Don’t Let Johnny Jackass Swallow the Season

So here is this defiant monster, as created by success and immaturity and celebrity friends and a once-mighty governing body shrinking in his presence, looking skyward and rubbing his thumb and fingers together. That would be the universal symbol for money, which is neither spiritual nor humble and actually is quite moronic under the circumstances. Silly me, I’d expected some measure of humility from Johnny Manziel in his first game after he escaped a scandal — thanks to a toothless, hapless NCAA that had no apparent interest in investigating how he could have signed more than 4,000 autographs for not a penny.

Instead, he rubbed his legal victory into the collective face of those who care about whatever dignity is left in college football. He made the money-rub sign twice. He pretended to sign an autograph when a Rice defender taunted him. When he pointed at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter during another verbal set-off with Rice defenders, he finally was pulled from the game by his coach and enabler at Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin.

“That wasn’t very smart and that’s why he didn’t go back in the game either,” Sumlin told the media. “You would hope at this point, he’d have learned something. We’re still working on that. He wasn’t going back in the game no matter what was happening.”

This is not Johnny Football. This isn’t even Johnny Drama. This is Johnny Jackass.

And he must be stopped, now, before he makes a mockery of a season that shouldn’t be swallowed by his divaness. As it is, any roundup of the opening weekend should be leading with Clemson’s emotional victory over Georgia, which vaults the inimitable Dabo Swinney into the national championship hunt, places Tajh Boyd squarely in the Heisman Trophy race, purges the underachieving term “Clemsoning” from the sport’s lexicon and maintains Mark Richt’s perennial status as a hot-seat coach at Georgia. It should be about Alabama winning without much offense, LSU surviving against TCU, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota taking an early step forward in the Heisman race, Jadeveon Clowney taking a step backward and Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr teaching Manziel and everyone else about character by throwing five touchdown passes after a sleepless month in which his newborn son fought for his life. But just as Manziel hijacked America’s attention span last year, for all the right reasons, he continues to commandeer our interest this year for all the wrong reasons.

All we ask is that he play football. If you haven’t noticed, he does it very well, as a playmaker and a showman, a dual-threat quarterback who resumed his scrambling act to throw three quick scoring passes in a blowout victory in his season debut. He is a clever, 20-year-old narcissist who is toying with the sporting masses, and I’m among the guilty who let him occupy my consciousness because, admittedly, I’m fascinated by the story. But as his concerned father has said, we’re dealing with a young man who has sought help for alcohol issues. Manziel is impressive in how he blocks out the noise to keep performing well. But continuing to succeed under duress also just feeds the monster. Already, the A&M administration has blindly thrown its support behind him, knowing he has helped the university make money in fund-raising settings. So, will he listen to anyone?

It’s up to Sumlin to keep monitoring him, penalizing him. But does he have any leverage when Manziel breezes right by him on the sideline, even appearing to bump his coach after leaving the field? “God dang it, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life,” Sumlin yelled at Manziel, who ignored the words. Sumlin really should suspend him the next game, against Sam Houston State, so that his equilibrium might be in gear for the epic Alabama rematch on Sept. 14. But as long as the Texas A&M chancellor is declaring Manziel innocent in the autograph case without even bothering to interview him, well, you realize the university is enabling him in the bigger context of profiting from him. So what really can Sumlin do to punish Manziel without facing his bosses’ wrath?

“Individual acts like that hurt your football team,” Sumlin said. “He’s going to face that every week with the (opposing players) chirping. That’s not OK, and obviously I addressed that on the sideline right after the play. That’s something he’s going to have to deal with every week.”

School officials chose to make Manziel unavailable for comment. It’s the only smart thing that happened all day in College Station.

The coach can pretend to act tough, but he knows the real damage was done two days earlier. If the “A” in Texas A&M stands for agriculture, then what else would you expect from the place but a heavy dose of cow manure? Stench noted, let’s focus on the proper culprits in this sorry case of lawlessness in what has become the scummiest corner of the American sports pigsty. You know damned well who’s enabling the deception that allows Manziel, a shifty cat who didn’t sign thousands of autographs in sittings with memorabilia collectors because he wanted to improve his penmanship, to skate away from scandal with a wink-wink, wrist-slap, candy-ass penalty.

What it means is that NCAA investigations as we’ve known them are now officially, and laughably, dead. Time and again, these super sleuths have shown to be nothing more than bumbling, inept fools, like so many Inspector Clouseaus from the old “Pink Panther” movies. If their most recent probes included unethical mistakes in the University of Miami case and a blabbermouthing investigator who self-sabotaged the Shabazz Muhammad/UCLA case, then the Manziel snafu is the most egregious yet for president Mark Emmert and his people, who now seem to have no purpose but to bank billions and let everyone in the kingdom cheat his ass off.

They allowed the arrival of a new season in a multi-billion-dollar industry, one in which Johnny Football is centered as the reigning Heisman winner and tip-of-tongue fodder for fans and national media, to take precedence over the prime objective: Getting the investigation right. When ESPN reported Aug. 4 that the NCAA was looking into allegations that Manziel had accepted money from autograph brokers, we expected the process to be lengthy and deliberate. If the NCAA needed all season, great, just so long as the sleuths did due diligence and exhaustive investigative work on the most controversial player in college football history. The Johnny Football era is landmark stuff in sports America. If future generations are going to read about his legend, it’s vital that the so-called ruling body of collegiate athletics finds out if he illegally accepted a reported five-figure fee for his signatures.

Barely three weeks later, so as not to interfere with the start of the season, the NCAA announced it had uncovered no evidence that Manziel was paid for autographs. In a joint announcement with Texas A&M that also smacks of a conflict of interest — you’re conferring with the very institution whose quarterback you’ve been investigating? — the NCAA did say Manziel was guilty of wrongdoing. Exactly what, Emmert’s people wouldn’t specify, but the joint statement did say that Manziel violated NCAA bylaw 12.5.2.1, which forbids players from allowing names or likenesses to be used for commercial purposes. The NCAA could have continued to investigate the murky subspecies of autograph dealers. It could have placed the onus on A&M, let the school decide whether to sit Manziel or use him and risk forfeiting and/or vacating victories in which he participated, including the mammoth rematch in College Station against defending national champion Alabama.

Instead, the NCAA clowns did Johnny Football, A&M, the Southeastern Conference, the college football industry and the too-big-to-care behemoth behind it all — ESPN — a colossal favor. Not only did Emmert issue the lightest of punishments, he pretty much closed the case. “If additional information comes to light, the NCAA will review and consider if further action is appropriate,” the NCAA said in the statement. “NCAA rules are clear that student-athletes may not accept money for items they sign, and based on information provided by Manziel, that did not happen in this case.”

Based on the information provided by Manziel? Say what? The NCAA sits with Manziel for almost six hours the other day, presumably to discuss during those 360 or so minutes the information it has uncovered, then makes a decision on the INFORMATION PROVIDED BY MANZIEL??? What did they think Manziel was going to tell them, that he accepted $1 million from some sleazebag in Miami, took him to a strip club and paid Miley Cyrus to twerk the guy? Even if we viewed Manziel as a sweet, innocent kid who never has been in trouble and never would draw attention to himself — pause here for loud laughter — it takes a massive imagination stretch to assume he did anything but sign the autographs, pocket the cash with his trusty hometown assistant, and run to the next party.

Rather than continue to pursue the suspect and break him down, the NCAA boys caved to elements that have squashed them in the evolving power structure of college football. With ESPN’s 12-year, $7.3-billion deal for the new postseason tournament kicking in next year, nothing stops the six power conferences from seceding from the NCAA and forming their own block, with ESPN president John Skipper in charge as commissioner. Think I’m joking? After throwing the book at Penn State for its utter lack of institutional control in the Jerry Sandusky scandal/tragedy, the NCAA has flopped in the investigative department. Its failures set the stage for chaotic reform: the NCAA no longer probing football programs that now will be allowed to operate on their own, lawlessly, no longer subject to a governing enforcement unit. The power leagues claim they still want to be under the NCAA umbrella — and maybe this is what the Manziel decision is about, waving the white flag so the NCAA can keep pocketing its piece of the fortune while toothlessly watching the Wild, Wild West unfold.

Wherever this is going, the end game is an ethical sewer.

You knew the Manziel investigation was a joke when John Sharp, the A&M chancellor, starting dropping hints days ago that his quarterback and cash cow would be eligible. He sent a mass e-mailing to friends of the program that Manziel was innocent in his eyes, even though Sharp acknowledged he never had talked to Manziel about the charges. This guy leads a major American institution of higher learning? Don’t you owe it to the moral foundation of the university, the famous Aggie Code of Honor, to at least look into the matter and report what you’ve found publicly?

“Don’t have to. I don’t have to hear from him,” Sharp told a TV station in Texas. “I can hear from his original accusers and what they’re saying now.”

After the autograph scums have been paid off, right?

Sharp also spent too much time Googling and looking into ESPN’s Darren Rovell, who broke the original pay-for-autographs story in another example of the network’s awkward and ultimately crippling duality — trying to break news about entities with which it shares multi-billion-dollar business contracts. Turns out Rovell was scammed on the Internet two years ago, misreported an NBA story and had to apologize. What that had to do with his Manziel reporting, I have no idea, but Sharp obviously was more interested in deflecting blame than finding any in his revenue-driving, buzz-manufacturing superstar.

“I am proud of the way both Coach Sumlin and Johnny handled this situation with integrity and honesty,” Sharp said after the deal was cut. “We all take the Aggie Code of Honor very seriously, and there is no evidence that either the university or Johnny violated that code.”

Actually, there is no evidence that anyone had any interest in finding Manziel guilty. He is too good for business for anyone to kick him to the curb. All that seems to matter is Johnny Football making a whole lot of money for a gigantic, out-of-control machine, even if he’s making a travesty of the sport. Think travesty is too strong? Hours after Manziel was doing his money rub, Boyd was seen performing his variation after a touchdown in the Clemson victory.

Johnny Jackass has way too much influence. It’s time for a father figure down yonder — anyone — to end the party and send the kid to his room without dinner.

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