Sunday, September 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In Johnny Manziel, we see the human cost of the NFL draft machine

It was intriguingly painful television, as it is intended to be. The first round of the 2014 NFL draft was under way, and the dazzling college quarterback Johnny Manziel was in the green room, stuck in prime-time purgatory.

Twenty-one teams came and went, each choosing someone other than Manziel. For nearly three hours, he fidgeted in front of unblinking cameras. He played with a bottle cap, drank from a cup, checked his phone and excused himself for the privacy of the restroom.

Someone started a #BeforeManzielGetsDrafted hashtag on Twitter. The NFL posted #SadManziel??? on its own Twitter account. Those two tags shot to the top of Twitter's trending list. Everyone, even the league, was having fun at Manziel's expense. He was 21.

Two years later, Manziel, the highest-profile member of the 2014 draft class, chosen 22nd, is out of the NFL, without a team, an agent or an endorsement.

He has addiction problems and a family that has worried all along whether Manziel would survive, literally, the fame and fortune bestowed upon him. While his name is invoked as a cautionary tale, it is often used as a punch line and as TMZ click bait. He is the sports world's Lindsay Lohan — a child star admonished for squandering all that talent, all those chances, all before growing up.

In college, Manziel was a swashbuckling talent, an undersized playmaker and a master of improvisation in an increasingly robotic position. But despite having been voted the best player in the college game and awarded a Heisman Trophy, Manziel is very likely to join the lists of all-time NFL draft busts that flood the web this time of year.

Some compilations are not retrospective. This year's draft starts Thursday, but you can already find an "NFL Draft 2016 Bust Watch" online. USA Today provided a list of "five players most likely to disappoint." The only thing more fun than guessing which players will succeed, apparently, is predicting which ones will fail.

The NFL draft — our coverage of it and our appetite for it — is a cultural phenomenon. (Nearly 10 million people watched in 2014.) But it also shows, as much as any sporting "event" in this country does, how fans and leagues — and even the players themselves in this age of social media — are willing to dehumanize the games they love, turning people into products and lives into entertainment.

The draft is the apex of football's offseason, which used to be a time to watch basketball and baseball. It is now a time to view future NFL players as livestock. It starts with the NFL Combine, where players are stripped down (literally), measured for size and tested for speed and strength. Sometimes they are asked if they are gay. This is how teams decide who is fit for the league.

The results of those measurements, along with those from various other tryouts, are mixed with rumor and speculation to create "mock" drafts. Players are plotted over seven rounds of the coming draft, as if it is important, or possible, for anyone to know whom the Denver Broncos might select with the 253rd pick.

When the draft comes, sometimes teams trade picks or players — one person might be worth two or three others. It is widely watched by fans and nonfans alike; among those chiming in in 2014 was Donald Trump. ("Cleveland just made a very wise decision — congrats!" Trump wrote on Twitter after the Browns drafted Manziel.)

Knowing what we know about things like concussions and addiction; the possibility of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE; and the likelihood of a shortened life expectancy, you might think that we have moved past viewing football players as interchangeable parts to be haggled or numbers to be calculated.

We have not. Instead, we draft them again, this time for our personal fantasy football teams.

After the NFL draft, if the players dare not meet the expectations heaped upon them by teams and fans when they were 21 or 22 years old, they are destined to become the butt of a long-running joke about busts. The misguided hype is seen as a character flaw of the player rather than a misjudgment by teams, analysts or fans — a broken promise in a one-sided relationship.

Manziel is the latest example, playing out in real time as another draft approaches. To read online comments and social media posts about Manziel's troubles — arrests, parties, rehabilitation — is to explore the underbelly of fandom, dismissive and cruel. Schadenfreude is the flip side of reverence, and perhaps a stronger attraction.

Manziel has engendered these emotions from the start. A cocksure quarterback nicknamed Johnny Football, he won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M in 2012.

But there were signs of trouble along the way. He was arrested before his freshman year for involvement in a fight. He was supposed to be a counselor at Peyton Manning's quarterbacks camp but was kicked out for oversleeping. As a sophomore, he was suspended for the first half of the season opener over questions about receiving money for autographs.

He was a celebrity unlike any in college football, maybe ever. He was loved and loathed. If there remained any line between sports and entertainment, Manziel was a human eraser.

"Yeah, it could come unraveled," Manziel's father, Paul, told ESPN the Magazine in 2013. "And when it does, it's gonna be bad. Real bad."

Manziel left for the NFL after a stellar sophomore season and was thrust into the livestock pen of potential draftees in 2014. He was considered a boom-or-bust pick because of his size, his lack of experience in a "pro-style offense" — whatever that means — and his deep history of taking hits as a renegade quarterback.

But most prognosticators thought Manziel would be selected quickly. He was put into the green room as a viewer magnet. Team after team passed on him. Minutes, then hours ticked by. The Dallas Cowboys held the No. 16 choice, but surprisingly passed on Manziel, too. Fans booed, an NFL Network commentator laughed, and cameras zoomed tight on Manziel, trying to look composed. Social media loved it.

Cleveland finally took him with the 22nd pick. Browns fans cheered and season-ticket sales spiked. Many, besides Trump, considered it a wonderful choice.

We know how it turned out. Manziel won two games in two years. He spent weeks in alcohol rehabilitation after his rookie year and was cut after his second season.

"I truly believe if they can't get him help, he won't live to see his 24th birthday," Paul Manziel told the Dallas Morning News in early February.

His son has been spotted often at clubs and parties in Los Angeles in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, a grand jury is investigating whether he assaulted a former girlfriend, and Nike and all other sponsors have walked away. Last week, Drew Rosenhaus dropped Manziel as a client, the second agent to do that this offseason.

On Wednesday, Manziel released a statement.

"I'm hoping to take care of the issues in front of me right now, so I can focus on what I have to do if I want to play in 2016," Manziel said. "I also continue to be thankful to those who really know me and support me."

Manziel is 23. He may never play in the NFL again. Maybe he did not have the temperament or motivation for it. It might be some time before we know just how damaging all those hits were.

All we really know now, days away from another year of roster restocking and another group of young men stuck in the green room and another heaping of expectations placed upon the whole proceeding, is that Manziel is a bust in the vernacular of the NFL draft. He is already teased for that and will be, perhaps, always remembered for that.

 
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