Johnny Manziel has the chance to do something truly legendary.
College sports needs a freedom fighter of sorts – an active athlete to stand up for those who risk their health every Saturday for the profit of others. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon is the flag-bearer of this movement, but he's not a household name. Not anymore, anyway. He's long-since retired – he played his last NBA game in 1997 – and is unable to get his face on TV with any regularity. When the lawsuit he's leading against the NCAA hit the courts earlier this summer, the presiding judge wondered why no current players were joining the pursuit for a cut of the extraordinary windfall the NCAA reaps from selling the likenesses of student-athletes on apparel, video games and the like.
One of those active players can be the most famous of them all, the man who already has applied to trademark his nickname:
Imagine that. Imagine if Johnny Manziel stood up and said, "I'm with O'Bannon."
The NCAA decided last month to cut ties with EA Sports in the wake of O'Bannon's lawsuit. That decision came down in the middle of SEC Media Days, Manziel was trying to justify his departure from the Manning Camp after a bout of "dehydration." It was the same week Steve Spurrier vociferously lobbied for a stipend for families to attend road games, volunteering a portion of his own pay to make it happen.
Manziel's words would have resonated deeply on this topic. Instead, he's taking on heat.
ESPN reported Sunday that Manziel may have sold his autograph for profit, which has the NCAA investigating and a possible suspension looming. Texas A&M's hopes for an SEC championship hang in the balance. But there's a bigger picture to consider.
If the allegations are true, Manziel is on the wrong side of the right issue. Instead of being a representative for a more fair way of distributing wealth, he's a Heisman winner who reportedly went for a cash grab. He could have made a statement for athletes from poorer families who really need a few extra dollars. Instead, he's a rich college kid who may have risked his team's season for money he didn't need.
And those who are against paying players can now point to Manziel and say no payout will quell the kind of greed 20-year-olds will show. If Johnny Football will try to get over even when he's rich and headed for the NFL, how do we know a fairer system will abate any of the corruption in the sport?
This is the most troubling part of Manziel's personality: He rarely seems to look past the moment at hand. He can go to any party he wants, and he chooses a frat party at rival Texas. He has the chance to learn from the best of the best at the Manning Camp, and he leaves early reportedly after a night on Bourbon Street. At a time when he's the biggest man on campus, he tweets "bull---- like tonight is why I can't wait to leave college station."
Now it's possible he's put his college eligibility on the line for a short-term payout.
Manziel's rebellious, devil-may-care nature is a major asset on the field; it gives him bravado that a rival high school coach once called "Brett Favre on a motorcycle." Off the field? Not so much. But that fearlessness is exactly what the O'Bannon movement needs.
Manziel does not respond to authority – he's his own boss – and that's ideal for someone with an agenda that the old-boy network is sure to dislike.
It's not too late for Manziel to take up this battle. It's possible he's had it in mind all along. The recent ESPN story about his family indicates his father, Paul, already resents the power structure in the sport.
"It's starting to get under our skin," Paul Manziel told ESPN's Wright Thompson. "They're so selfish."
Were Manziel to take up that cause in a productive way, he could help student athletes – current and former – defeat the NCAA without O'Bannon even needing a judge's ruling.
Johnny Manziel, Heisman Trophy winner, could put a spotlight on the NCAA's exploitation of its student athletes that O'Bannon never could. He could use the pulpit he'll have every Saturday this fall to keep this issue at the forefront. He could recruit others to join him.
Right now "Johnny Football" means different things to different people. If the Heisman winner thinks a little more about Football, and a little less about Johnny, that nickname could help change college athletics forever.
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