Autograph scandal will follow Manziel regardless of NCAA's findings
The eight-month long polarization of Johnny Manziel reached its inevitable apex one day before the unofficial start of Texas A&M's 2013 season.
All that stuff before -- the controversial tweets, the Manning Camp oversleeping controversy, details about drinking and temper tantrums in recent feature stories -- were pretty darn meaningless in regards to the actual realm of football. But together, they contributed to the growing divide between those who have come to view Texas A&M's quarterback as a spoiled brat (or worse) and those who feel he's an unfairly scrutinized 20-year-old.
By contrast, Sunday's ESPN report on the NCAA investigating whether Manziel may have collected a "five-figure flat fee" to sign autographs while attending January's BCS championship game has immediate and potentially drastic implications for the upcoming season. Simply put, if he did it, and if the NCAA can prove it (more on that in a second), Manziel's season is over. There's no possibility of reinstatement if those dollar figures are true.
And yet, this first actual controversy that matters may, in fact, only widen the Johnny Football dividing line.
Much like the Cam Newton pay-for-play scandal three years ago, a great segment of the public has likely already made up its mind that Manziel is guilty. They will hold it over him whether or not he ever sits a game. Now he's not just a spoiled brat in their minds; even worse, he's a cheater. While not nearly as salacious as a father soliciting $180,000, what Manziel's alleged to have done is not much different than the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal that forever branded former Ohio State coach Jim Tresel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
But you could tell from the immediate reaction Sunday that Manziel is already garnering sympathy from others -- and it may actually grow if the NCAA takes action against him. With a backdrop of increasingly hostile public sentiment against the NCAA and its archaic amateurism policies, the notion that a star player's career may be in jeopardy for profiting off his likeness is the cherry on top of every NCAA critic's sundae.
Even many of those who don't particularly care about egg-headed amateurism debates may still defend Johnny. After eight months of buildup they just want to watch the kid play.
There's not yet any hard evidence Manziel took a dollar, but based on ESPN's reporting, it requires extreme credulity to think the player voluntarily signed a series of 999 pictures out of the goodness of his heart. In fact, in both an interview I conducted with him in March and in colleague Andy Staples' Sports Illustrated feature story on him last week, Manziel specifically expressed frustration with autograph seekers. He separately told both of us the same anecdote about being approached in the Dallas airport last December by a man who asked him to sign a sheet of helmet decals for troops overseas, only to later find them on eBay.
"[Manziel's] therapist asked him to make a list of the stressors in his life," Staples wrote. "Autographs topped the ledger."
However, the NCAA cannot suspend a player on mere suspicion. It needs hard proof. Even before the Miami misconduct scandal that led to a mass exodus of its top investigators, the NCAA's enforcement department has done little to inspire confidence it can get to the bottom of such matters. This particular situation, however, may be fairly cut-and-dried.
As a current NCAA athlete, Manziel is required to cooperate with investigators or risk forfeiting his eligibility (see: Maurice Clarett and Dez Bryant). That includes supplying bank records if asked. If there's a mysterious deposit somewhere, he'll have to explain it.
As we know well by now, Manziel's family is not hurting for money, and the same father who bought him a Mercedes in high school could plausibly claim the money came from him. Technically, the NCAA does not hold subpoena power over Manziel's parents. However, in 2009 it suspended Mississippi State basketball freshman Renardo Sidney in part because his family refused to turn over bank records. And it has since closed the infamous "Cecil Newton loophole" that allowed Cam to claim ignorance of his father's activities.
All that being said, the NCAA would not likely approach Manziel unless it first had legitimate reason to believe money changed hands. Merely signing autographs -- even a series of hundreds of them -- is not itself a violation. If he never took money, or if there's no connecting the dots, Manziel will not miss a down.
But regardless of the outcome, the story itself almost certainly will not easily die. When do these NCAA investigations ever resolve themselves quickly? Back in 2010, it took nearly two months for investigators to determine Georgia star A.J. Green sold his game jersey for $1,000 to a person classified as an agent. (He missed four games.) A&M has already withheld Manziel from availability at a scheduled Media Day on Monday; here's guessing we've heard the last from him for the foreseeable future (even on Twitter).
The Newton scandal, you may recall, did not break until November. Once it did, the uncertainty cast a pall over the entire sport, as he was not formally cleared until the week of the SEC Championship Game. Even then, the scandal lingered into the following week's Heisman ceremony.
In 2013, it already feels like it's been all-Johnny, all-the-time for months, and we're still more than three weeks from the first game. This will be THE story up to and after Manziel is either cleared or suspended, and probably even after that.
It will be interesting, however, to observe the difference in reaction.
While universally admired for his on-field exploits, Newton was also near-universally castigated over the $180,000 accusation. His only defenders wore orange and blue. By contrast, you can already see the battle lines being drawn with Manziel, and while Johnny Football fatigue is gradually besetting more and more people by the week, plenty of folks still remain in his corner.
For months, as people discussed his every tweet and a video of a frat party beer-toss, Manziel's one seeming salvation was, just wait 'til practice starts. So much for that. The Johnny Football soap opera is not going away, and for the first time, there could be actual football consequences.