Johnny Manziel, trailblazer: The NCAA is a total joke, again

Heisman winner gets slap on the wrist, because NCAA fears going after a wealthy player who would beat them in court

Published August 29, 2013 6:08PM (EDT)

Where, I wonder, was Reggie Bush yesterday when he heard the news of the NCAA’s “punishment” for Johnny Manziel?  

Bush, playing out what looks to be the last couple of years of his career with the Detroit Lions, must have been particularly interested to hear how the National Collegiate Athletic Association was going to deal with what seemed a few days ago like a mountain of evidence that Johnny Football had allegedly taken money for signing a ton of autographs. How did Bush react when word came down that, all of a sudden, there was no real evidence that Manziel was guilty of any infractions of NCAA rules and that he would be suspended only for the first half of the first game of the season, a game to be played on the Aggies’ home field at College Station against the mediocre Rice Owls this Saturday.

What this probably amounts to is giving the reigning Heisman Trophy winner half an afternoon off, not exactly much of a punishment considering that if things go the way A&M anticipates – and they are currently favored to win by 31 points – Manziel would probably be spending most of the second half of the game on the bench anyway.

Stated simply, the NCAA’s punishment for Manziel is no punishment at all. Certainly nothing like the punishment handed down to Reggie Bush and Southern Cal back in 2010, five years after Bush won the Heisman Trophy as the outstanding player in college football. Bush was stripped of his trophy; the Trojans lost their national championship for the 2004 season, numerous wins erased from the record book, a two-year bowl ban, and severe scholarship loss.

All of this because Bush’s family accepted money and gifts, including a rent free home from sports marketers hoping to sign Reggie. The NCAA, of course, was doing what the colleges hire them to do, namely keeping a tight monopoly on the earning power of student athletes under the guise of amateurism. As a de facto law making body, the NCAA can prohibit students from cashing in on their talent via endorsements, autograph signings, paid appearances, et al.

The hypocrisy of this system is ludicrously evident. The week when football fans breathlessly awaited the NCAA’s decision on whether or not Johnny Manziel had violated the sacred of amateurism, he was on the cover of Athlon Sports magazine, a thin newspaper insert sponsored by Wrangler Jeans that reaches millions of homes that still get a Sunday paper.  According to the hype on the cover, Johnny is “A Heisman Winnin’ Gunslinging’ Dual-Threat Son of a Gun.” They left out the part that Johnny is also, without his consent, a pitchman for Athlon Sports and Wrangler.  The advertising revenue paid by Wrangler from this arrangement goes straight to the NCAA with a cut to Texas A&M.

The athlete not only isn’t allowed to cash in on his fame by selling his jersey, as receiver A.J. Green, formerly of the University of Georgia, found out in 2010 when he sold his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 (for “spring break cash,”: as he told the press) and was suspended for four games.  Or as Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State found out in 2009 when he was suspended for the last 10 games of his college career for allegedly communicating with a sports agent.

These are just two of the better known athletes whose infractions of NCAA bylaws earned them suspensions over the last few seasons.  Never mind the lack of any ethical basis for the punishments – since college athletes have no union or any other kind of representation, the NCAA has always been able to impose its often arbitrary and always self-righteous will on them.

Why, then, the non-punishment for Manziel?  Some observers have concluded that the NCAA just couldn’t find a paper trail which connected Johnny to the memorabilia dealer for whom Manziel signed all those autographs. But when has the NCAA ever needed proof? Virtually none of their clamp-downs on college athletes would have stood the test in a courtroom.

Ah, but that’s one of the big differences between Manziel and nearly all other athletes who have suffered the NCAA’s wrath over the years: his family has the financial means to employ real lawyers in his defense, and there’s nothing the NCAA fears more than losing a high-profile test case which could lead to a class action suit that would free all college athletes from its control. So the NCAA, Texas A&M, and Johnny Manziel all agreed to pretend that Johnny just went to Miami for the weekend of the BCS championship game to allegedly sign hundreds of autographs for free out of a sudden fit of generosity.

Let’s not choose to exonerate Manziel. He is an astonishingly spoiled and self-absorbed young man who knowingly put his school’s football program and his own teammates in jeopardy by his actions. And unlike Reggie Bush, he doesn’t even have the excuse that his family needed the money. That, though, isn’t really the issue. The issue is that Johnny Manziel has revealed the first genuine crack in the NCAA’s armor. From now on, any player who can find some strong legal backing can insist that he has the same rights -- to life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth – as any other American citizen.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The NCAA handed won one more penalty for Johnny -- he has to address the team about the lessons he learned from this situation. This is almost certain to be written by Manziel’s lawyers with perhaps an assist from Texas A&M’s creative writing department. Let me suggest something  a bit more candid than what they’re likely to come up with. Johnny, you’re welcome to use this.

Guys, You think that upset win over Alabama last year was something, it was nothing compared to the scam  I just pulled off with the NCAA. What I proved is that the NCAA can be beat, that you can sell your autograph, your jersey, your game tickets, anything you want, and the absolute worst they can do to you is make you stand in front of a room of football players and make a bullshit speech like the one I was told to give to you. And with a good lawyer – and any of you who stands to be a NFL draft pick can find one who will take your case – you can beat them, too.

If I was Reggie Bush, I’d put in a call to Johnny Manziel, get his lawyer’s cell phone number, and get a rematch with the NCAA.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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College Football Heisman Trophy Johnny Manziel Ncaa Reggie Bush Texas A&m