Saturday, after halftime of the clash between Texas A&M and Rice, the most famous active college football player finally trotted onto the field. Two days later, nobody really seems to care what he did in terms of performance. Every media outlet, it seems, is boiling with outrage over young Jonathan's behavior.
Likewise, there are people -- A&M fans mostly, of course, but a not insignificant number of Other Folks -- who think it's all a bunch of hot air. Most of them only seem to care about what Manziel does between the snap and the whistle, and think the objectors are overwrought windbags who just want Manziel to get off their lawn ("their lawn" being code for "that sacred 100-yard rectangle within which men must be honorable and dignified while beating one another's brains in"). Others actually revel in Manziel's devil-may-care attitude.
Rarely, we'll come across a commentary with nuance. We got one such today from Sean Pendergast of the Houston Press, who notes that Manziel is taking the classic role of a wrestling heel. In fact, it's only because of one very small flaw in Pendergast's column that I'm even bothering to comment myself at this point; outside of that flaw, he's essentially nailed it.
Professional wrestling is, of course, a scripted comedy-drama. The bad guys are there for us to either cheer or loathe, depending on our personal preferences; it's no different than soap opera or comic books, where the most beloved characters of all time are comprised of equal part hero and villain. We like our villains. For some of us, it's simply that without a villain, we can't have a hero. For others, it's because we actually get a kick out of the dastardly behavior of the reprobates. The thing is, though, with the exception of the wackjobs who accost those who portray the villians in local supermarkets and demand to know how they could be such horrible people, we understand that it's just play-acting. For example, most fans of the show are perfectly aware that Jack Gleeson, who plays Joffrey on Game of Thrones, is actually one of the nicest and humblest kids in the entire industry and not an obnoxious little turd who richly deserves to have his head shoved into a stopped-up toilet. Wrestling fans are perfectly aware that many of their "sport's" most vile characters quietly do a lot of great things in the community when they're not busy cheap-shotting opponents in the ring.
Unfortunately, unless something has gone very wrong behind closed doors and college football is now no more legitimate a sporting contest than the WWE, Pendergast's otherwise excellent commentary ignored one salient detail: Johnny Manziel is not putting on a scripted show for the entertainment of an audience. Sure, he's exhibiting a personality, and it's one he's probably crafted for himself to a certain extent. But his purpose in life is not to attract attention to himself by being arrogant and annoying. In fact, one can reasonably assume from some of Johnny's more reflective moments that he really wants to be liked, and it's not all crafted. Manziel, and his behavior, are very much created by his environment, as a reading of Wright Thompson's excellent profile clearly demonstrates. (It was mostly as a result of that piece that we first became aware that Manziel -- a 20 year old amateur football player -- essentially had a personal assistant. Contemplate that.)
Therein lies the problem. There is a difference between gleefully cheering for a cartoon villain -- a character created for that very purpose -- and condoning the behavior of a knuckleheaded kid who happens to be really good at playing football. (And let's not pretend Manziel isn't a knucklehead. You can argue whether or not it matters if he is or not, and that's entirely valid. But it's extremely disingenuous to argue that he's not immature, attention-seeking, spoiled, or egotistical, and you can't defend the position that his behavior is in any way dignified or responsible.)
Ultimately this is my fear, for lack of a better word. Look, when the public enables your behavior (however mildly anti-social it may be) by eating it up and actively trying to suppress objection, then the public is tacitly encouraging you to continue. And I think we know what happens to people who are encouraged to continue those behaviors. Even if you avoid TMZ like the plague, you still comprehend its effect on the very people it purports to simply be reporting about. When you allow people to think their irresponsible behavior is okay simply because you find it entertaining, they invariably end up having very real problems; just as one example, it's readily apparent to anyone with a functioning brain stem that Charlie Sheen was just a little goofy until the media fed on it and encouraged him to become a completely off-the-rails caricature of a human being.
Personally I don't care about most of it. The money gesture, pointing at the scoreboard, the cocky attitude... generally speaking, I'm fine with all that, and I would think the hue and cry to be abjectly ridiculous... if not for the <em>other</em> stuff. The apparent disrespect to Kevin Sumlin on the sideline. The autograph thing. The sense of entitlement off the football field. Those are the real problems, because they indicate a deeper issue with Manziel that <em>for his own good</em> needs to be rectified. If we're going to get bent out of shape about Manziel, let's stick to that stuff.
After all, it's pretty damned hypocritical for college football pundits to yammer one moment about how unfair it is that these kids make gajillions of dollars for their schools without seeing any of the profit, while the next moment using one of those very same kids to fill their airtime with hot sports takes which are utterly devoid of any concern for the well-being of the player in question.
Noticed that, did you? I hope so. Manziel's supporters want you to leave him alone because he's just having fun. His detractors want him reined in because he offends their sensibilities. Who's actually concerned about Manziel's future, and whether he's going to turn into a complete mess? If a decade down the road Johnny Manziel has turned into Ryan Leaf, is anyone going to look back and take responsibility for helping push him down that hill?
Please. You know the answer. Hell, you could argue I'm using the kid right now, couldn't you? But at least I'm not in denial about it.