A day before Alabama’s showdown with Texas A&M on Friday, ESPN released a photo of Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel signing autographs for an autograph dealer, though there is no proof as of yet that Manziel received any direct payments for his signatures.
The story lit up the sports world and all eyes again were on Manziel a day after a frustrated Alabama coach Nick Saban dropped the mic on reporters who were pressing him on payments former Alabama lineman D.J. Fluker may have received from an agent. That potential scandal that may be to the program what the Reggie Bush fiasco was to USC and may further underscore, in light of the Manziel investigation, the arbitrary and hypocritical nature of the NCAA.
On any other weekend, Alabama’s story lines would have brought the 24-hour circus to town.
But not this weekend, because nothing can dwarf Johnny Football. All anyone cares about is Manziel. CBS will have a “ManzielCam” camera on him at all times. And the back-to-back defending champions that would have otherwise provided plenty of fodder for a college football media beast that is never sated will be able to fly under the radar.
Yes, Alabama. Big, bad Alabama will be flying into Texas A&M under the radar because all cameras will be on Johnny.
As soon as Alabama won its back-to-back national championship against Notre Dame in January, the sports world awaited Alabama’s rematch against Texas A&M and Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
But since that game, Manziel has sucked up all of the college football oxygen. Every move of his became chronicled and amplified. Manziel golfed at Pebble Beach. Good for him. He’s been photographed with scantily-called women. What college kid would not want to be? He’s sat courtside at NBA playoff games and thrown out first pitches at baseball games–twice. And what exactly is wrong with that?
But there were signs that the spotlight put on him after he won the Heisman may have been slowly getting to Manziel, who was low on the depth chart when the Aggies started spring practice last season. He decided he wanted to take his classes online because he did not want to deal with students approaching him. He tweeted he could not wait to get out of College Station. He reportedly shoved a graduate assistant during a scrimmage. He reportedly got dismissed from the Manning Passing Camp–and then put Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, with whom he is friends and has vacationed, in a bad spot by telling his mother that he was AWOL on the day he was dismissed from the Manning Camp because he overslept.
During the summer, I wrote that Manziel’s antics could potentially take the spotlight off of Alabama and lessen the pressure that the Crimson Tide will face in a state where the pressure on college football players is most intense. Manziel has not only done that, he has deflected attention from some salacious Alabama stories that could have been more of a distraction had Manziel not turned himself into a one-man reality show befitting the tabloid/”freak show” era that seems to be consuming all industries.
And just as wrestling fans rooted for The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin even when they were “heels,” Manziel, as annoying as his antics may be to some, has transformed himself into the polarizing “bad boy” that many college football fans root for. Alabama haters will be rooting for Manziel to run wild on the Crimson Tide. And to those who find the NCAA’s hypocrisy on athlete compensation maddening and hypocritical, Manziel–who comes from plenty of money–has become their most unlikely babyface.
Consider how much of the spotlight Manziel demands.
This past year, four Alabama players got arrested. One of those players, Eddie Williams reportedly had sex multiple times with this high school official. Former Alabama lineman–and four other SEC players–may have accepted cash from agents, and the normally unflappable Saban seemed frustrated and flustered by the mattered. Wide receiver Kenny Bell, who is one of McCarron’s best friends, reportedly quit the team, before deciding to come back last week. Later, Saban said Bell just took a “personal day” to sort out things. McCarron is dating a former Miss Alabama, who posed with his mother on the cover of a magazine. In Alabama’s win over Virginia Tech in the first week, McCarron seemed to yell at freshman running back Derrick Henry for missing some blocking assignments, losing his cool like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did on Thursday. during the second half of Alabama’s win against Virginia Tech. On any other week–or in any other year–any one of these stories would consume multiple media cycles.
But this week–and perhaps this year–nobody cares.