Keith Strudler: Let Me Help
Here’s the good news for NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel. No one cares anymore about how many NCAA rules he may have broken or even how bad his Cleveland Browns were this year. But to be honest, that is literally all the good news he can expect to hear. Because pretty much the rest of the 23 year old’s life is a car crash in slow motion. For sports fans – at least those with any compassion – it’s painful to watch, but nearly impossible to look away.
Manziel’s current exploits potentially take him beyond his normal frat boy antics to criminal behavior, if the allegations are in fact true. According to an affidavit from his now ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley, Manziel hit and threatened Crowley while also threatening to kill himself or both of them, all this while driving from a hotel to her apartment, where she grabbed a knife to protect herself. It’s assumed this was all fueled by alcohol, as is the case for much of Manziel’s past. Clearly, a brief visit to rehab last year did little to ebb his vice, which has transitioned from hard-partying college stereotype to someone with serious problem – enough that his own father has questioned whether he’ll live to see another year.
All this has led Manziel, the former Heisman winner and dynamic playmaker, to what most assume will be a dismissal from the Cleveland Browns after two volatile years in the NFL – both on and off the field. In the non-guaranteed contract world of professional football, very few players survive this much personal trauma unless they bring irreplaceable success come game time. Thus far, Manziel has been far more sizzle than steak, which will make it increasingly difficult for the 32 employers of the National Football League to keep him on the payroll. Just ask Ray Rice about that. But, given the premium on quarterbacks in the NFL, and since Manziel is still young with potential upside, it’s entirely possible he’ll be on a sideline next season, even if not with the Browns. That will happen without his agent Erik Burkhardt, who dropped him last week. All in all, Johnny Football, once the most popular guy at the party, now finds himself on an island.
One particular narrative in the wake of Manziel’s unraveling is that we, or perhaps the NFL, should help him. Give him support, get him into counseling, help him find his way and his immense talents. There’s an equally loud voice that thinks Johnny’s getting exactly what he deserves – a spoiled kid of entitlement that’s throwing it all away. And what we wouldn’t all do to have the same opportunities he has, which, let me be very clear, given the current understanding of football and CTE, I don’t agree with. These are the two competing ideologies, one of mercy and the other a castigation. The angel and the devil, I suppose, for a guy who’s been praised and demonized.
So, what are we to do about Johnny Manziel, someone who’s unraveling before our millions of very eyes? Do we, and does football, have a responsibility to help?
The short answer is, not really. Johnny Manziel is a grown man, or nearly so, with an addiction that’s enabled by NFL fame and paychecks – both of which could come to a screaming halt. But if you take that hard line, which to be honest, sports leagues seem to do for anyone deemed replaceable, we should at least understand our culpability.
As sports fans, we’ve enjoyed the spectacle that is the Manziel affair, both as unpaid college labor and later as a marginal professional athlete. And all along, he’s been higher risk than a junk bond. And yet we keep watching, teams keep playing, and at least one owner decided to draft him in the first round. And we keep feeding the beast, the same one that’s nourished Ray Rice, Aaron Hernandez, and all the other NFL athletes who’ve joined the list of social deviants. For all the cheers and boos, there’s haven’t been a whole lot of boycotts or interventions. Now, if the domestic abuse charges are true, Manziel will have to answer to a higher calling – namely the police – unlike what many think current NFL star quarterback Jameis Winston didn’t have to do. And that’s not only fair, it’s the law. But beyond his legal affair, before Johnny Manziel ends up another NFL statistic, like Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs, who murdered his girlfriend before killing himself at the team’s practice facility, we might want to take heed.
I understand what a lot of you think. There’s a lot of sick people in the world, and why waste so much effort on someone who seems to have a whole lot of advantages, things other people don’t have. That’s fair. But perhaps if this was just Johnny Manziel and not Johnny Football, maybe this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. We all a part of that, at least all that watch the game, and certainly those that run it. For that, Manziel deserves help, as do many people, even if he doesn’t want it. Him getting better would be good news for us all.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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