Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been having quite the chaotic off-season. To hear some professional journalists tell it, America’s Golden Boy has fallen from grace, revealing himself to be a “spoiled brat” and a troublemaker. At the center of the (pointless) controversy is Manziel’s personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, which he used to (amongst other things) post photos of himself golfing at the expensive Pebble Beach and to vent some frustration regarding a parking ticket. Seemingly an innocuous use of social media, right?
Wrong. Pundits and fans have been jumping down Manziel’s throat for months, questioning his attitude, his leadership abilities, his commitment to the team, his rich-kid privilege, and other such character traits (because, as everyone knows, a person’s psychological makeup is not a complex, evolving, nuanced amalgamation of personal experiences and neurochemistry, but rather a simple label that can be derived from 140-or-fewer characters. #science). It doesn’t take a genius to see why this criticism is ill-founded, inappropriate, and dumb.
It is easy for people to focus on Manziel’s astounding on-field accomplishments and forget that he is only twenty-years-old. He plays with a skill-set well beyond his years, which makes it natural to assume he’s a seasoned veteran at this whole being-a-football-superstar stuff.
The truth of the matter is, though, that he’s young and inexperienced and playing this whole thing by ear. Not a lot of people expect national fame and attention before they’re even old enough to legally buy a case of Pabst. Twenty-year-old college students make mistakes, and those errors in judgment range anywhere from naive/innocent to egregious. Just because Manziel plays with unparalleled maturity on the field doesn’t necessarily mean he’s mastered the off-field demeanor required to keep his name out of the tabloids.
This isn’t even a defense of the things Manziel tweeted. Yeah, he probably should’ve been aware that it is a bit tactless to complain about your car receiving a parking ticket when said car is a Mercedes most of your peers can’t afford. Yeah, he probably should’ve realized that publicly showcasing your affluence and your access to “1%” luxuries has the potential to rub people the wrong way. In an economic time where money is tight for numerous families, even something as seemingly inoffensive as taking a photo of your courtside NBA Finals seats can easily come across as flaunting your privilege. While his tweets certainly weren’t vulgar or reprehensible, it is understandable how they could have potentially ruffled some feathers.
However, the aspersions cast about Manziel’s character have been completely disproportional to whatever level of “arrogance” the tweets suggested. At worst Johnny Manziel is a flawed person, which is kinda okay since I’m pretty sure every single person is flawed. The hyperbolic reactions of sports pundits give the impression, though, that Manziel has been engaged in depraved and lawless acts of wickedness, as if he tweeted photos of himself performing a ritualistic cult sacrifice. The judgements of his personal character reek of the offseason desperation for news, the need to have someone under the microscope to keep debate (ostensibly) lively and fresh at all times. Manziel’s actions may have been improvident, but they certainly aren’t deserving of the ridiculous anger they’ve incurred.
As the outrage surrounding Manziel is similar to the outrage that surrounded the 2012 ESPN “revelation” that certain University of Oregon football players enjoyed indulging in marijuana. Pundits so aloft on their high-horses they couldn’t see the ground bemoaned the moral decay of the college athlete, acting both shocked and appalled at the thought a football player would even think of smoking marijuana. Of course, anyone with an ounce of sense looked at the article and said, “Gee, college students living in Eugene, Oregon, a.k.a. Hippy Central, smoke pot on occasion? Really?! What’s next, a breaking story about bears’ arboreal defecation?” Similarly, the reaction to Manziel’s tweets should have been, “Oh, look, a kid from a wealthy family indulging in the opportunities that wealthiness affords him. Shocking. I guess I never considered that people with a lot of money participate in activities that cost a lot of money. Huh. The more you know, I guess.” As is all too obvious, though, that type of measured reaction doesn’t generate hype.
Even if it is true (and it is) that Manziel should be extra conscientious about what he says on social media because he’s the defacto face of the school, that still doesn’t mean any of the things he tweeted were out of line or in any logical way damaging to that face-of-the-school status. Honestly, compared to a lot of the tripe most twenty-year-old undergraduates tweet about, his comments and photos are remarkably benign. Young people are going to make errors, it’s inevitable, but Manziel just so happens to be in a social position where those errors are magnified and discussed on a national level. It is easy to criticize celebrities for saying foolish things, to look at their immense wealth and tsk-tsk about how they should “just know better,” but remember that Manziel is twenty and as an amateur athlete hasn’t earned a dime for his athletic prowess. There’s a big difference between castigating Chad Ochocinco and Johnny Manziel.
Having done absolutely nothing to demonstrate bad character, Manziel deserves better than this ratings-grab scrutiny and sanctimonious moral judgment. Perhaps he has acted foolishly, but he certainly hasn’t acted deplorably. There are plenty of real issues in the world that people should be directing their anger towards, not to mention plenty of cultural figures in need of a good tongue-lashing. Until proven otherwise, though, Manziel isn’t and shouldn’t be one of those people.