At this point, all we really know about the charge that Johnny Football signed his name outside the lines is this:
If he's guilty, the grand executioners of the NCAA will get around to punishing him, oh, about his fourth year in the NFL.
Maybe his fifth.
Yeah, that'll teach him.
Between now and then, there will be rhetoric, and there will be debate and, strangely enough, there will be people ready to anoint Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel as a symbol of whatever cause they represent. Never mind that Manziel didn't enter this conversation as the hero of a revolution. If the reports are true, the sophomore just wanted new rims for his ride.
Suddenly, however, Manziel has become more than a mere rule-breaker. He is a symbol of how badly college athletes deserve a stipend. He is a reference point in the Ed O'Bannon court case, which challenges the use of college athletes' names and likenesses. He is a reminder of all the impoverished athletes who can't afford a pizza. He is a rebel with whatever cause you have in mind.
That's Johnny. Signing his name relentlessly to fight injustice and tyranny everywhere.
Let's be honest here. The argument about a stipend and Manziel are only remotely connected. If Manziel really did make thousands of dollars for an autograph session, even if he had a middleman, then he did it for his pocketbook. He's a rule-breaker, and as such, he should be punished. The same that Georgia's A.J. Green was punished. The receiver was suspended four games for selling a game-worn jersey for $1,000. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other athletes were suspended five games for trading memorabilia for tattoos.
Granted, it might be a stupid rule, but it didn't just become stupid when a popular player broke it. If Manziel is guilty, he deserves whatever penalty the needle rests on whenever the NCAA's giant wheel-of-punishment is spun.
Until then, why, America loves the kid. He seems to stub his toe from time to time, but he's a delight to watch play. Think about it: If Manziel were to stay in school, and he won't, he could be a four-time Heisman winner. He's small, and he's quick, and he plays like a mongoose. Yeah, America wants to like Johnny Manziel.
That's important in this discussion. If you sort through the various parties — the autograph brokers, the rulesmakers at the NCAA, the merchandisers who sell Manziel-related T-shirts and caps — then Manziel is the most popular guy in the lineup. If nothing else, he has given you moments on the field. What have the rest of those throat-clearers given you?
So it's easy to imagine Manziel as a soldier fighting against a greater evil. After all, most of us don't really see the downside of a kid signing his name for profit. Heck, if someone had offered me a dollar and a quarter for an autograph when I was in college, I would have spray-painted my name on the football stadium until the dollars and the quarters ran out.
Yes, college players get tuition and room and board, but really, is that enough in the big-business world of college athletics? And if so, is it only a matter of time until McDonald's declares itself a college so it doesn't have to pay its workers, either?
Would a stipend be fair? Of course it would be. At this point, most of us believe that college athletes should get something. The game makes too much money for the players not to share in the loot.
But this question remains: Is Manziel, renown partier and serial oversleeper, really the guy to lead this fight? Again, this isn't about the price of a movie ticket. This was greed, not need, and no stipend imaginable will curtail greed.
With or without Manziel, a change eventually has to come to college sports. That's more about what's right than what's in the rules. Think about it: Manziel has meant millions of dollars to Texas A&M, but if a sophomore student from Dallas wants to wear Johnny Football's number on a T-shirt, then he isn't entitled to a penny from it?
Oh, there is a purpose to the rule. Supposedly, it's to keep the giant football factories from getting an edge. If a star at Alabama or Ohio State or Oklahoma could make a huge profit from his autograph on a helmet, who's to say that autograph isn't purchased by a booster for a large hunk of cash?
In reality, the real purpose of the rule is to keep the money with the NCAA cashiers because, after all, those guys drive Mercedes Benzes, too. This week, the NCAA finally stopped selling jerseys from its online site. But here's a question: When the athlete can't share in the profits, why did it ever sell them to start with?
To be honest, the Manziel case really isn't about that. It's about a rule, and it's about a profit, and it's about rims for the ride.
Still, if college athletes ever do draw up their own declaration of independence, you have to admit that Manziel's autograph would look spiffy swirled across the bottom of the page.
After all, John Hancock's wagon had the nicest rims, didn't it?