Johnny Manziel hasn’t been taken seriously in a long time. He’s arrogant, he doesn’t appear to work hard, he still goes by his college nickname, and he wears silly disguises on trips to Vegas. He couldn’t beat out Josh McCown for the starting job in Cleveland, and his first start—yow! If you’re into schadenfreude, watching him slide down the boards of seemingly every NFL team during the draft was hilarious. He got picked by the Browns because a homeless guy told the owner to draft him! All of this has made him an easy punchline over his brief NFL career. Even when he checked himself into rehab, the reaction was mostly jokes.
It’s time to stop laughing about Johnny Manziel now, though. Because the fact that we’ve all agreed to treat him like a joke also means that we haven’t been taking it seriously when he’s been accused of serious crimes.
When Manziel was stopped by police in October, the officer at the scene wrote in his report that Manziel’s girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, told him Manziel “hit me a couple times” and slammed her head into the window of the car they were in. Crowley later recanted the statements, and commenters online jumped to defend the quarterback, blame the girlfriend, and toss it up to more Johnny Football hijinks.
That was a strange response to accusations of domestic violence considering how the public reacted to Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson. There are mitigating circumstances in each of those cases, of course: There was video of Rice’s assault on his then-fiancée; Peterson was convicted of hitting his child; Hardy’s victim, though she didn’t show up in court to testify, never spoke to press to claim that everything was all right. But the incidents involving Manziel didn’t reflect a league or a fan base that took the accusations particularly seriously. Instead, they reflected a league that didn’t care much, and a fan base that was at least as committed to making jokes about what a mess Johnny Football was as it was considering the accusations against him.
When he was accused of assaulting Crowley again, this time in Fort Worth, the reaction was similar. ABC News described the allegations against him as “antics,” framing the domestic violence accusations alongside his “rampant partying” and his “general lack of commitment.”
Crowley, meanwhile, described them more seriously. In applying for a restraining order (which she was granted), she told the court that Manziel was “likely to commit family violence against me if a protective order is not granted.”
It’s not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to recant their statements. Although we don’t know all of the details about what happened between Manziel and Crowley in Fort Worth, her statements since then haven’t indicated that she intended to walk anything back this time.
The full police affidavit was released this week, and it paints an ugly and frightening picture of Manziel that has no place alongside jokes about him wearing a fake mustache in Las Vegas. As Deadspin reports:
After the two got back to Crowley’s Fort Worth apartment, Crowley said, the fight continued but was “more verbal than physical.” Manziel smashed Crowley’s phone on the tile, so she grabbed her computer to try and FaceTime her parents. Manziel, who had been pacing outside, returned and asked if she had tried to FaceTime. She said no, but he went over and saw her computer.
“I was in my kitchen so out of fear for my life, I pulled a knife out of my knife block and advanced toward him,” Crowley said. “He ran out of the apartment. I threw the knife down and followed behind him to make sure he had gone.”
Manziel was still in the parking lot, so she banged on her neighbor’s door. When an upstairs neighbor asked if she needed help, she screamed, “Yes!” That’s when Manziel ran away.
The report is full of details that depict Manziel as someone who Crowley clearly felt unsafe around. She describes being forced into her car by Manziel, and jumping out as he parked to hide in bushes—only to be grabbed by the hair and struck in the ear, which she says ruptured her eardrum.
Those aren’t “antics,” and the charges against Manziel don’t belong in the same context as his partying and on-field struggles. It’s possible that we’ll learn more about the incident that changes our understanding of the events that occurred, but when the accusations are as serious as they are right now, the idea that this is all just part of a pattern of poor decision-making or immaturity lets Manziel off the hook too easily.
That all ties into the frame we use to talk about him. When Manziel’s father goes to ESPN to say that he’s worried that his son will be dead by 24 if he doesn’t get help, he’s also helping him avoid responsibility for his actions—the perpetrator isn’t Manziel, it’s his addiction; and the victim isn’t Crowley, it’s Manziel himself. It’s worth acknowledging that addiction isn’t always in a person’s control, but it’s also important that we don’t talk about Manziel like he was forced to act against his will when the alleged incident with Crowley occurred.
Ultimately, there are plenty of reasons why it’s easy to frame the accusations against Manziel to make them seem less serious than the ones against Rice, Hardy, or Peterson. Manziel’s play in the NFL suggests that he’s unlikely to have a particularly long career, and the “antics” he’s been up to make it easy to treat behavior as terrifying as Crowley describes it as part of a pattern of immaturity. And not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s a white quarterback who’s relatively small in stature, which makes him seem inherently less threatening to a culture that considers black men built like Hardy or Peterson to be menacing just by virtue of their existence. But taking the accusations against Manziel as seriously as the accusations against those men—or any other domestic abuser—needs to be considered the next stage in getting him help: You can’t expect someone to take responsibility if you won’t hold him accountable.