Where(s) Johnny?

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johnny manziel on campusDuring the fall Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel looks to his O-line for protection. And, during the spring, apparently, the Heisman Trophy winner takes on-line classes for the same reason. On campus in College Station, the most popular figure is not a Johnny Come Lately but rather a Johnny Come Never (or, at most, according to him, once per month).

Manziel, the first red-shirt freshman to win the coveted bronze bust since the award’s induction in 1935, is taking all four of his classes this semester exclusively on-line. He had originally registered for an English course on-campus, but apparently discovered that it’s no fun being pigskin Elvis while having to take notes at the same time.

“I went one day—it was a small class of 20 or 25—and it kind of turned into more of a big deal than I thought,” Manziel told the San Antonio Express-News. So he dropped the course and now just takes those four on-line courses – all in his major, sports management – wherever there is a WiFi hookup.

I come from a college era before on-line courses, before Facebook, cell-phones, before even computers (in my senior year, one of my friends owned a newfangled object, a Macintosh computer, which he left on his desk in front of his first-floor window in Dillon Hall; that item, not so surprisingly, soon vanished). You might expect me to be all fire-and-brimstone about Manziel’s revelation that the “O” in his BMOC stands for “off”. To initiate a “harrumph harrumph harrumph” assault.

Instead, I’m somewhat compassionate and decidedly torn. To begin with, as a former classmate of a Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Brown, I am not entirely unfamiliar with this scenario. On our graduation day I asked Brown, whom I did not know, to pose for a photo with me in our caps and gowns and he graciously complied. But how often did I ever have a camera on me during college? Almost never.

Today, however, every college student walks around armed with a camera (on his/her phone) that is also a text/Twitter/Facebook docking station. It’s not just that every student Manziel encounters might potentially ask him to take a picture, it’s that every moment Manziel spends on campus may potentially wind up preserved for posterity on Deadspin or The Big Lead (if that moment is humiliating enough).

Of course, Manziel is not at all reticent about living his life the way he chooses to do so. Attending the Super Bowl in New Orleans. And also, Mardi Gras. Sitting in the first row at a Miami Heat game (and having his photo snapped with LeBron James in the locker room afterward) in Miami. Flashing bennies at a casino.

None of which is illegal. It just defies the image that too many people would prefer to have of a “student-athlete.” As Manziel himself said in defending his extracurricular activities, “”I know plenty of friends who went down to Mardi Gras to New Orleans and other guys who went to the Super Bowl too…There’s college kids doing what I’m doing all around the country.”

True. There’s also college kids not doing what Manziel is doing all around the country, which is attending class. And, sure, many, many students take on-line courses (the merits of which, as compared to attending class, are debatable), but few do so because they perceive themselves as being too famous to attend class.

Tim Tebow was a god in Gainesville (and was friends with Him, as well) after he won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, and he still attended classes. James Franco enrolled at New York University after he became a movie star, and Franco has an Oscar nomination (besides having co-hosted the program two years ago) to his credit.

The reality of the situation, a reality that Manziel is either too immature to realize or preferred not to confront, is that while his fellow students might have gaped at him for the first class or two, they’d soon settle into treating him like no more of a hotshot than his high school classmates probably did. And, that he would benefit greatly from an environment that was outside of his comfort zone, namely football and sports. That in the end he would probably even enjoy it.

Certainly, it is easier for Manziel, particularly at the outset of the semester, to contemplate an academic life in which he is never required to attend class in person (no parking tickets!) and is able to do course work from wherever some local Jaycees club has invited him to accept an award that, come on, after having won the Heisman, is pretty meaningless.

We live in a world, then, where a college football player cannot be bothered to attend college so that he will have an easier time managing a schedule that obligates him to jet around the country accepting awards for being such a good college football player. Does something about that not seem a little bit off to you?

Many of Manziel’s defenders –those who have his back but weigh less than Aggie offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, who may be the No. 1 overall pick in this April’s NFL draft – point out that Johnny Football was the most important factor in a gridiron windfall that reaped $37 million last season. That may be true, or at least mostly true. If you earn that much money for an institution, and you never step foot inside a class as a student, aren’t you really just an employee of that school?

And isn’t that why this matter is garnering so much attention? We’ve always suspected that too many elite college football and basketball players were members of the student body in name only. Manziel’s choice to only associate with other Aggie undergrads on campus during Saturdays in autumn presents that reality in bold clarity, far bolder clarity than many defenders of the “student-athlete” ideal would care to admit.


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