Johnny Manziel may be immature, but his critics are childish


Johnny Manziel faced the music at SEC media days this past week, and did so admirably. (Dave Martin/AP)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist July 19, 2013

It’s impossible to know at this point what kind of pro quarterback — or guy — Johnny Manziel will turn out to be. But the grim moralizers have no right to dictate who he is or what he should act like so long as he’s still a nominal amateur who plays the game for room, board, tuition and free drinks.

Most of the critics ripping the Heisman Trophy winner for his offseason behavior are users and touts trying to build their names by invoking his. Their so-called concern over Manziel’s comportment and how it might affect his future draft status is nothing more than ginned-up controversy for paid-subscriber consumption based on his star power. The day Texas A&M pays Manziel a licensing fee for trading on his image is the day we can write a morals clause into his contract. Until then, the only people with the right to scold him are the head coach who gave him a scholarship and his daddy.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Manziel may or may not have been overserved, which may or may not have prevented him from getting out of bed and missing a session at the Manning family’s summer football camp last week. Apparently he lay there in a heap under the gaze of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, his roommate, whose dimpled Shirley Temple demeanor is the model Manziel’s critics want — as if quarterbacking and on-field generalship are in direct proportion to Prince Charmingness. And as if being overserved and oversleeping defines Manziel once and for all as an entitled slacker. Well, so what if he is?

The main impression left by Manziel since last week is that he’s un-embarrassable. There was something Teflon about Manziel’s self-possessed public appearance this week at Southeastern Conference football media days, where he was forced to answer questions about his drinking, sleeping and tweeting habits.

“At the end of the day, I’m not going for the Miss America pageant,” he said. You could interpret that as either supremely confident or too dumb to learn. The point is, we can’t know which one he is yet. He’s 20. And you know what else? It’s summer.

As the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, Manziel played football last season with all the abandon of a Labrador chasing a toy. He apparently enjoys his life off the field with the same mindless energy. He’s been caught roistering outside of a bar, aired indiscretions on Twitter and committed the unpardonable sins of relishing his celebrity — and his daddy’s money — with courtside seats at an NBA game and a round of golf at Pebble Beach. All of which he refuses to apologize for. “I’m going to continue to live life to the fullest,” he says.

In response, his critics have acted as if he’s a step away from being handcuffed for felonies. Radio jock Paul Finebaum believes he’s “trending for a train wreck.” He also accuses Manziel of violating some kind of solemn oath with the Mannings, who are “football’s royalty,” by oversleeping at their camp.

Now, the camp was a volunteer affair. And the Mannings are very nice and unpretentious people who are regular enough to recoil at being described as royalty. Also, they grew up in New Orleans — where, I’m guessing, some beer and maybe even a Hurricane or two passed their royal, overly solemnified and deified lips.

If Manziel is indeed a slacker, he will pay for that when summer is over and he reports for workouts. He may even be duly exposed by competitors like the properly solemn McCarron of Alabama, who used his own appearance at SEC media days to state pointedly that he doesn’t want to be known as “an off-the-wall guy,” by which he apparently meant someone like Manziel. McCarron also took a shot, if an illiterate one, at Manziel’s appearance at the ESPY’s on Twitter. “I don’t have to be at a award show to know what my team did,” he wrote.

Say this for Manziel: He’s not holier than thou. He doesn’t disguise his enjoyment of the high life or deny he likes his social refreshments or pretend he hasn’t made mistakes. For the most part, he seems frank, unaffected and wry; that’s a nice change from the usual media-trained platitudes. “The spotlight is 10 times brighter and 10 times hotter than I thought it was two months ago,” he admitted.

Only one aspect of it didn’t ring true: He leaned a little too hard on the “I’m just a 20-year-old college kid” excuse. Manziel is not some naive little ingenue. He’s plenty sophisticated, and to a certain extent he has made the light shining on him hotter than it has to be, with remarks such as “I guess I feel like Justin Bieber or something.” The Mannings’ football camp was a volunteer summer camp, but it was a commitment he made because it was a big-name event. He got the brand of attention he deserved when he gypped a bunch of kids and didn’t fulfill his responsibilities there. Now we will see what he does with that lesson and whether he has learned anything after pleading guilty last Monday to a misdemeanor charge resulting from an off-campus scuffle in June 2012.

Ultimately, the opinions of Manziel that are the most telling are those of his Texas A&M coaches and teammates. So far, their account of him is that he works at the game with his legs but needs to be a better player with his head. Coach Kevin Sumlin said, “He’s made some poor decisions, and he’s made some good ones, but the poor ones are the ones really publicized.”

Aggies defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said of Manziel, “He’s been through a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day, personally, I know that he’s a very dedicated person.” Hurd added that Manziel is “dedicated to his craft.”

If that’s true, it will win out. “These guys know where my head is at and where my heart is at,” Manziel said. He can make all the nonsense of the summer evaporate by adding some substance and discipline to his natural talent. After all, that’s what people go to college to do. Let’s wait and see who he is at the age of 21.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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