Published September 02, 2013
On Saturday, Johnny Manziel pretended to sign an autograph on the field, celebrated his touchdown passes by doing the same money hand gesture that he did last year, and got a taunting penalty for trash talking after a touchdown pass. ESPN reacted like Manziel was the Unabomber.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
I mean, Tim freaking Tebow got a taunting penalty in the BCS title game, and I never heard anyone utter a word about that. All Tebow's penalty illustrated was the joyful way he played football. Tajh Boyd scored a rushing touchdown in ESPN/ABC's primetime game and made the same money hand gesture that Manziel did, and I didn't see it replayed anywhere. Nor did I hear anyone suggest that Boyd was a narcissist hell-bent on destroying his team's title chances.
As I thought about this Saturday night, it suddenly came to me: What you think about Johnny Manziel tells us more about you than it does about him.
That's because Manziel has become our own national Rorschach test. Is he an entitled brat who is playing the game in a classless manner, or is he an irreverent rebel whose brilliance owes much to his individuality? Your answer probably tells us a ton about you.
That's because Johnny Manziel, a 20-year-old who has probably uttered fewer than 5,000 public words in his athletic life, stands astride all of the race, class and cultural issues that we like to pretend don't exist in sports.
What do you think about Manziel? Everything you think can be right, and everything you can think can be wrong, but none of it is really about Johnny. Johnny's just the empty vessel you're constructing to help justify your worldview.
As a result I worry that Manziel, the most scrutinized athlete in college sports history, might eventually crack. Not because he's teetering on the edge of acceptable behavior, but because he's not able to drown out all the noise and just play. If you're unable to escape everyone's opinion of you, eventually you start to self-analyze to such an extent that paralysis by analysis can ensue. You aren't living your life and embracing your gifts. You're living your life wondering what everyone else will think about you.
That can be crippling. Especially for a 20-year-old who was comparatively unknown a year ago.
Think about how wild it is that in our modern media era, every single college football fan has an opinion on Manziel.
And based on my Twitter polling, the college football universe is just about completely even. Half of you like Johnny, and half of you don't like him.
Think about how wild this divergence of opinion is.
It's as if Johnny Football is running for president. No matter what he does, he's going to be hated by half of you and loved by the other half.
So what's your opinion of Johnny Football? Well, that probably depends on what you think about politics and race and class and all sorts of bigger issues that aren't supposed to be involved in sports.
In college you probably came across the William Carlos Williams poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow." If you didn't, here it is:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
What does that poem mean? Well, it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever you bring to your reading experience. Johnny Manziel is college football's own red wheelbarrow.
Chances are, no matter who you root for, you're in one of these five groups when it comes to Johnny Football.
1. If you hate the way Johnny's playing football, you're probably a rules follower.
You prefer a clear delineation between right and wrong. There's a proper way to play football and an improper way to play football. You value the team over the individual. You don't really like when someone draws attention to himself. You believe Johnny's a showboat, and you're rooting for Nick Saban and Alabama -- the ultimate rule-following team -- to teach Johnny a lesson.
Over and over I hear this -- the idea that Johnny Football needs to be humbled, reclaimed, whipped on the field to make him less cocky.
Why does this desire exist? Johnny's playing a game -- not negotiating foreign policy with Syria and Egypt.
Why do some feel this way? Because they're rules followers, and Johnny's a rebel. They've never liked rebels. This isn't about sports, and it never was.
2. If you love the way Johnny's playing football, you're probably a fan of individual choice at the expense of institutional rules.
You prefer your heroes to be rebels -- people who walk right up to the boundaries of acceptable behavior and sometimes go beyond those boundaries. You love the way he riffs on the football field, like a jazz song brought to life, playing within the parameters of a called play but making the specific notes all his own.
You hope that Johnny doesn't have to subsume his individuality to make the team better. In fact, you worry that if Johnny stops being Johnny, his gifts will disappear as quickly as they emerged.
You're an iconoclast and have always found the strictures of rules confining.
You want Manziel to continue to be what you wish you could be: a rebel who plays above the rules, a singular talent that can't be contained.
3. You're a Texas A&M fan and don't care what Johnny does because, by God, he's yours.
You feel like larger institutions are on a witch-hunt against Manziel. Your foes here are legion -- Texas, the NCAA, ESPN -- and all of these larger entities are cracking down on your guy at little ole A&M. Why can't they just leave Johnny alone? Why are they focusing on his behavior, especially when others are behaving the same or worse?
Sure, you may or may not approve of everything Manziel is doing -- but at this point all of that is past. It's just not fair the way they're treating him. You're in the Aggie Alamo together with all the forces of Mexico allied against you.
You'll defend him until the end.
Keep on coming ESPN and Texas and the NCAA.
We'll keep attacking y'all as fiercely as you attack our guys.
4. Johnny's a rich, white Texan -- and this makes some people not like him.
Because people of all races, rightfully, believe that rich white kids don't have to always play by the same rules as the rest of us. Those who focus on this element of Johnny Football believe that he received favorable treatment from the NCAA because he's rich and white. They point to other athletes, typically black and poor, who have been treated less fairly than Manziel. They believe that if Manziel was black, America would have a different opinion of him than they do now.
This story isn't so much about Manziel as it is a worldview rooted in race and class -- the idea that even in 21st century America, some of us still aren't treated equally. That resentment is down deep in your core beliefs. Even as you watch him play, a part of you thinks that this is yet another moment when the world treats someone else more fairly than it does you and yours.
If you doubt that there's any legitimacy at all to this perspective, I ask you this -- what if Cam Newton had done everything Johnny Manziel has done and returned for his senior season? He partied with Drake, traveled all over the country for courtside NBA seats, slept through the Manning Passing Academy, took online courses rather than actually going to class, and was alleged to have signed 4,400 autographs for money partly so that he could put new rims on his Benz.
You think Cam would still get the benefit of the doubt?
For this crew, they can't escape race and class.
5. You hate Johnny Manziel because he's not playing like you believe a "white" athlete should play.
Many of these people are older and white, but all ages are represented. They believe there's a proper way for a white quarterback to conduct himself and that Johnny's flouting all those rules. It's interesting that Manziel represents a new racial dynamic in our country. Ask him who he patterns his game after, and he name drops Vince Young and Mike Vick. He hangs with Drake in his free time. Johnny's a rich white kid who identifies with black culture as much or more than he does with white culture.
That may upset conservative white people, but they have to find other reasons to quibble with Johnny aside from his self-identification. So they speak in code words that focus on class and decorum. It's like Dear Abby suddenly put on shoulder pads. Go back and read those opinion pieces that rip Manziel for the way he carries himself off the field. The racial subtext is self-evident.
Anyone reexamining their opinion of Johnny Manziel yet?
Because deep down, what you think about Johnny Manziel tells us an awful lot more about you than it does Johnny Manziel.