One of the first things I learned in a classroom management course was when a kid blatantly breaks the rules, never ask him or her why they did it. You’re not going to like the answer, and the reality is, most kids don’t know why threw a watermelon out a school window. At that age, impulse far overwhelms reasoned action. So as an educator, forget why, and simply deal with the punishment.
So, when I first heard that Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel may have accepted money for signing autographs and risked his future collegiate eligibility, I decided it was better not to think of Johnny Football as a sophomore quarterback for Texas A&M, but rather as a 12 year old schoolboy. Then, I could stop speculating on why Manziel did something so, well, stupid.
To refresh, here’s the framework of the story. Manziel currently stands accused of accepting upwards of $7500 by an autograph broker for signing a boat load of helmets that would go for sale on eBay and otherwise. Now $7500 certainly is chump change in the athletic economy of major American sports, but since Manziel is a college athlete, it still violates all NCAA rules for him to make any kind of money off his likeness. Fair or not, and it’s not, thems the rules.
Johnny Football certainly isn’t the first star quarterback to, allegedly at this point, break the rules and take money for their wares. But the case of Johnny Manziel is a bit different. First, by the time he was supposedly signing footballs for money, he was already a Heisman winner with more paparazzi than George Clooney. He could probably recite the NCAA rulebook to music and dance. And he clearly knew the game here. He plays just one more year in college, then off to the NFL, where he can sign all the helmets he wants for outrageous sums of money in the memorabilia trade, contributing to one of the dirtiest industries that doesn’t involve syringes and opiates. Now, that’s all in jeopardy, over maybe ten grand. And lest we all forget, Johnny Football comes from relative family wealth, at least enough that he’s driving a new Mercedes bought for him by his father, not an agent. So we can dispel the common storyline that he just needed the money.
So understanding why Johnny Manziel took somewhere approaching $10,000 to risk millions probably commands a psychologist instead of a sports analyst. Perhaps he feels entitled, maybe he’s angry at how much Texas A&M makes without him pocketing a dime. You don’t have to be poor to understand unfair. Or, maybe like he reportedly said, Manziel just wanted to buy new rims for his Mercedes without having to ask his dad. That’s not so hard to believe from the mind of a 20 year old.
So instead of understanding why, the key here is trying to figure out what next, like any good junior high school teacher would do. And the problem is, there’s no good answer. If you want to follow the rule book, which is a fairly standard course, he’s likely to be suspended for quite some time, meaning he may never return to a college gridiron in College Station or anywhere else. This is a high-risk move for the NCAA, angering television partners and perhaps hastening the breakup of the entire organization over rules just like these.
Or, the NCAA could let it go and say it was an accident, and let Manziel play. And that would evaporate whatever credibility they have left. They might as well put up a while flag with the word hypocrisy written on it.
So there’s the problem. When you run an organization built on unjust rules and unpaid labor, there’s really no such thing as a logical solution. It’s like the penal code in a dictatorship. At some point, it’s simply a circus of the absurd. The NCAA can’t render a fair and logical verdict on this case because they’re practices have long since been anything but. So they’ll probably walk a shrinking tightrope once again and levy something like a 2 game suspension, hoping we all drink the Kool-Aid of amateurism but don’t get too mad when Manziel’s on the bench against Rice. But don’t worry, he’ll be back by the Alabama game.
It doesn’t make sense, this odd capitalistic parent state. It’s hard to know why it still exists. But like a lot of things, sometimes the only thing to do, is never ask why.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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