Johnny Manziel: Why We Cannot (and Should Not) Look Away

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 19, 2016

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27:  Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field, after a third down play against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half on December 27, 2015 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Johnny Manziel isn't having any fun. 

Get the notion that Manziel is having a blast out of your mind. He's not. Not really. Being accused of trashing a rental property is not fun. It's desperate and pathetic. Car crashes are no fun. Assault allegations and protective orders are as far away from fun as you can get.

Manziel spent the weekend at Coachella. OK…Coachella would be fun for most of us. But most of us know how to stop "partying." Most of us aren't running away from real problems and responsibilities.

But wait, you say. Manziel's just an immature kid doing immature kid stuff, just like we used to do. Remember when Joey Bagapretzels' parents left town, and we partied all night and wrecked his house? That was fun.

Yeah. We were 17 when we did that. We woke up feeling like our heads were in a vice clamp, ralphing up our sweat socks. We were grounded for two weeks and never really talked to Joey Bagapretzels again.

Immature kid stuff is not what Manziel is doing, any more than storming into Coachella with an entourage seemingly in the middle of an endless binge is like having one too many at the Hoedown by the River concert on Saturday and sleeping it off by Monday. It's not just an age or intensity difference. From all appearances, the difference is more of a clinical one.

Yes, Manziel is just 23 years old. That doesn't mean he will grow out of this. Remember the 23-year-old buddy you had who never realized it was time to cut back? The one who met you for happy hour at Molly McTipples who was still there at last call? The one who acted betrayed when you refused the second round of shots? The one you drifted away from when your life stabilized and theirs staggered away?

That buddy wasn't having any fun, either. Not as friends and lovers disengaged and consequences mounted.

Now be honest: Did you ever tell that buddy to "seek help"? Maybe you did. That conversation always got stuck on the tip of my tongue. It was something we talked about behind his or her back. It's easy to say someone needs help. It's harder to tell someone they need help. And the hardest thing of all is telling yourself you need help.

If Manziel's your old buddy, what do you do about him?

 

Bleary Images

Even an Internet search of Manziel's recent activities feels like cotton-mouthed soul-searching after a long bender.

There are blurry images: a wrecked car, an angry landlord, what might have been a fight with a lover that went beyond harsh words.

Grooving in a ball pit? It's that kind of a party, pal. 

new tattoo with marijuana imagery? Better suited for selling kung fu DVDs at the outdoor auction than a job interview with John Elway, but hey, anything goes.

There's a confusing cast of characters, the people you meet on the road to nowhere. Josh Gordon, now Manziel's bestie and roommate (Maybe? The line between roommate and guy crashing on couch blurs along with everything else), is essentially a less clickable version of Manziel. Ryan Silverstein, Snapchatter of Manziel's Coachella whereabouts, is the kind of pseudo-celebrity who should wear a T-shirt that reads "Rounding Out the Entourage."

Von Miller seems to be the grown-up friend trying to say and do the right thing. Miller told the Dallas Morning News' Avi Zaleon he doesn't think we should "count out" Manziel. Fair enough. But what are we supposed to do? Helicopter into the ball pit and offer him a three-year contract? There's no evidence that Manziel has even thrown a football since Dec. 27.

Colleen Crowley, Manziel's onetime girlfriend, now has a protective order against him, making her absence as conspicuous as any of the characters who are actually still a part of the story.

Drew Rosenhaus is the agent in the movie whose phone call signals to the audience that the thrill ride is over for the former matinee idol. Ya used to be boffo, Johnny. But now yer yesterday's news! Don't let the door hit ya on the keister on yer way out.

There are plenty of images, but what's surprising is how few opinions there are of this public saga. The kid just doesn't get it columns were written long ago and ring false now. Manziel's story slunk from the sports page to the gossip column at about the same time that his behavior slipped from stuff that gets you kicked off a football roster to stuff that gets you kicked out of a punk band.

Gossip sites stand sentry at the gates of Manziel's public perception now, slapping lurid headlines atop images of mangled Mercedes and Coachella selfies. The rest of us—columnists, television personalities, agents, players—have begun endlessly singing a chorus of "Johnny should seek help."

Saying Manziel should seek help is as facile as it is true. Manziel should seek help, the Browns should stop losing, and all of us should eat better and lower our reliance on fossil fuels. If seeking help were as easy as taking an antibiotic, or showing some willpower, or even a 30-day rehab stint, there would be no such thing as addiction.

What we all keep suggesting he do isn't easy. It's one of the hardest things in the world.

 

The Problem

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 31.5 percent of U.S. alcohol-dependent individuals fall into the "Young Adult Subtype." These are essentially binge drinkers, not the guys drinking from bags beneath railroad trestles. These are our buddies from back in the day who always closed the bar and needed Monday morning recaps to retrace their steps.

The average Young Adult Subtype alcoholic is roughly aged 25 and male. He doesn't drink every night, but his sessions are rip-roaring 13-drink nights—the type of binges so often associated with injuries, assault and serious workplace consequences.

Sound familiar?

It's irresponsible to make diagnoses based on headlines. We don't know what causes Manziel's behavioral issues beyond what is documented on social media and that he had a stint in rehab. But we do know he shares a pattern of behavior with millions of young people.

March 5, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; NFL players Johnny Manziel and Von Miller attend the match between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor during UFC 196 at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We don't think of young twentysomethings blowing off some weekend steam as alcoholics, because most of us once were (or still are) twentysomethings who blew off our share of weekend steam. Addiction experts don't necessarily think everyone who wakes up after dollar-drafts night with a headache and some regrets has a serious problem, either. NIAAA reports that 72 percent of individuals go through a "heavy-drinking" phase of life in their late teens and 20s. Most of us grow out of it. The folks in the Young Adult Subtype don't realize that the party is over.

The Manziel story unspooling over the tabloids and the social networks is familiar to all of us. It started with a big man on campus having a little too much fun. Some of us acted aghast; others got misty-eyed for the good old days and thanked heaven there was no Instagram in 1990.

Then came the problems that most young people avoid by growing out of that heavy-drinking phase. A career opportunity gets squandered. Then the first job is lost. Then a fight with a girlfriend ends with a police report. Property damage. People in a position to help throw up their hands and switch off their cellphones.

If this type of alcoholic could "just grow up" like the rest of us, a firing or arrest would do the trick. Hundreds of thousands of young people blow through those learning experiences. They are more than immature. They may not need three martinis to get through the afternoon shift, but they are just as dependent on alcohol.

 

Unwanted Advice

Our quest for things to say about Manziel in the media takes us into strange territory. A common talking point I've heard several times (asked to me more than once) on talk radio: "Do you think Johnny Manziel even wants to play in the NFL?"

The question misses the point. If Manziel really is someone who needs to seek help, then what he wants is worse than irrelevant. It's part of the problem.

Addiction is a disease of the will. It hijacks the decision-making process. Addiction spins webs of rationalizations, encourages short-term solutions and tricks you into not just making terrible decisions but defending them to others and often yourself.

An alcoholic may want to play in the NFL, make partner in the law firm or build the perfect marriage. But what an alcoholic really wants to do is drink, and that short-term goal keeps stepping in front of the long-term ones.

Here's the worst part: An addict doesn't want to seek help. An addict doesn't want to be told to seek help. That's what "bottoming out" and the language of recovery are all about. The alcoholic really wants to keep going, long past the point at which any healthy person would realize that "partying" is no fun anymore.

So even if you do the right thing as a concerned friend—work up the nerve to tell your buddy to seek help, perhaps even assemble an intervention—you are likely to get shunned, ignored, laughed off or lied to. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try. It just means that Manziel may have a problem that his parents, the NFL, Von Miller and Oprah cannot solve.

It makes our "seek help" message to Manziel ring a little hollow, if not cynical. Thomas Barrabi of Fox Business quoted celebrity crisis expert Jack Deschauer on how Manziel could revive his NFL career: "The absolute only chance that Johnny Manziel has at a professional football career at this point would be to enter an inpatient rehabilitation program, a serious one, today, and stay there, whether it's a 30-day or a 90-day, and then complete it," Deschauer said, adding that Manziel would then have to remain stone-sober for months.

Gritting through a 30-day program might well land Manziel back on a roster or attract a new agent. But if he isn't ready to change, it will just be window dressing, a quick fix to make sure the money keeps rolling in.

Manziel has to seek help before he can truly get it. That's the reason our advice sounds so trite and useless.

 

Don't Look Away

Writing or talking about a quarterback or celebrity with an apparent substance problem is tricky. Hence, the huge population at the safe harbor of "seek help." Most of us don't want to laugh, glorify or exploit. No one wants to see a talented person throw his or her career away.

Dec 20, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) greets players after a game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks won 30-13. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

There's about a 1 percent chance that Johnny Manziel ever becomes a relevant NFL quarterback. Tim Tebow has a better chance. Trevor Siemian has a much better chance. There may be guys who go undrafted next week who have a better chance.

Which makes me wonder if I or anyone else should be writing columns about Manziel in the first place. Maybe we need to stop rubbernecking. Perhaps celebrity is one more thing Manziel needs to lose before he attains some clarity.

But it's more important to keep looking—not because we love celebrity comeuppance so much, but because the problem Manziel seems to have is our problem. There are 7 million binge drinkers in America, according to the NIAAA study, and many of them will develop into Young Adult Subtype alcoholics. We need to understand that there's a difference between sowing wild oats and succumbing to an illness, that an alcoholic isn't always a gutter wino or a middle-aged man waking up alone with the shakes.

We need a long look at how bad a sickness like whatever Manziel's going through can be and how long the course of illness can run. Watching Manziel's behavior can teach us why our nephews or old buddies didn't stop after the first car wreck, pink slip or police incident.

We also need to take Miller's advice and not "write off" Manziel. Better to criticize and condemn his behavior than ignore and forget him. He'll someday realize that the fun ended long ago, and he'll seek to seek help—not publicist-mandated, career-salvaging help, but the real kind.

Until then, don't think for a moment that Manziel is truly enjoying the ride.

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.