Since the news broke over the weekend that Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback, Johnny Manziel, was allegedly photographed in a Las Vegas bathroom tightly rolling a $20 bill, I have been deluged with questions as to the best way to advise a client in this situation. Last week, Manziel also made headlines for partying with Justin Bieber in the pop star's Beverly Hills home. I wrote a number of times in this space how uncommonly gifted he is and how the incidents involving him in his post-Heisman off-season were overblown. I don't represent Manziel, but I have represented rookie quarterbacks from Troy Aikman to Steve Young to Ben Roethlisberger and here is what I advised them.
1) Building a career in the NFL is your number one priority. You need to prove to your owner, team executives, coaches, teammates, and the fans that you are totally committed to a work ethic and focus that puts football first. Veteran teammates need to see that the highly paid rookie is willing to fit seamlessly into their peer group. It is your NFL football contract that will give you lifetime security. Rookie salaries are capped, but veteran quarterback contracts are not. The straw that stirs the drink is football. Everything else flows from that. Rookie years are often learning years with numerous mistakes. Adjusting to the speed and talent at the professional level is a necessity.
2) Quarterbacks have always been subjected to extra team, and public, scrutiny. The quarterback is generally the team leader and representative. Other positions may get away from the complex for large periods of the off-season, but quarterbacks need to be seen there by coaches. Even though there is no football being played, and this is technically "time off," quarterbacks carry special responsibilities.
3) Social media and other platforms of information supply have destroyed the public/private continuum. Every action can be captured by the ubiquitous cellphone and instantly posted for worldwide dissemination. Athletic stars are celebrities and there is great competition to provide breaking news and information concerning them. A whole industry has developed which has nonstop reporting of arrests, domestic problems, money issues, and alcohol and drug abuse by these stars. This requires the athlete to be extra scrupulous in where and how he is seen in public. Venues like Las Vegas can be especially challenging.
4) Perception becomes reality. A picture or video of an athlete with a drink in his hand or with scantily clad members of the opposite sex can convey a wild, undisciplined impression. The public will see the video or picture over and over again on all platforms of content supply. That repetition creates the impression that this was not one isolated situation -- the athlete is perceived as that way all the time.
5) Athletes are role models whether they wish to be or not. Parents and fans want their children to see athletes projecting positive behavior and values. Players need to be "stewards of the game." If an athlete does not want to give peak performance, be discreet in public behavior, gracious in signing autographs, and open and accessible with the press there is an easy solution -- play sports on a sandlot. No criticism, no fans, and none of the incredible benefits that come from professional sports.
I have not the slightest doubt that Manziel will be a model practice player and give every effort in games. He is a young man and this is his vacation time; but adjusting to the realities of professional football is a massive undertaking, and perception becomes reality. He may be making his journey more difficult than it needs to be.