Johnny Manziel has heard it all in 2013. Think of any judgmental or malicious term, and it seems it's already been directed at the 20-year-old sophomore quarterback from Tyler, Texas. Everywhere you turn there are pundits, prognosticators, and pontificators falling over themselves to label, dissect, deconstruct, disassemble Johnny Football. The analysis often takes the form of an attack, and many times it's personal. But no one seems eager or particularly inclined to just jettison the white noise and distractions, and just call Johnny Manziel for what he truly is--the most electrifying, indispensably entertaining athlete in sports.
Because that's what he is. On the basic, most fundamental level, that's all he need be.
Everything to love about the Aggie QB was on display yesterday during A&M's hard-fought 49-42 loss to #1 Alabama. Manziel threw for 464 yards and scampered for another 98. He had 5 touchdowns (to go with 2 interceptions, yes) and a veritable collection of transcendently good football plays. Take this one from the second quarter: A&M's pocket protection disintegrates, and, after inexplicably escaping what would have been a back-breaking sack, Manziel salvages the third-and-long via an improbably pinpoint dart that finds it way safely into receiver Edward Pope's hands.
They don't teach that at the Manning Academy.
Manziel also demonstrated spectacular perseverance and in-game leadership throughout the second half. Midway through the third quarter it was 35-14. Alabama looked like it was safely on its way towards handing Manziel a humbling drubbing before the highest national TV audience in almost a decade, but the Aggies refused to lie down. The Heisman winner engineered drive-after-drive in the hope of pulling off the unbelievable comeback, but that one defensive stop that the Aggies needed never materialized. Again, Manziel wasn't perfect on the field Saturday; they lost the game, after all, and one of his interceptions cost A&M a touchdown and seemed to kill their opening quarter's momentum. But he was perfect in a different way, perfect in a more elemental or archetypal way, perfect in the way that draws fans to sports in the first place. Which is to say that watching Manziel play football is to witness the perfect concoction of once-in- a-generation talent, spectacle, and spontaneity. Like Bo, or Deion, or Barry before him, with each snap Manziel seems to be approaching the Platonic Ideal of football as theatre.
And yet Manziel has never been celebrated like these predecessors, neither by casual fans or the media's thought leaders. Rather, he's been openly vilified. You know about the autographs, and the tweets, and the beer and the absurdist debate over what was the exact ailment that sent him home from the Manning camp a day early. You know all this. Your opinion on Johnny Manziel has no doubt been calcified long before today, and it's almost definitely a negative one. The narrative is being written on Manziel in unalterable font, and the judgments being rendered are wrathful ones.
And that's a shame.
What's interesting about the life and times of Johnny Football is how thoroughly he upends every cliche that is heretofore accepted when it comes to the relationship a football quarterback is supposed to have between his persona and performance. Melding sublime talent with a streak of brashness is expected, if not encouraged, in skill positions like wide receiver (see: Moss, Randy..Owens, Terrell..Johnson, Keyshawn), but when a QB exhibits that dichotomy the sports media's loudest and most influential (read: worst) mouthpieces immediately and relentlessly pounce on him. It's why a google search of "Jay+Cutler+criticism" yields over 170,000 results. Moreover, an irreverent persona and a predilection for frat parties, hormonal growing pains, and social media pratfalls (something we've seemed to pretend hundreds of thousands of college kids don't experience each year in their own lives, be it at College Station or elsewhere) is supposed to be a heroic athlete's 'tragic flaw.' It's why there are still lunatics out there demanding a starting NFL gig for Tim Tebow. Unyielding moral fervor and an android-like aversion to anything fun or festive is supposedly metonymical with a quarterback's success. That was the persistent, stupid train of thought (Jessica Simpson was once responsible for all of Tony Romo's on-field mishaps, remember?!) -- but now Manziel has proven it entirely false. He's got a Heisman, a Cotton Bowl victory, and a prominent ranking again this year (and a win yesterday that was there for the taking had the defense pulled out one more stop in the second half), all while enjoying the spoils that come with those successes. Manziel is proving that the classic "distractions" facing every young athlete aren't even really distractions at all--his blistering, incomparable talent continues to flourish regardless. And that drives the older guard in the sports media crazy. And Manziel operates in open defiance of both theirs and the NCAA machine's stolidness. How can you not like Johnny Football when he so manifestly makes all the right people angry?
Watching this kid play football is a gift, rejecting that fact in favor of cutting him down with constant criticism says a whole lot more about you and your disposition than it does about Manziel's apparent shortcomings.
It's how you have ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook condescendingly chastising Manziel, after the 20-year-old responded to the deafening din of criticism by asking his detractors to "walk a day in my shoes," by telling readers that "the expression is 'walk a mile,' which is the sort of thing an actual college student should know." Very brave pomposity and condescension coming from a man who once wrote that Jewish movie executives "worship money above all else," which is the sort of thing an actual adult columnist should know not to write.
It's how you have SI & MMQB editor Peter King somehow unironically declaring that Manziel's reputation is apparently so toxic (Drinking! In College!) that he's "put his NFL reputation at risk"--as if King's talking about an NFL that hasn't employed Aaron Hernandez, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, or the 33 (and counting) other NFL players that have been arrested since Super Bowl Sunday.
It's how you have people keying Manziel's car on campus, writing op-eds telling him to "be gone," or having the temerity to think he's a "detriment to the program" rather than recognizing that he's actually the single most lucrative, invaluable, and revolutionary entity for the program in the school's history (seriously? Detriment to the program? Is there a single college applicant in America, football player or otherwise, who wants to go to Texas A&M less now that Manziel's under center? Is there even one?). Manziel can't even sit at a basketball game without receiving venom from all comers. First the bile came in whispers that he had gained the tickets illegitimately. But Manziel's family has a lot of money--so then the hate tweets and snarky comments attacked him for that fact instead, because America is clearly a country that abjectly resents wealth and never ever celebrates it. It's like Johnny Football is a living a twisted situation similar to the Observer Effect--the action he's taking becomes detrimental purely by him taking it.
It's how you have Mark May, another purveyor of diarrhea diatribes for the Worldwide Leader, who's pearl-clutching and distaste for the young quarterback has reached such baroque levels one wonders if Manziel personally ran over his dog or something. May has bashed Manziel relentlessly on both television and social media throughout the preseason, going so far as to accuse the kid of bringing "shame to the game."
Alright Johnny Football enough is enough this is your last wake up call STOP BRINGING SHAME TO THE GAME !
— Mark May (@mark_may) July 16, 2013
Thankfully, the folks at SB Nation's Good Bull Hunting were able to expose May's hypocrisy for the noxiousness that it truly is. While the football analyst repeated hurls tired admonishments to the Aggie quarterback, he ignores his own arrest and convictions of disorderly conduct and criminal mischief while a student-athlete at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as two DUIs at the pro-level. Memo to Mark May: when you've committed enough crap that Wikipedia page feels compelled to include a "Legal Troubles" sub-heading in your own biography page, lecturing others on their behavior probably isn't in the best interest for your credibility.
And when the criticism towards Manziel isn't steeped in laughable hypocrisy, it's just plain, well, bizarre, like when Jesse Palmer compares Manziel to Achilles and College Station to Ancient Troy. Or when Fox Sports' Jen Engel compared his autograph witch hunt to Rosa Parks' struggle for civil rights--a tone-deaf analogy that was actually meant to support Manziel but which only ended up bringing further animosity to the dialogue that's surrounding him.
Once again, though, the disheartening thing about something like Mark May or Gregg Easterbrook isn't that they're ignorant curmudgeons hollering harmlessly into the ether--it's that their perceptions and interpretations of Johnny Football is the rule, not the exception. On Saturday Verne Lundquist felt compelled to state that Manziel was "the most polarizing athlete in sports" like it was a completely unchallenged, objective fact. In reality Manziel is basically only polarizing amongst 50 to 79-year-old NCAA executives and their pernicious sycophants throughout print and television media, but since these are the only demographics that control the sport's conversations and frame the depictions therein, their narrative is winning out. When analysts piled on him relentlessly for an alleged taunting penalty in Week 1 vs. Rice, the Owls' defender involved in the incident had to take to twitter to defend Manziel from the vultures.
@espn I was the one who johnny was talking too. He said "what's up nick, nice hit." True story
— Nick Elder (@NickElder1) August 31, 2013
The Nation's Dave Zirin succinctly described the unnecessary vilification of Johnny Manziel as commercial America's compulsive need to "eat its youth," and he's right. Manziel typifies everything we glorify--and glorify it we definitely do--about youth, sports and the college experience throughout popular culture and yet he is being simultaneously sacrificed for indulging those same things. To call it a paradox or a double standard does not do it justice. It's the rancid effect of the old guard sports media's pathologically unreachable expectations. They're not even expectations--they're booby traps; Manziel is the villain college football needs, whether he's earned this animosity or not. Manziel is a pariah and a "polarizing figure" for no particular reason--and thus every reason. Deadspin's Drew Magary similarly touched upon the cannibalization of Manziel's football soul, saying that, quite simply "America is ruining Johnny Football:"
Analysts have devised a system in which any talented and suggestible young quarterback will find himself hounded and hounded until, in the end, he assumes the very characteristics that they mistakenly believe he possesses. This isn't a traditional case of building someone up and tearing him down. This is trolling on an elaborate scale. This is finding a ripe target and molding him in the image of your worst bogeyman.
You can imagine how frustrating this would be if you were Johnny Manziel, if you were required to negotiate the demands of an idiotic media culture that judges you on the quality of your self-presentation and marketing, and conspires with your future employers to reify those judgments in ways that actually affect your work, your salary, and your professional life.
Preach. But still, pundits like Zirin and Magary remain in the minority. For every one reporter who attempts to inject some rational thought into the chaos surrounding this young man, there's another four or five more, with a larger readership or higher ratings, who are ready to continue with piling on him.
Perhaps A&M's loss to Alabama--while naturally bad for his team's poll position--might ultimately be a good thing for Johnny Manziel. Perhaps the fever will break, A&M will continue it's season no longer undefeated, and he can operate under a slightly-less-hot limelight, one that prizes his ingenious talent rather than seeks to limit and destroy it arbitrarily. But I won't hold my breath. There is kinetic poetry looming in every down Johnny Manziel plays on the football field. There is hypocrisy and duplicity looming in every statement the sports establishment directs towards him. I know which entity I'm siding with. And I know which is the entity I wish would "be gone."