Manziel Skates From Hapless, Toothless NCAA

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 Johnny 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 — a suspension for the first half of a season opener against a Rice team that is receiving 28 points or more on most betting lines — 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 Trophy 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, 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 Sept. 14 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 (Kevin) 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 Johnny Manziel guilty. He is too good for business to kick to the curb. “Johnny’s handled it very well,” Sumlin said. “Everything around football, he’s been extremely sharp and focused.”

And that’s all that matters, Johnny making a whole lot of money for a gigantic, out-of-control machine.