The latest one is a photo that puts Manziel in a Las Vegas restroom rolling what appears to be a large-denomination bill (h/t to Busted Coverage). We don't know what Manziel was actually doing with the money (origami?), but Manziel has to know that it's not a good look for him.
Personally, I love "JFF" (the middle "F" can't get past our censors) and his antics. Every single time a new photo pops up of Manziel doing something like chugging champagne on an inflatable swan or hanging out with Floyd Mayweather, Tyrese and Justin Bieber, I click.
I have to click. It's inevitable. Then, I share it with my friends—especially the couple of Browns fans. It's great. I've long been a vocal detractor of the NCAA's cartel-like control over athletes and think that Manziel's ability to make bank off his marketable skill set and brand is long overdue.
There's no sarcasm here.
I'm not hoping Manziel fails, nor am I predicting he will—quite the opposite! I also don't think an athlete needs a certain amount of seriousness or decorum to play in the league. Football (and the media that covers it) takes this game too seriously already. Manziel is a breath of fresh air, and I think it's downright enjoyable to watch.
That said, it needs to change.
Opinion (Subjective) vs. Reality (Objective)
"Concern trolling" is an Internet term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to Manziel—often incorrectly.
Concern trolling is when a person pretends to be sympathetic to someone's point of view, but then offers concerns which undermine the actual goals. One of the best-known examples is a political staffer named Ted Furtado who posed as a supporter of the opposition, but consistently voiced "concerns" that said opposition was just wasting its time and Furtado's boss was "unbeatable."
This isn't that.
Concern trolling has, at its core, the motivation of ruining someone. It is, by nature, insidious and purposefully destructive, even while often being useless and impotent. While many like to paint "media" as biased and even evil (usually not individual members, but a shadowy concept that is often left undefined), any actual members of the media with so-called agendas out to ruin the people they cover are few and far between.
We'll touch more on the media aspect of Manziel's plight later, but know that it takes a huge amount of evidence to prove that anyone is actually concern trolling Manziel. That's because it's almost certainly not happening in the vast amount of cases.
Instead, what's happening is the difference between subjective opinion and objective reality.
It is my subjective opinion that Manziel is a big boy who can do what he wants. As long as he stays within the bounds of the law and the NFL code of conduct, I would like him to find his way onto as many inflatable swans as he possibly can.
If Manziel's goal in life is to recreate every scene from Billy Madison, I not only approve of this goal, but I vow to do everything within my power to help him acquire a buffalo—"live or stuffed, but preferably stuffed for safety's sake."
That's my opinion.
The reality of the situation is that Manziel is already drawing an incredible amount of attention to himself with his lifestyle. Attention, by itself, isn't necessarily bad, but it does tend to follow a parabolic growth pattern and rarely just goes away on its own.
The reality of the situation is that the danger to Manziel isn't from potentially concern-trolling fans and media; it's from Manziel's choices if they ever pull him outside those aforementioned bounds set by the law and the league.
The reality of Manziel's situation is also that people have different opinions on him. While mine (and yours) may be positive, we know not every team was as comfortable with Manziel's "flags" as the Browns were. We also know that Manziel fell to the 22nd pick in the draft, and it's not completely absurd to wonder if teams might have taken him higher if he had a squeaky-clean personality.
This isn't the Boy Scouts, and Manziel isn't running for political office anytime soon. One doesn't need to be a saint to play in the league (insert dad-style joke about that team in New Orleans), but that doesn't mean that Manziel's very-public antics aren't going to lead to opinions that are just as negative as others are positive.
Veterans either on the Browns now or in the immediate future, coaches and executives either on the Browns now or in the immediate future, ownership, fans, etc.—all people that could be holding negative opinions about Manziel's behavior, like Barry Switzer, who called Manziel an "arrogant little prick," or Tom Brady, who warned Manziel about being "a turd."
Owner Jimmy Haslam has already asked Manziel to "tone it down," according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen (as quoted by Cleveland.com). The writer of that story, May Kay Cabot, has also had Manziel's teammates on the record admitting that the coverage is "a distraction."
Another thing about opinions, though, is that they can change.
Manziel hasn't even stepped foot on an NFL field and he's already become a polarizing figure among NFL circles. Right now, a lot of people have formed opinions on little amounts of evidence, but the more that the spotlight shines on him, the more people will reassess what they think about the matter.
For you and me, that likely doesn't matter two licks to Manziel. For his coaches and teammates, however, if the Manziel show starts to wear them down or grate on their nerves, it could make life difficult for the young passer.
Reality Includes the World We Live in, and Manziel Has to Accept That
Hey, but boys will be boys, right? Manziel can do whatever he wants! Just leave Johnny alone!
Yeah, that works, a little.
Work around the NFL, or even just live in an NFL town long enough, and there are going to be stories. Some stories are true, others false. Some stories are passed down like ancient oral history, while others grow and become tall tales of demolished bars and inhuman sexual prowess.
This isn't a new phenomenon, and it certainly doesn't pertain just to NFL athletes.
The thing is: This sort of thing didn't used to have a world of social media and camera phones behind it.
Much like actual history, the way people recalled, categorized and told history changed a lot when it wasn't just stories being passed down within small communities. When people started writing things down and then being able to actually photograph and videotape historical moments, the nature of that history changed forever.
So, pretend Manziel is living in Cleveland in 1980.
In that scenario, maybe a huge section of fans has a story they heard "from a guy" about Manziel hanging out with the Playboy model from this past weekend, but it's just a sort of urban legend. Maybe the inflatable swan thing gets rumored among NFL types or talked about in the press box, but no one is writing about it, and it really just adds to his mystique.
This same thing happens when someone goes from a small town to a big town or at least a small spotlight to a big spotlight. We instinctively know that someone heading to the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles may wither under them, and the increased presence of media and paparazzi only increase that fact.
I wholeheartedly believe that "Pretend 1980 Manziel" wouldn't have created any buzz at all. Maybe he would if he had happened to get drafted by the New York Giants or Jets, but in Cleveland? No way. Under those circumstances, Manziel could have a summer home in Vegas with wall-to-wall jello pools and no one would ever find out about it.
Sadly for Manziel, this is 2014.
Don't weep for Manziel, though, he's not a victim here—though, at times, he's tried to play that role. In a late-June interview at a youth-football clinic, Manziel admitted that he isn't going to change how he lives his life; he just seemingly wants to change the fact that people care about it.
I want a Shelby Cobra in my driveway, too, but that isn't going to happen by positive thinking.
Manziel's latest money-rolling photo wasn't taken by some trope of a photog with a derby cap, Brooklyn accent and a giant flashbulb.
No, it was taken by some random dude with a phone and an email address. The now-viral "money phone" picture? That was another guy with a phone and an Instagram account. The picture with Bieber and company? That was Manziel himself.
That's the thing about social media. It is, by nature, at least a little narcissistic. No one posts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever else the kids are using these days without believing that people will care about it. To then bristle at the fact that people are caring about it—albeit, perhaps, too much—is completely tone deaf.
It's like Manziel is doing that "stop hitting yourself" thing that big brothers do, but he's doing it to himself and is getting really frustrated.
I don't know Manziel personally—we don't really hang out in the same social circles—so I'm not going to make a character assessment of the young man, and I'm not going to play amateur psychologist. I will, however, say that how he presents himself publicly doesn't do much to quiet the echo chamber.
Win and All This Negativity Goes Away
In many ways, Manziel is the opposite side of the coin once inhabited by Tim Tebow.
Both college wunderkinds—arguably two of the greatest college football players of our era, if not ever—Manziel and Tebow have both done much to fuel a media storm that has grown beyond their control. Of course, Tebow and Manziel don't exactly run in the same social circles either, but the phenomenon behind their social virility is almost identical.
Attention, for athletes and celebrities, is a two-way street.
If Manziel were some milquetoast, boring personality, he probably wouldn't have raced to the top of rookie jersey sales. He wouldn't be hanging out with Drake, Bieber or Playmates—especially not before he had actually done anything in the NFL.
It's how the concept of "celebrity" works. Sure, one has to actually do something to be noteworthy (or, at least, be a Kardashian), but celebrity doesn't really go places in a vacuum. No one outside of College Station, Texas, would really care about Manziel or even know what he looks like if those games weren't televised by the same "media" that is apparently persecuting him today.
There are, objectively speaking, plenty of college football players that might deserve an equal or greater spotlight than Manziel, but none of them have his Q rating. That buzzworthiness helps Manziel live the lifestyle he loves Instagramming so much. Over the course of his career, it will help supply him with even more money phones and bills to roll for whatever purposes he might deign.
The Browns need Manziel to be more, though—they need him to be a winner.
We've all seen the infamous Browns quarterback jersey. This is a team and a fanbase that deserves to stem the tide of their recent history, which includes a ton of losses and a team stolen right out from under them.
Winning changes our perceptions, and Tebow was proof positive of that as well.
Manziel was given a free pass for a lot of his behavior in college because of Texas A&M's ascent into the upper echelon of college football during his time there. If the Browns become a contender with him under center (read: in shotgun formation), his antics will be seen in an infinitely more positive light than would happen if the Browns continue to lose.
Former Texas quarterback Vince Young is a pretty good example of that. Young had more than just perception problems, but it isn't difficult to connect the dots between him never making it past a promising rookie season and all the pictures roaming around the Internet of him partying.
Sure, there would still be coverage—lots of it, maybe even more of it—but as long as the Browns were winning football games, any criticism would likely be contained to a very small contingent of self-righteous media people (angry Manziel is trampling on their lawn) or fans of other teams in the AFC North.
In many ways, then, Manziel's Vegas lifestyle is correlative to how much of a gamble he might be making with his NFL career. If he is seen—fairly or not—as a self-destructive, entitled athlete who isn't doing as much as he can to get better, he likely won't get the same number of chances as if he doesn't pan out but is viewed as someone who is still valued around the locker room and is "putting in the work."
Fairly or not, these pictures and incidents will be brought up if Manziel is ever to be rumored to be struggling with the playbook or doesn't seem to have the chemistry with his teammates that he should have. If Brian Hoyer ends up winning the starting quarterback position in 2014, people will ask if Manziel could've done things differently or focused on football even a little bit more.
Through the prism of draft-fueled optimism, Manziel is already seen as a success by Browns fans who are giving him the benefit of the doubt, but those same fans will turn on him—quickly—if he's not the success they want him to be.
Michael Jordan had the benefit of living in a pre-cell phone era, but some of his exploits would likely put Manziel to shame. The moral of that comparison is twofold: First and foremost, Jordan never let his off-the-court behavior define him. Secondly, Jordan was bulletproof from criticism because of the championship bling on his fingers.
No one—and I truly mean no one—expects every single athlete to be the paradigm of virtue. Right now, though, the Browns need Manziel to be until he gets that same bulletproof exterior. They need a face for their franchise, not someone building their own personal brand. They need a quarterback who is doing everything within his power to minimize distractions, not whining that they need to go away as he lives his life.
When the Browns drafted Manziel, they did so knowing exactly what they were getting into.
Right now, they need him to grow up.