College F—ing Football

Johnny Manziel is not the issue. It’s finally time to occupy the NCAA.

September 2013By Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

By most measures, it’s a brilliant time to be a college football fan, especially in Texas. After one last season of the Bowl Championship Series, we’re finally going to get a four-team playoff. The first-ever College Football Playoff championship is set for January 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, restoring the game known as the Cotton Bowl Classic—if not the Cotton Bowl itself—to elite status. In the meantime, sixth-ranked Texas A&M will look to improve on last year’s truly unexpected and dramatic Southeastern Conference debut by winning the final BCS. A&M’s Johnny Manziel also kept the Heisman Trophy in Texas, succeeding Baylor’s Robert Griffin III as college football’s most outstanding player. And in A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Baylor’s Art Briles, and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, Texas has three of the game’s hottest college football minds, along with stalwarts Gary Patterson, of TCU (the fourth-best coach in the country, according to Sports Illustrated), and Mack Brown, of the Longhorns (yeah, yeah, but: national championship).

And yet college football doesn’t feel healthy at all, with fans, players, parents, and journalists more disillusioned by the game than ever. At the crux of this angst is the sport’s increasingly unrepentant commercialization, combined with mounting concern about the dangers faced by its unpaid “student-athletes.” In July, six current college football players joined a lawsuit filed in 2009 by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon against the National Collegiate Athletic Association and video game maker Electronic Arts, challenging their right to use players’ likenesses and jersey numbers in perpetuity. The suit’s scope may also include TV revenue and, at press time, was possibly going to be certified as a class action. Another suit against the NCAA, filed in 2011, seeks to hold the organization responsible for countless brain traumas (and not just in football). It too looms as a potential class action. 

But it’s Johnny Manziel who may turn out to be the sport’s transformative figure: the Last of the Student-Athletes. At press time, the twenty-year-old quarterback, whose Heisman win was estimated to be worth $37 million in publicity to Texas A&M, was reportedly being investigated by the NCAA for accepting money to sign autographs. If in fact he broke the rules, Manziel could be ineligible to play, but few fans still believe the rules are credible. They exist to protect a system that has become increasingly tarnished in the public eye. In recent years, both Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, and Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer at the New Yorker, have argued that college football should be banned. In a much discussed 2011 cover story for the Atlantic, eminent civil rights historian Taylor Branch compared the NCAA to “a plantation,” while New York Times columnist Joseph Nocera, who favors a system that pays and unionizes players, pointedly asked whether the NCAA was “the next tobacco,” a suspect, greedy industry that’s headed for a massive litigation payout. 

Manziel’s issues are not the only way in which the Aggies’ great success has further exposed college football’s contradictions. On July 23, a group of season-ticket holders publicly announced they were joining a lawsuit against the university’s 12th Man Foundation, alleging a breach-of-contract stemming from the upcoming $450 million renovation of Kyle Field. The dispute centers around the loss of premier parking spaces, access to away-game tickets, and a new donation threshold to retain prime seat locations (which are being upgraded to club level). In truth, it feels like sour grapes from the plaintiffs and business-as-usual from A&M. But since when is business-as-usual the spirit of Aggieland? As one of the ticket holders, Craig Young, of Wimberley, put it, “They just seem more like the Dallas Cowboys than the Aggies.” 

Two days later, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board officially signed off on the redevelopment. But that also happened to be the day that former Aggies wide receiver Ryan Swope retired from football at the ripe old age of 22. Just nine months earlier, the Westlake High product had caught the most famous pass of Manziel’s Heisman season, the near-sack leading to the bobble-scramble leading to the “Oh my gracious” touchdown against Alabama. Once considered a likely second- or third-round NFL draft pick, Swope’s two “documented concussions” during his time at A&M dropped him to the sixth round, where he’d been selected by the Arizona Cardinals. Then, while training with the team in June, he suffered yet another. “I was advised by doctors that there were serious risks in returning to play football at this point,” Swope said in a statement. “It has been a lifelong dream to play in the NFL, but my long-term health interests outweigh my current goals for football.” News stories about the move speculated that Swope had actually suffered as many as five concussions during his time at A&M. He’ll now go back to finish his degree (no, he didn’t graduate in four years either) while holding out the hope of “unretiring” in the future.

Gig ’em! Wreck ’em! Hook ’em! Sic ’em! Even the most impassioned college football fan can no longer maintain the sport’s inherent self-delusions. It’s one thing for Tony Romo to sacrifice his mind and body for the Dallas Cowboys. He works for Jerry Jones, and Jerry Jones has all that Papa John’s and TV money, and Tony Romo gets a lot of it. But a college football player makes nothing, and the university still gets all that Papa John’s (or whatever) and TV money. Plus, it’s a university. It ought to have a higher standard than the NFL.

You used to be able to defend the notion that the players received adequate compensation in the form of four years of free tuition, loads of perks (travel, glamour, girls, free beer, etc.), preparation for the NFL, and even future jobs with glad-handing alumni. Not anymore. Not when the College Football Playoff payout is worth $5.6 billion over twelve years. Not when Ryan Swope may never even play pro football. Thanks to the considerable business-development skills of countless athletics directors nationwide, the players’ compensation is no longer commensurate with the value of the business itself.  

Most college football fans went to college, which means their critical-thinking skills are strong enough to know that the game they love has never been that pure. In 1937, when UT lured legendary coach Dana X. Bible away from Nebraska for an annual salary of $15,000, the Legislature had to give university president H. Y. Benedict a raise to ensure that he was not paid less than the football coach. And A&M’s 1982 hiring of Jackie Sherrill, for more than $200,000 a year, may have been the first slide on the slippery slope of football coach salary inflation. 

A more crucial turning point came a decade earlier, in 1973, when four-year athletics scholarships were abolished in favor of one-year renewable scholarships. That meant your school’s running back was no longer a college student who just happened to play football but a football player who’d be given the opportunity to attend college each academic year as a perk of being on the team. This is what Michael Oriard, the author of Bowled Over, calls “the NCAA’s transformation of student-athletes into athlete-students,” though even the term “student-athlete” was itself a pure PR invention, dreamed up by the NCAA under executive director Walter Byers in the fifties. 

Another watershed moment was the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that enabled the College Football Association, the now-defunct organization that negotiated TV contracts with networks for the universities, to pursue its own TV rights, independent of the NCAA (those rights are now with the schools and conferences). NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma kicked off the era of TV riches, even as Justice John Paul Stevens wholly bought in to the myth of college football. “The identification of this ‘product’ with an academic tradition differentiates college football from and makes it more popular than professional sports to which it might otherwise be comparable,” Stevens wrote. “In order to preserve the character and quality of the ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like.”

In other words, pretending that it’s not a brand is college football’s brand. This is precisely why Johnny Manziel makes people uncomfortable. It feels like it should matter that athletes like Manziel are no longer truly part of the college experience, but they haven’t been for years. They are employees who help make the university what it is, just like the professors or the chancellor. Fancy cars, courtside seats at NBA games, photos backstage with Drake—it may be unsettling to see Manziel already living the life of a pro (which he can do thanks to his family’s money). But that’s what he is: a pitchman for the Texas A&M brand and an unpaid source of programming for CBS and Disney.

NCAA president Mark Emmert, now a beleaguered figure, inadvertently revealed the cynicism of the student-athlete model when ESPN’s Darren Rovell asked him last season if it was fair that A&M was selling so many number 2 jerseys on the strength of Manziel’s fame. 

“It’s not just that it’s a number 2,” Emmert replied. “It’s a Texas A&M number 2. I can’t parse out the value of the number on one side and the university on the other. They go together. So A&M can enjoy the advantages of having this spectacular athlete play for them and ticket sales and filling the stands and being on TV more, and then he’s going to go out and play in the NFL and they don’t get anything for that. I could also say, ‘Shouldn’t they have a share, having groomed him for the NFL?’ ” 

Emmert’s not wrong that A&M is doing for Manziel as much as Manziel is doing for A&M, but, um, no. The Aggies should not have a share. Even after just one season, the economic imbalance between the two sides is still too huge for Manziel to ever owe them a penny. Does Ryan Swope owe A&M any of his $115,788 signing bonus, perhaps the only money he will ever make from playing football? The question now should not be, Did Johnny Manziel break the NCAA’s rules? Rather, it should be, Why doesn’t everybody break the NCAA’s rules? What’s called for here is civil disobedience. What’s called for here is, “I am Spartacus.” Imagine this scenario: on December 8, just after the bowl lineups and BCS bids are announced, every college football player in the country signs an autograph for $1, then turns themselves in (or better yet, tweets out the evidence). Do they still get to be student-athletes? Would there still be college football? They’re all Spartacus. They’re all Johnny Manziel. 

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