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NCAA will have tough time proving Johnny Manziel took money for autographs

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Across Las Vegas, bets involving total wins and individual games for Texas A&M have been pulled off the board, as everyone awaits the next clue in what will happen in the saga of Johnny Manziel. ESPN reported Sunday he is under investigation by the NCAA for being paid to autograph memorabilia.

According to Pregame.com, which analyzed the sports books, "Manziel is worth about 7 points a game" in the spread and projected wins "for Texas A&M would drop from 9.5 to 7."

Here's another prop bet, though: I'd say it's a long shot the NCAA ever proves a thing. Based on what we know now, the odds are Manziel doesn't miss a snap because of suspension all season. As Aggies practice began Monday, coach Kevin Sumlin said it was business as usual.

"Our university is doing its due diligence to find out the facts," Sumlin said. "We're going to proceed and go ahead as normal and adjust as the facts are presented … [Manziel] will get as many reps [in practice] as he was going to get yesterday [before news of the investigation broke]."

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Johnny Manziel hasn't admitted to taking money for signing autographs. (Getty Images)

Forget, for a moment, whether you think the Heisman Trophy winner is guilty or innocent of the charges. Likewise, save the argument about whether a person should be allowed to be paid to sign his own name or even if you support the NCAA's system of enforcement.

As long as Manziel and A&M don't cave to the pressure of the NCAA, this is about whether the NCAA can prove Manziel was either paid to sign the items or agreed to a deal where he will be paid.

Without a significant stroke of luck in the case, that is an uphill climb for investigators.

Let's start with the rule: NCAA bylaw 12.5.2.1. Manziel is allowed to sign his autograph. He is even able to sign them in a bulk session to a professional memorabilia dealer where they are numerically authenticated – as ESPN alleges. That broker can then put them on the market directly, or, as is likely the case here, distribute them for a fee to other brokers.

The entire issue is proving he was paid for the session or agreed to be paid in the future. The penalty for such an offense, based on precedent, could be a four-game suspension, plus one extra if he is deemed to have lied during the investigation to NCAA officials. That's what they hit a slew of Ohio State players within 2011. Of course, other players have been sat for the season for lying to investigators. NCAA jurisprudence often lacks consistency.

ESPN cites two sources "who are aware of the signing arrangement" – that broker Drew Tieman paid Manziel a "five-figure flat fee" for the signings. Three others told the network they witnessed Manziel signing hundreds of items at Tieman's South Florida home. The article says Manziel signed them in a crowded house – which certainly doesn't suggest he was trying to hide anything.

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ESPN also reported that NCAA investigator James Garland contacted Tieman in June, so the Association has been on the case, but apparently unable to close it, for at least five weeks and likely a few months. (Tieman isn't going to be the first call made).

Until the NCAA finds proof of a payment from Tieman to either Manziel or, more likely, his personal assistant/friend Nathan Fitch, then this isn't much of a case. The NCAA can demand to speak to Manziel (they might already have). It can demand to see Manziel's bank records and even that of his family.

But there might be no deposit. The Manziels are also independently wealthy, which makes it less likely a single deposit stands out.

While the NCAA can try to force a view of Fitch's bank records, citing him as a member of Manziel's inner circle, that's a stretch that might be met with great and understandable resistance, even if Manziel is innocent here. This would be a significant reach, even by NCAA standards, of power. And it still might turn up nothing. For all we know the bank account, if there is one, is set up in different name, or as a company. 

You can expect everyone involved to be lawyered up, these aren't the typically broke athletes the NCAA is used to dealing with. The Manziels have the means to defend themselves.

Outside of that, people saying they heard Johnny Football was paid shouldn't be enough proof, at least as long as A&M stands strong behind its player. Auburn did the same with Cam Newton, and despite plenty of smoke and doubt about a payment to his father, the NCAA could never suspend the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. 

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The Aggies said they don't plan to hold Manziel out of practice. (Getty Images)

Seeking proof becomes a matter of motivation for someone to provide it. Why would Tieman hand over information that busts Manziel? That would end his career in the memorabilia business, where other athletes would be cautious to deal with someone who double-crossed a client.

Obviously there is no motivation for Manziel to cop to anything – again, if there is even anything to cop to.

ESPN's anonymous sources don't appear to have first-hand proof of the payment – all of them could be dealing with nothing more than hearsay. In general, sources who aren't willing to go on the record to a reporter they likely know and trust, don't suddenly decide to go on the record with the NCAA and thus risk exposure. Whatever careers the sources might have in the memorabilia industry could also be risked.

ESPN also published a picture of Manziel signing a stack of photos in a hotel room, a separate incident to the Tieman one. It cited another unnamed source who said he was told after that signing, that Manziel would only do additional sessions if he was paid. The photo proves nothing relevant in this case – again, he's allowed to sign his name, just not be paid for it.

The fact the source said Manziel wasn't compensated for the first signing could actually be used as a defense – see, he's done it for free. Manziel could easily argue they just demanded payment that never came to get the guy to stop bugging them about future signings. This is easy stuff for a defense attorney.

More telling, ESPN says the NCAA has called its source six times and he's never called back. So that's a likely dead end. Manziel wouldn't even have to answer for any of those accusations.

In fact, all of it could be a dead end. The NCAA has some power to lean on institutions and try to pressure preemptive suspensions, waving the fear of non-cooperation out there. Auburn didn't bite, though, and backed up Cam Newton. Together they went on to win the BCS title and no wrongdoing has ever been proven.

If A&M wants to stand as strongly behind Johnny Football, then both the player and school could simply demand someone show them some real proof. That's really how this should work, after all.

In the interim, it could be business as usual – plenty of outside heat and wild headlines, but nothing that causes Manziel to miss a single game. Without an unexpected break in the case, that's my bet on where this is headed.

See you on Sept. 14 when Alabama comes to town.

Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Report: NCAA investigating Manziel for accepting money for autographs
Johnny Manziel drama opens amateurism rules debate
Abandoning amateurism rules would create mess

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