, the recent heightened awareness of the Ed O'Bannon case involves the specific issue at hand in the Manziel investigation. I can't pinpoint a specific turning point. It just seems the cumulative effect of all those multibillion-dollar TV deals, gigantic coaching salaries, extravagant football facilities and money-driven realignment moves has finally reached a breaking point: The original moral standing that prohibited college athletes from profiting off their talents now rings increasingly hollow.

So if the Ohio State tattoo scandal broke today, would Pryor and company garner more sympathy than they did in 2010? That's impossible to answer, but my guess is yes, though not to the same extent as Manziel. To get to that point, a figure has to be sympathetic to begin with. Johnny Football is undoubtedly polarizing, but he certainly had defenders throughout all of his offseason exploits, myself included. Pryor, by the time he finished antagonizing Kirk Herbstreit and racking up suspicious traffic violations, had almost none.

No matter how this thing plays out, here's one thing that's certain: The NCAA can't win. If Manziel winds up ineligible, the anti-NCAA crowd will go bananas about its unfair policies. If nothing comes of this, the anti-NCAA crowd will go bananas about its incompetent enforcement department.

So a broker has acknowledged to ESPN that he paid Johnny Manziel $7,500 for signatures. He also states that he will not cooperate with the NCAA, which recalls the organization's pathetic inability to "prove" that Cam Newton was aware of his dad's pay-for-play solicitations. If the NCAA can't prove things that we already know, does that mean we're nearing the end of the NCAA, or at least its absurd enforcement arm, as we know it?
-- Dave, Minneapolis

See what I mean?

Given the enforcement department's turbulent past year -- in which the Miami misconduct report shed light on its sometimes questionable investigative techniques, Mark Emmert fired respected department head Julie Roe Lach and a slew of experienced investigators fled for on-campus jobs -- this is a pivotal moment if the organization hopes to show it still has teeth. We don't "know" anything definitively, but the reports so far seem pretty damning -- particularly Joe Schad's reported details after seeing a video in which Manziel not only conducted a signing, but acknowledged what he was doing as wrong and told the aforementioned East Coast autograph dealer "you never did a signing with me." If we're making Newton analogies, consider this: As far as I know, not one credible media outlet ever reported or interviewed anyone who claimed to have direct knowledge of the player or his father asking for money from Auburn. Not one. Here we have multiple brokers relaying direct interactions with Manziel or buddy/personal assistant Nathan Fitch that constitute violations.

(Ironically, the allegation that Fitch tried to solicit money on Manziel's behalf would be a violation specifically because of the change in rules from the Cecil Newton fallout. Fitch, by new NCAA definition, would be considered an agent.)

However, those same brokers so eager to talk to ESPN have also said they won't talk to the NCAA, which, if true, makes enforcement much more difficult. While the NCAA's burden of proof is low, it does need to corroborate the media reports, and its investigators proceed very deliberatively. It's apparent they were still very much in the early information-gathering stage when ESPN first broke the story. The organization will try to get as much outside information as possible before showing up at A&M and interviewing Manziel (if it actually gets that far), but if it does, it holds one important carrot: If requested, Manziel must provide bank records. If some mysterious deposits showed up in January, he'll have to explain them. And they'll almost certainly be looking to catch him in a lie (because that alone is enough to suspend a guy, like in the former case of Dez Bryant). I have no idea if the NCAA will prove that money exchanged hands. I would, however, bet an autographed Manziel photo that this thing doesn't get resolved before the Aggies' first game.

Stewart, in light of Johnny Manziel's post-Heisman shenanigans, do you think that voters will be less likely to award the trophy to a freshman in the future?
-- Jack, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

I would hope that's not even remotely a consideration, yet I'm guessing the thought will cross some voters' minds. The Heisman should go to the "most outstanding player" regardless of class or age. While Manziel certainly could have handled his fame better, how can we say that everything that happened was the result of him winning as a redshirt freshman? The same things could have happened had he won a year later. Nor should we assume that every redshirt freshman will react the same way. Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram were also second-year students when they won their trophies in 2007 and '09, and no such controversies surrounded them.

I've written many times before how Manziel is the most scrutinized college football player in history, and while much of the TMZ-type coverage this summer was ridiculous, the recent Wright Thompson and Andy Staples features were incredibly revealing. I wouldn't claim to "know" him (I've met him once), but I feel like we all know more about him as a person than we normally would a 20-year-old college athlete. At the very least, he seems to have a bit of a reckless, impulsive streak and a family-inherited sense of entitlement. I'm not saying that's all there is to Manziel, but those are the relevant factors behind most of his offseason headlines. If another Manziel-type phenom comes along this year and has a Heisman-worthy season, it would be unfair to preemptively punish him despite the fact he might not have any of those traits.

LSU's Les Miles has a history of giving troubled players second chances during his time in Baton Rouge.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Hi Stewart, fellow Northwestern alum here. International fans who want to watch Big Ten teams should check out BTN's international plan. I believe it has live broadcasts of all BTN games and time-delay broadcasts of Big Ten home games on other networks (the biggest problem would be Big Ten away games). Outside of that, there are few legal options. The best bets would be either to look for non-legal streams or to find a buddy in the U.S. willing to set up a Slingbox.
-- Jonathan, Gaithersburg, Md.

ESPN now offers an online college football game-streaming service internationally.
-- Harold Beirne, Amersham, England

Thanks to all of you who responded to last week's email about watching college football abroad. These seem to be the best options. I must say, I hadn't thought of the Slingbox idea. That's pretty genius. If I were, say, a Penn State fan living in Switzerland, I'd go on one of the message boards and ask if a fellow diehard back in the States would be willing to let me channel his cable box on Saturdays.

Stewart, why isn't more written, shown on the ticker and discussed on ESPN about Les Miles and his lack of discipline? There was the case of Ryan Perrilloux, of Honey Badger and his self-proclaimed 10 failed drug tests and now of running back Jeremy Hill, who received "carnal knowledge" from a 14-year old and later sucker-punched some kid, both situations in which he was convicted. Still, Les lets them all play. Is he bulletproof, or do we have different rules for someone like Les and someone like Urban Meyer?
-- RTG, Dallas

I've written about the Meyer/Miles double standard before, and brought it up on Twitter again on Monday night following Hill's reinstatement. It's pretty unbelievable. I get that Meyer isn't a sympathetic figure, but if he's guilty of giving Florida players too many second chances (as I heard over and over again this summer), then my gosh, what about Miles? Perrilloux was given way more than three strikes before he finally got the boot. Tyrann Mathieu seemingly lost track of how many chances he got. And RTG didn't even bring up Jordan Jefferson, who was also arrested.

Now there's Hill, who thanks to some suspiciously flexible judges, will apparently not miss a game because ... well, his teammates wanted him back. How could a head coach possibly override his players?

Yet as I've also written before, I understand why Miles is so lenient. No one will give him a pass if he loses to TCU because Hill isn't in the lineup. (The Horned Frogs, it should be noted, will be without star defensive end Devonte Fields, suspended two games for an undisclosed team rules violation.) And that's really the lesson here. If a coach is like Miles and never pretends to care about discipline and values and all that magnanimous stuff in the first place, then it won't come back to bite him. Just win games, do quirky stuff like eat grass and the media and fans will mostly let it slide. But if a coach is like Meyer and openly boasts about recruiting "the top one percent of one percent" and the importance of being respectful to women ... and then a bunch of his players get in trouble, he'll never hear the end of it. Not even after suspending a starting running back (Carlos Hyde) three games for an incident in which no charges were filed. At LSU, players who stay out of jail tend to stay on the field.

All it took was reading the headline of your latest column on Urban Meyer and I knew I wouldn't be able to stomach reading it, so I didn't bother.
-- Steve S., Pelham, Ala.

Well, at least you got that far.

I know preseason polls mean nothing, but can you please explain something to me that makes no logical sense? South Carolina is No. 7 in the Coaches' Poll, and Michigan is No. 17. Did voters just forget that the Ol' Ball Coach was one amazing play away from losing last year's Outback Bowl? Sure, Michigan lost Denard Robinson, but by that point in the season he was a utility player anyway. And South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders is gone, too. Is South Carolina overrated, or Michigan is way underrated?
-- Kevin, Boston

I don't have a problem with the suggestion that Michigan is underrated. That could very well be proven true. But the illogical thing would be evaluating two teams' 2013 prospects based on one game from last season -- especially a bowl game. By that logic, South Carolina should rank about 20 spots higher than Georgia (which it destroyed in their Oct. 6 meeting), not three spots behind the Dawgs; No. 9 Louisville should be a lot higher than No. 10 Florida (which it drubbed in the Sugar Bowl); No. 21 UCLA should be ahead of No. 18 Nebraska, and so on and so on. The Michigan-South Carolina Outback Bowl was played more than a month after each team's final regular-season game in 2012 and featured a bunch of players who won't be part of their respective teams in 2013. It was reflective of nothing more than how those teams performed on Jan. 1.

Look, there's no great mystery to the preseason polls. In the Coaches' Poll released last week, eight of the top-10 teams start within two spots of where they finished last season (and one of the other two is Ohio State, which was ineligible last year), and 15 of the top 20 are within five spots. That's quite bit of continuity for a sport in which 25 to 40 percent of the roster turns over from one year to the next. There's very little actual forecasting going on, and more just rearranging of last year's final poll based on teams' number of returning starters.

In fact, Michigan is one of the "bolder" selections. It finished unranked last year, so the coaches do seem to be keen on Devin Gardner, Taylor Lewan and company. I think the Wolverines have the potential to be a top-10 team, but it won't be easy. On paper, every other team in their division, save for possibly Iowa, will be better. I could see any of four teams (Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State or Northwestern) ultimately getting to Indy.

In regard to Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: Can you say Tom Osborne? While I understand that times have changed and people tend react too quickly, for you to make the claim "Personally, I don't have much confidence that he will ever lead Nebraska to national glory. If it hasn't happened in five years, it probably never will," makes me think you would have spouted a similar level of gibberish about Osborne after five years.
-- Richard Taylor, Lexington, Ky.

This is a good point, one I heard from quite a few Huskers fans, and that's a good thing. As I wrote last week, there are far worse things than a clean program that wins nine or 10 games literally every year. Osborne also won exactly nine or 10 games each of his first five seasons (1973-77). He tied for the Big 8 title once and tied for second three times, which is roughly equivalent to Pelini's three division titles. He did not reach his first Orange Bowl (the pinnacle for Big 8 teams at that time) until '78, and he did not play for a national title for his first decade. He "couldn't win the big one" for a while there, but Nebraska stuck by him. Three national titles and eight top-five finishes later, it's a good thing it did. On the other hand, Dr. Tom notched a .770 winning percentage in his first five seasons, compared with a .710 mark for Pelini. Four of Osborne's first five teams finished in the AP top 10. Pelini has yet to crack the top 10, and he's only cracked the top 15 once (2009).

Regardless, as Richard said, times have changed. For one thing, we have different metrics now. A BCS program aspires to play in BCS bowls and, astoundingly, Nebraska last reached one 12 years ago. Wake Forest made one more recently. Furthermore, recruiting is very fickle, and everyone is always looking for the next hot thing. Since 2000, nine coaches at 10 different schools (two for Nick Saban) have won BCS championships. All but one (Mack Brown) won it within his first four years at a school. There's no recent precedent for the Osborne-esque slow burn. Of course, no coach should be judged by a national championship-or-bust expectation. That's unrealistic. But it's certainly reasonable for Nebraska fans to expect one conference championship or BCS at-large berth within Pelini's first six seasons at the helm. To be clear: I don't think he's on the hot seat. That, in large part, is because he's at a reasoned place like Nebraska.

If Manziel were anywhere but the SEC, the public would turn on him. BUT, you know, the SEC can do no wrong.
-- John, Camp Hill, Pa.

Hey, I've got to make up for last week and go heavy on not only the SEC, but SEC conspiracy theories.

IS THE SEC OVERRATED? I will leave it up to you. Last year's bowl record was 6-3. The six wins: 1. Georgia 45, Nebraska 31. The game was a lot closer than the score ...
-- Dennis, Mobile, Ala.

I'll spare you the full nine recaps spanning 221 words. No.

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