The NCAA can't control a player that doesn't need it.
Before we knew anything about Johnny Manziel, we called him “Johnny Football.” It made him sound like the “throwback” so many desperately wanted him to be. Now that we know better, the reigning Heisman Trophy should change his nickname to “Money.” Money Manziel.
He comes from money. When he sits in front of media, with his suits pristine and his words carefully chosen, he looks and sounds like money. With his travels, many of which have been documented on social media, he exudes money. Money, whether it be boosters or celebrities, wants to hang out with him. And for everyone associated with him -- from the school that doesn’t pay him, to its former assistants who found greener pastures because of his performance -- he is money. And unlike most of his peers in locker rooms across the country, he’s got access to enough money that everyone associated with college football -- Texas A&M, the SEC, and the networks that cover them both -- needs him more than he need them.
Money makes Manziel the NCAA’s worst nightmare. He’s got the cash to fund a rock star’s lifestyle, and the defiant attitude that often comes with access to such capital. He’s become a star bigger than any of the entities he represents. They can’t keep him broke, and that gives him what the NCAA has over nearly every other college athlete -- control.
And make no mistake -- he’s in charge. The droves of reporters who followed him at SEC Media Day spoke to that fact. That they had few questions for Manziel about his team, even though the Aggies will be probably be in the preseason Top 10, makes it loud and clear. That Kevin Sumlin, his head coach who had a pretty strong SEC debut himself, struggled to turn his Wednesday media session toward his team and away from his quarterback makes it indisputable. College football has become Johnny Manziel’s world.
Manziel is so popular on campus that it became impossible for him to attend class without attracting a crowd of hundreds. He, along with Sumlin, legitimized A&M’s much-ridiculed move to the SEC. He’s the guy whom recruits want to meet, and he’s the one who makes Alabama’s trip to College Station the most anticipated game of the upcoming college football season.
So who’s going to tell him to change his behavior when he knows what a fundraising boon he is to Texas A&M? What, if anything, could he do to make Sumlin -- in the face of pressure from boosters and fans who have waited their whole lives for a true superstar to wear maroon and white -- bench him? Sumlin saved Manziel’s place on the team after the quarterback’s 2012 arrest. If he tried to punish Manziel now, he’d be the one in need of protection.
And, perhaps most importantly, who’s going to get Manziel to change when he’s not doing anything wrong? There have certainly been mistakes, like his recurrent tardiness at the Manning Passing Academy and his 2012 arrest for giving police a fake ID. But think about it -- of all the complaints you’ve heard about Manziel, how many have centered around his trip to jail? More and more, it seems like his greatest sins are having more fun than people think a college athlete should have, showing more money than we’ve ever seen from an “amateur.”
There’s nothing touching or campy about him. There’s no conveniently delightful narrative to refer to. The only difference between him and professional athletes, both in terms of notoriety and lifestyle, is the fact he doesn’t get paid. Lucky for him, his family’s oil money spends the same as the cash he should -- but doesn’t -- receive for his service to Texas A&M.
He’s 20 years old, and he demands the right to live the imperfect, sometimes irresponsible life of a 20-year-old. When he grows up, it will be on his schedule. He won’t get away with immature transgressions as a professional, especially as a quarterback; but in the meantime, he’s taking the phony notion of amateurism and turning it on his head. He’s playing for the dear old alma mater, but the alma mater isn’t playing him.
The publicity machine that fills the coffers of athletic departments has created its own benign monster, and it can’t stop Manziel without hurting itself. He’s going to live his life, and we’ll watch him do so. Some will complain, but no one will be able to do a damn thing about it. Nobody tells money what to do.