by admin | August 15, 2013 6:18 pm
While in Tyler several weeks ago I was introduced to Johnny Manziel’s grandparents. That’s Johnny Football, the Texas A&M quarterback who last year as a freshman won the Heisman trophy with an amazing season. He showed great poise both on the field and on camera during what was a stellar opening season for the Aggies in the SEC. Even though I’m a diehard Texas Longhorn fan, by last season’s end I was watching every A&M game televised. Johnny Football had earned his nickname, and he earned that Heisman.
Manziel’s grandparents appear to be in their late 60s, a handsome couple, tanned and trim, impeccably dressed. They were pleasant but wary when they learned I was a writer. The grandfather cracked a weak joke about how the latest story about his grandson was that he had been caught using the handicapped stall in a restroom — hardly a newsworthy offense — and an apocryphal tale. I replied that I was sure everybody was looking forward to football season.
Johnny appeared in the off-season news far too often the past few months. Most of it hasn’t been favorable. He showed up at a UT frat party a month or so ago and was politely escorted out. There are other escapades, recounted in painful detail, most having to do with drinking. We live in a world where people who live in the bright lights like Johnny Football can’t get away with much. Justin Bieber for some inexplicable reason sang naked last November to his grandma, shielded only by the guitar strapped around his neck. It took a while, but now anyone with an Internet connection can feel his embarrassment.
Now Manziel is in real trouble, facing allegations that he was paid to sign autographs, which is a violation of NCAA rules. Texas A&M could face sanctions if it plays Manziel, and he is later suspended. Since autograph-signing is a cash business, it could be difficult to prove. Johnny Football might have freely signed thousands of autographs for adoring fans, who have swarmed over him like flies on honey since he burst on the scene last year.
I feel sorry for Manziel, who after all is only 20 years old. I fear he is going to flame out too quickly under the incredible pressure of the publicity, the klieg lights of celebrity. Clearly he has made some unwise decisions. Twenty-year-olds are prone to do that — especially when presented golden opportunities to screw up, such as Manziel has been handed. Making the situation more complicated is that Manziel comes from a well-to-do family who clearly had the means to indulge their talented son, as many of us do if we can. Sometimes that can backfire as well.
Big-time college athletics carries an odor of decay these days that can’t be disguised by appeals to the sanctity of the student-athlete and the occasional penalties handed down for violations. From Penn State to Ohio State, Miami to USC, many of the nation’s top programs have been caught cheating and covering up scandals. There is so much money at stake in a top-tier football program these days that success or failure on the gridiron affects the rest of the university — enrollment, endowments, donors ponying up money for another building. The players, even when they are as critical to a team’s success as Johnny Football was last year, are mere cogs. They are paid nothing except their scholarships and housing. They are always just a career-ending injury away from being a sports fanatic’s footnote.
Something has to change, or the system is going to continue to carry this stench of decay. The NCAA could start by paying football players. The University of Texas, where I spent some time and have seen first-hand the opulence of the facilities, is the wealthiest football program in the country. Coach Mack Brown’s $5.5 million salary is the second-highest in the nation. Brown favors paying players, saying “These players are killing themselves and last year we made $163 million.” That’s right. UT’s football program raked in $163 million last season.
It is time to end the plantation mentality and quit pretending that big-time college football is a quaint game featuring “student-athletes.” Pay the players a decent salary, nothing exorbitant. If a kid wants to sell his autographs, let him sell autographs. Heck, it’s his signature. Why should only the university be making money off Johnny Manziel’s name by slapping it on a jersey?
Football is a dangerous sport, as we are increasingly realizing. Players risk brain damage, paralysis, even death. The least we can do for those who play it for our entertainment in the rarified air of big-time college football, besides offering scholarships and housing, is to give them a paycheck.
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