Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Curious Case of Johnny Football

Johnny Football hasn’t changed. 

We have.

The Johnny Football that stole our hearts in 2012 is the same guy that is now causing every sportswriter with access to Twitter a public heart attack.

It was announced this morning that Johnny Football would not be available to the media this week leading up to the Alabama game. He wasn’t available to the media last year either. But this year, it’s a catastrophe.

johnny football moneyIn week 1 against Rice, Johnny Football ran wild, rubbed imaginary dollar bills through his fingers and taunted his opponents. He was described as a disgrace. A turd, if you will. When he did this in 2012, he was lauded as a care-free, football savant just having fun.

What happened?

Somewhere along the way, the narrative changed but I can’t actually discern why. Johnny Football, Johnny Manziel, hasn’t changed. He was a jerk last year on the football field. He played great. He played with an edge. He enjoyed rubbing it in the opponent’s faces.

Were we not paying attention?

No, that’s not it. We were all watching Johnny Football from the moment College Gameday showed up in early September for a seemingly meaningless game between Florida and Texas A&M, which doubled as the latter’s first SEC conference tilt. The guy in that game is the same guy who will take the field against Alabama.

Did we just not know Johnny Football?

This has legs. The backstory of the Manziel family, namely the wealth, was largely unknown to the college football public because Manziel himself was largely unknown. Then we saw the pictures of him courtside at sporting events, taking Instagram photos with money and partying like a rock star. The “entitled, white male” narrative began to take hold and started to color our opinion of Manziel.

But that couldn’t be it. We knew this about Johnny between his Heisman win and the Cotton Bowl. The rumors and innuendos began then – that he was slowly spinning out of control and that he would not be at his best for the bowl game against Oklahoma. Then, he whipped the Sooners and the talk died down.

So what happened?

What has Manziel’s crime been? He overslept – or was too hungover – for his duties at the Manning Passing Academy. This became a huge deal that almost overshadowed the SEC Media Days in July. For many, the situation resulted in a shrug of the shoulders and a “who cares?” response.

Then the ESPN reports came out. The Wright Thompson piece that shed a negative light on his enabling parents, which simply made me feel sympathetic for the young Johnny and his clearly attention-starved parents. What father tells the world his son is on the verge of a breakdown that will end with him in a jail?

Even if you think that…who says it? That was quickly followed up by the reports Manziel had accepted money for autographs. The NCAA couldn’t punt responsibility on this soon enough. The moral outrage was not directed at Manziel, but again at an institution that prevented an adult male from making money off of his own name. The half-game suspension was laughable and, again, made the NCAA look foolish.

So why has Johnny Football became the poster child for all that is wrong in college sports?

Well, for one, he hasn’t. Unless you only interact with cranky, white sportswriters.

johnny football time magazineThe Johnny Football narrative has been directed and led by ESPN, with others simply following suit. After the Rice game, ESPN paraded out its legion of analysts to repeat ad nauseam the same baloney about Manziel being a bad teammate. Did anyone ask Texas A&M players for their input? Why would they, when you can trot out Stephen A. Smith to blurt out some nonsense that fits the narrative?

In fact, the only person I saw on ESPN that truly understood what was going on was, surprise surprise, Brent Musberger. When asked his opinion on Johnny Football, Brent said, “Well I’m in television, so I love it!”

Brent explained that Johnny Football got people talking and that’s all that matters. And he was right. Time Magazine could’ve written their “college players should get paid” cover story at any point in the past 30 years, but they needed the lightning rod.

We don’t poll college football fans about their attitudes like we do for politics, but I would love to see a cross-section of America asked about Johnny Football. Because I just don’t think that many people care. 
He’s a football player. He’s brash. He’s arrogant. He’s good. He’s what ESPN wanted in 2012. He’s not what ESPN analysts want in 2013.

By not talking to the media, Johnny Football has again left his narrative in the hands of a manipulating media folk who like to massage a story to fit their needs. In 2012, the Johnny Football “folk legend” story made for good copy. In 2013, the Johnny Football “entitled troublemaker” is a better story.

With Tim Tebow off to do who knows what, ESPN needed a replacement. It needed a go-to on a slow news day. It needed a guaranteed segment on each of its talking head shows. Johnny Football fits the bill.

Don’t be fooled. Johnny Football is the same guy he was last year. He hasn’t changed. For better or worse, he won’t change. The narrative, however, will.

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