At the outset of another college football season, the best game around is not on the football field. It’s in the back rooms of Texas A&M, pitting Johnny Manziel against the NCAA.
It’s a game the NCAA cannot win.
The NCAA — everybody’s favorite organization and already faced with attacks on every front — met with Manziel on Sunday, grilling him about accusations that he received payment for autographs from memorabilia dealers.
They met with him for six hours.
Six hours? The meeting should have consisted of one question: Did he receive pay for autographs, yes or no? What were they doing the rest of the five hours and 55 minutes, getting his autograph?
Manziel could bring the NCAA to its knees. He is college football’s marquee player. He won the Heisman Trophy last season, the first freshman ever to do so. He is also college football’s Lindsay Lohan.
Manziel has had a busy off-season, posting photos of himself flashing cash at a casino, hoisting bottles of champagne in a nightclub, hanging out with celebs, hiring a personal assistant and security, shoving a graduate assistant after throwing a pick in a spring scrimmage, throwing out the first pitch of a Major League game, tweeting complaints about a parking ticket (he later retweeted “Walk in my shoes” — oh, the unfairness of it all!), pleading guilty to a misdemeanor from a year-old bar fight incident, getting kicked out of a party at the University of Texas, getting sent home early from the Manning football camp, and, according to reports, undergoing counseling for alcohol and anger issues.
A model student-athlete, he is not. He isn’t one to follow the rules and now he has put the NCAA in a tight spot after allegations surfaced that he received money for signing autographs for collectors. ESPN reported that a memorabilia collector paid Manziel $7,500 for an autograph session in Connecticut. ESPN reported that it viewed video provided by the collector in which, “ESPN heard Maniel say ‘you never did a signing with me' and that if the broker were to tell anyone he would refuse to deal with him again in the future." This followed an earlier story by ESPN in which it reported Manziel was paid for signing hundreds of autographs while in Miami for the national championship game.
Nobody comes out looking good in AutographGate, and everyone is scrambling to figure out the next step.
Texas A&M must decide whether to sit or play Manziel in their opener Saturday against Rice. If they play him and he is later declared ineligible, any game A&M plays with Manziel could be declared a forfeit.
For its part, the NCAA is backed into a corner. If NCAA officials do nothing to Manziel, it will appear they are giving preferential treatment to its biggest star in the face of seemingly strong evidence. If the NCAA suspends Manziel, it undoubtedly will bring outrage from college football fans, not only over the loss of the game’s most visible player but also over the archaic rules that forbid players from participating in the free enterprise system and earning a living.
NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199 bans college athletes from using their own names or likenesses for commercial purposes. AutographGate raises two questions really: Did Manziel break the rule? Is the rule fair to begin with?
The NCAA is one of the last bastions of amateurism, which was finally rooted out of Olympics sports after decades of abuse. Then and now, the system is the same: A few people live high and make a lot of money off the athletes’ sweat while the athletes subsist on crumbs that fall from the table. Remember John Junker, the Fiesta Bowl CEO who was paid $600,000 a year and billed the Fiesta Bowl $1,241 to pay for a visit that he and associates made to a Phoenix strip club in 2008? Or his membership at four elite private golf clubs and the $33,000 cost of his birthday party, all billed to the Fiesta Bowl?
While Manziel and his peers are forbidden from making money off their images and the sale of related commercial products, the NCAA and Manziel’s school are not. The NCAA would begrudge Manziel a $7,500 payday, but the NCAA and the universities will continue to rake in millions off its players. According to the Texas A&M website, Manziel produced about $37 million in media exposure for the school.
When the AutographGate story broke, you could go to an NCAA website — ShopNCAAsports.com — and buy Manziel’s No. 2 Texas A&M jersey for anywhere from $22 to $65. When this was noted by ESPN’s Jay Bilas, producing the inevitable backlash over such blatant hypocrisy, the NCAA immediately announced that it would stop selling player jerseys.
The sale of player jerseys was not only hypocritical, it was arrogant. With one hand, the NCAA was profiting off players and forbidding them from earning money off their own names; with the other hand, the NCAA was fighting a milestone legal battle over this very issue in the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit.
O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA that will include past and possibly current collegiate athletes. They are suing the NCAA for using their images for profit without compensating them (originally, this was about video football games). It is the most serious legal challenge the NCAA has faced. It could have a profound and devastating effect, potentially costing the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars in everything from video games to TV contracts. College sports might have to subsist on half the funding, and, if current players are added to the suit, it could lead to pay-for-play in college sports.
The bottom line: Manziel and O’Bannon could bring sweeping changes to college sports. Given the greed of the NCAA and its antiquated notion of amateurism, such trouble seems well deserved.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org