What's Fair and Foul When Following Johnny Manziel in the Media?
When most college football players win the Heisman Trophy, they have but one game left in their college careers before they're off to the NFL. With the new phenomenon of freshman Johnny Manziel taking home the hardware, all of us—college football administrators, coaches, players, fans and even the media—are entering uncharted territory.
Manziel is, after all, just 20 years old and preparing for his redshirt sophomore season. Is it any wonder we're watching his growing pains play out before us in magazines, in newspapers and on the Internet?
Manziel didn't surround himself with agents and PR professionals because, quite simply, he can't. The NCAA rightly prevents college athletes from contact with professional agents while still maintaining eligibility to play in college.
Kids will be kids, and “Johnny Football” is probably behaving how many college guys would in his situation. But does that mean we should simply throw this 20-year-old kid to the paparazzi-inspired wolves?
Of course not. Those who cover college football in general or Johnny Manziel in particular must take it upon themselves to identify the line between fair and foul when it comes to coverage of the young phenom.
Fair: Public Life
The first thing we noticed this offseason about Manziel is his unrivaled ability to show up at the most exclusive of places.
First, the BCS National Championship Game. Okay, not a shocker for the top player in college football, but roaming the Alabama sidelines? Not even A.J. McCarron's girlfriend got that kind of perk.
But then, Manziel made the rounds in the NBA. After scoring some sweet floor seats to watch Dallas host the visiting Miami Heat back in December, Manziel showed up courtside to see Houston take on the LA Lakers.
Receiving these tickets as gifts raises all sorts of “impermissible benefits” issues. Manziel later claimed in tweets that he bought himself the tickets—which would have cost hundreds of dollars per seat, at the least. So, one might ask, where a supposed “poor college kid” get that money?
Then, of course, there were the photos Manziel himself posted online flashing a fanned-out handful of cash while at a casino in Oklahoma. Manziel later tweeted “Nothing illegal about being 18+ in a casino and winning money... KEEP HATING!”
Many states have an age limit of 21 for casino gambling, but in Oklahoma, Manziel is correct. Legal questions aside, Manziel's actions again raise NCAA eligibility questions.
Manziel knows the rules, and he's probably smart enough not to do anything to jeopardize his eligibility. But when it gets to a point where coaches at other programs begin to comment on the possible NCAA implications, it might be time for Manziel to reassess his actions.
It's also important to remember that these incidents, while potentially embarrassing or even damaging to Manziel's future, all happened in public where photographers—or even Manziel himself—snapped and posted pictures.
Foul: Personal Relationships
There was a lot of commentary about A.J. McCarron's girlfriend, Katherine Webb, especially from quintessential college football announcer Brent Musburger.
Whether you agree with those who think Musburger took it a little too far or those—like Webb herself—who think it was much ado about nothing, the fact remains we were all talking about a personal relationship between two college-aged people.
Johnny Manziel has a girlfriend of his own. Sarah Savage, like Webb, is quite an attractive woman and—like Webb—is probably in the running for some top WAG awards. But should we really care?
Both Webb and Savage probably have much more to offer the world than their good looks. Both have obviously gained entrance into quality educational institutions, and both are dating what appear to be upstanding college men. But in the end, we are talking about college kids dating. The legitimate media shouldn't be wasting their time.
Fair: Athletic Preparedness
As we get closer and closer to the start of the 2013 college football season, it's only natural for the media to look at every team and all the returning starters to try and predict what's about to happen. Never mind the fact we never get it quite right; the media from ESPN to CBS to Bleacher Report to Sports Illustrated isn't about to give up the gig of prognostication.
Part of that imperfect forecasting that comes ahead of every season is trying to determine how each returning player's performance will compare to last season's.
Will Jadeveon Clowney dominate opposing offensive lines again? Can Everett Golson kick his game up another notch to guide the Irish back to the BCS? Can A.J. McCarron win an unheard-of third straight national title?
All of those questions will be pecked to death by the media, and none of those guys won a Heisman Trophy last season.
Every move Johnny Manziel makes on or even around a football field from now until kickoff will be pored over relentlessly by those who make a living by covering college football. Partly, it's because the football offseason is so long and there's little else to cover.
But there's also some legitimate media reasons mixed in.
College football is big business for the universities, the NCAA, the advertisers and even for the football players who may one day be making millions in the NFL. Fans all across the country clamor for every morsel of information. And the media is going to feed that obsession.
Regardless of your feelings on the rest of the coverage of Menziel's life, there isn't anything wrong with some preseason anticipation and hype—or whatever the opposite of hype is—about Manziel's encore performance.
Foul: Personal Preparedness
One thing that never seems to sit well with many people is the gossipy, tabloid-esque coverage of so many celebrities.
Sports stars aren't immune from finding themselves on the cover of supermarket checkout sleaze rags alongside headlines of “Michele Obama Ate My Baby!” or “Pope Francis Actually an Alien From Alpha Centaur!” It's all part of living in a society where a free press is viewed as the “Fourth Estate.”
But college athletes are a little different. These 18- to 23-year-olds are amateurs who aren't paid (beyond getting an otherwise very expensive education, room-and-board plus numerous other college-related expenses absolutely free of charge). They don't have agents and they don't employ an entourage of people to act as a buffer between their private lives and the bright glare of stardom.
College athletes, particularly those playing “the money sports” (football and men's basketball) are subjected to the same media scrutiny as Tom Brady or LeBron James—which is completely unfair. Maturity aside, college athletes just don't have the system of individual support professionals do.
Those in the media need to not only recognize that, but temper their coverage of these young men accordingly.
Fair: Public Statements
It's amazing how social media has changed the sports world. Just 10 years ago, this wasn't even a problem anyone could have predicted.
But with Twitter and Facebook on everyone's smartphone, every college athlete in the nation suddenly has a giant megaphone with which to spout off about anything.
Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come [sic] to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
While Manziel hasn't said anything quite that obtuse or anything even approaching that level of stupidity, its hard not to notice his instant fame—with over 330,000 followers—or his seemingly harmless commentary on his instantly charmed life.
Maybe it's a good thing Manziel has decided to give Twitter a rest. After all, how long can someone in his position avoid falling into the sinkhole created by absent-minded tweets?
Especially with the media all too eager to blur the line between fair and foul and just waiting to pounce...