Tweet by tweet, the life of the insufferable Johnny Manziel unfolds.
Tweet by tweet, a world scrutinizes the precocious football star, seeing his failures in real time as each new leaked cell-phone picture scratches another blemish on his Heisman Trophy.
And unlike ever before in the history of hero-worship and collegiate athletics, a snapshot emerges not of a superman beneath the mesh jersey, but a child. The hazy IPhone images reveal a petulant, cocky kid, swimming in his family’s oil money and living large on newfound fame. They reveal drinks in his big, soon-to-be-million-dollar-hands, and shortcomings in the once mythologized “Johnny Football” –now just Johnny Manziel, whose myth has turned into a gruesomely detailed reality show of late night antics and stubborn cockiness that SEC fans can’t accept.
But here’s a newsflash to the critics of Johnny Manziel, apparently far enough removed from college and youth to have forgotten what transpires beyond the field: as insufferable, as intolerable, as childish as Manziel may seem, he isn’t unique.
First, underage college students drink. A lot. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the number of college students sipping the daddy sodas sits a little north of 80%. One of every two college students will go beyond enjoying a casual beer, and instead, binge drink. And even before college, 70% of young people have experimented with alcohol by age 18.
So yes, Manziel is caught breaking the law every time a smart phone captures the quarterback throwing back a brewski instead of throwing a touchdown. But so are most of his peers. And so, too, were college students in previous, less maligned, less watched, generations.
Second, many college students are affluent. As Pell Grants decrease in percentage of college cost covered and tuition increases at rates far beyond the rate of inflation, college is no longer what it once promised to be: a level-playing ground of opportunity. It’s a house of debt for many, and study after study shows that students with higher family income go to college at a much higher rate than those without.
So yes, Manziel is spoiled, and spending that money recklessly in a way that athletes of lesser socioeconomic backgrounds will never touch as long as the NCAA profits from its athletes without compensation. But again, Manziel isn’t alone. I just finished four years of college surrounded by many students much richer than I, and if trailed by TMZ, the results of their sprees would be equally as unsettling as Johnny Football’s. Fortunately, the world isn’t as interested in Johnny Philosophy-Major.
Third, and perhaps most important, Manziel is not the first (nor will he be the last) cocksure athlete that parties like it’s 1999 (whatever the hell that means). In the least scientific stat I’ll bestow in this article, I’m willing to claim that 9 in 10 of the best athletes in any major sport are cocky, arrogant, borderline insufferable. Sadly, it’s part of what makes them so good –they know they see greatness and otherworldly athleticism in the mirror every morning. And those athletes, especially in Division-I, put hours into their craft every day beyond the classroom. Whether you want to hear it or not, it isn’t easy, and when granted a weekend or an offseason, they seek the same release that other students seek after Final Exams: booze, friends, and nights on the town.
For example, I attended Transylvania University in Lexington, KY –home of the nationally known Kentucky Wildcats’ basketball dynasty. In my four years, I knew of at least one very high-profile basketball player that would party on our campus (much like Manziel hopped over to Austin to drink it up at UT). I won’t reveal his name, because a young man shouldn’t be judged by his worst, unguarded moments when he’s a teenager, but this esteemed Wildcat, now in the NBA, reportedly drank on our campus, underage, and when confronted by an RA, spoke in that same cocky bravado Manziel sports, saying, “I think we’re good.”
This player was above the law because, well, the world told him that to be above the rim was to be a step above the masses that worshipped him. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. It happens. The Russell Wilsons, Drew Breeses, and Tim Tebows of the world are the exception –not the rule.
So I won’t apologize for Johnny Manziel. I find his actions deplorable, and in the face of being responsible for representing a school, childish. But there is something much more troubling at play in this scenario, and it spreads far beyond the gridiron. Manziel belongs to a generation under the microscope, a generation that can’t win. Never before has the world watched its young heroes so closely.
An impossible, lose-lose, battle arises. While the older generation accuses the Millennials of being young, stupid, and lazy, they hold them to a standard that didn’t even exist five to ten years ago:
The world is watching. So never, not once, screw up.
The cliché used to state that we should learn from our mistakes when we are young. But now, we perish beneath them; they stick with us forever.
According to On Device Research, 1 in 10 young job seekers lose out on positions because of their social media profiles or what others post online. 74% of hiring companies and employers keep a watchful eye on young persons’ pasts and presents from the second a hiring process begins. So the youthful generations can’t learn from their mistakes –they literally cost us. Even Johnny Manziel, future NFL Quarterback, can practically watch his draft stock slide downward as each new allegation of his immaturity comes to light. As SI’s Peter King has said, NFL GMs are scared.
This practice of watchdoggery in a digital age has transferred to the way we cover college sports. It’s no longer enough to seek out the stories on and off the field –now, we follow players into their living rooms, their bed rooms, into fraternity houses and backyards. Privacy has become public domain, and every misstep becomes news.
And with every step of twentysomethings being trailed, it’s no wonder we don’t paint a pretty picture. The narrative claims that Manziel is but another example of how younger athletes are more entitled, less respectful, narcissistic, not hard working. As if a spoiled child didn’t exist in 1975. But if the rhetoric sounds familiar, it should.
Joel Stein painted the same painful picture of my generation in Time Magazine, calling Millennials “lazy,” “entitled,” and more narcissistic than their ancestors. Business Insider’s Susanne Goldstein went as far as to say that Manziel’s peers don’t understand failure, succumb to group think because of social media, and have the audacity to want their voice heard because they’ve always had a platform, always gotten a trophy. In short, the popular refrain raining down on planet twentysomething is this: you think you’re too important, and as a result you are too ambitious, or wait, no, you’re not ambitious enough.
It’s a place from which there is no escape. This world that elicited Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to pronounce the “Age of Privacy” over has trapped its young subjects beneath the microscope that constantly examines them. On one hand, we’re handed the responsibility of social media, to be without mistake (or good at hiding them) and exhibit social grace. On the other hand, we’re criticized for seizing that opportunity to have a voice, or raise a hand.
Social media is important when we mess up, menial when we rise up. Which means one thing: the older generations want it to be a way to keep us down.
Manziel is perfect proof of this mentality. A media storm surrounds him, picking apart every move he makes on his drinking tour of Texas or rap-sessions with Drake. Lost in the narrative is the fact that he’s only 20 years old. The vindictive reactions to criticism he offers on Twitter reveal a boy still becoming a man:
But today, there’s no room to grow. There is no redemption. We are what our digital footprint says we are, and good luck going back. Manziel is just the first to truly get swallowed up by this wave of the future. And right now, he does seem destined for Ryan Leaf-status. Short-tempered, spoiled, out of control, and as ESPN’s Wright Thompson’s latest piece revealed, even beyond the reach of his family’s help.
But he’s 20. At that age, Nelson Mandela still had militaristic mindsets as a rebel leader in South Africa. Barack Obama was smoking weed. And something tells me that Joe Namath, John Elway, and Peyton Manning weren’t getting up for church every Sunday of the offseason.
Manziel’s future is uncertain. Perhaps he never lives up to the hype, and all the warning signs lead to a tragic end: alcoholism, flame-out status, or worse. But one thing is certain: his present-day life is a circus, much thanks to our inability to let our celebrities find a shadow in which to hide from the spotlight. Manziel requires police escorts to get from the stadium back to campus. The kid writes more autographs than term papers.
And while he has to answer millions of questions about his escapades, the older generations silently make their millions. The SEC will make $205 million of TV revenue this year –Texas A&M getting roughly $18 million of the cut. The media microscope on Manziel will only raise the meter, and the terms of future contracts.
From one side of their collective mouths, the moneymakers of college sports spout the importance of athletes being good students, good people, good representatives, denigrating those that act as Manziel has. On the other side, they laugh, as each sensational story only increases the profit they turn on the kids we watch so closely.
Imagine if we paid such attention to the underbellies of college sports. What would we find?
We’d find more than a beer in their hands. That I can guarantee.
Perhaps Johnny Football needs help. I won’t deny it. Issues such as alcohol abuse and reckless fighting should be taken seriously, especially for a young man so baked by the public limelight that any number of SEC fans or jealous former footballers could wish him ill.
What he doesn’t need is the condition his generation has inherited.
Before these controversies erupted, the biggest critique of Johnny Manziel as a prospect was that he was too short, not strong enough, too small. But now that his every move has been chronicled and criticized by talk-show psychiatrists and well-meaning adults, his lips are closing, his walls are mounting, his ceiling lowered to his head. The quarterback is stunted.
And now he’ll never be allowed to grow.