NCAA probe of Johnny Manziel raises questions about amateurism rules

The NCAA is investigating Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner, for accepting "a five-figure flat fee" for signing photos and memorabilia, ESPN reported Sunday.

The network cited anonymous sources who witnessed the January 2013 signings that took place in South Florida but did not see the cash exchange. It also noted that online sales of signed Manziel photos show a lot of 999 sequentially numbered items. Industry insiders said that is a sign they were done in large bunches, and not just fans reselling items they coincidentally had the redshirt sophomore quarterback autograph.

The investigation began in June and whether the NCAA can verify the charge remains to be seen. Unnamed sources rarely cooperate with NCAA investigators, although the Association would have the ability to review all of Manziel's bank records where, even for a person from a family of means, a large sum of money (if deposited in a bank account) might stick out.

Based on past case precedent – which, when dealing with the inconsistent NCAA, could mean nothing – Manziel could be facing a five-game suspension if found guilty. That was the penalty given to a number of Ohio State players who exchanged memorabilia for tattoos and other gifts under the same NCAA rule in 2011.

Manziel's Aggies host No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14, the third game of their season. It is the single-most anticipated contest of the college football season and perhaps the biggest in school history.

Unlike Ohio State, the Texas A&M program isn't under any threat of sanction unless it is determined a coach or administrator at the school knew of the alleged deal. Former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel did know of his players dealing memorabilia and (perhaps opposed to the rule) chose to play them for an entire season anyway. That cost him his job and the Buckeyes a bowl game following the 2012 season.

The investigation into Manziel is bigger than just the particulars of the latest NCAA cops and robbers case, however.

It shines an even brighter spotlight on the NCAA's system of "amateurism" that is under significant attack both legally and politically.

The NCAA is the last major athletic organization to attempt to keep its adult athletes from being paid or profiting off their own fame and accomplishment.

It wants all revenue to come into its coffers and its coffers only – jerseys and T-shirts with Manziel's numbers are huge sellers, autographed helmets can be purchased through the university and a table with Manziel and fellow Heisman winner John David Crow at a school banquet was recently sold for $20,000.

Even the ethically challenged International Olympic Committee bailed on the questionable policy back in the 1980s and allowed athletes to be paid for endorsements, memorabilia deals and other business opportunities.

Although hardliners had predicted the practice would adversely affect the athletes or the popularity of the Olympics, allowing Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps to sell shoes and sandwiches benefited everyone. Athletes, especially in developing nations, stopped being forced to live in poverty. And the Games might now be as popular as ever.

It's the so-called "Olympic Model" and it's the soundest one for the NCAA to embrace as the drumbeat for better compensation for student-athletes increases.

Manziel knew the current rule, of course, and if he chose to break the rule and cash in on his signature then he knowingly put his career, season and teammates in jeopardy. For a kid who didn't "need the money" – his family is independently wealthy – this would be a regrettable mistake.

However, on a moral scale, it's difficult to fault someone from selling his own name. And no matter how much money you have, no one likes having someone get over on them.

When is your name not your name?

The market for Texas A&M football memorabilia was significantly smaller before Manziel came along. The school is making tens of millions of dollars as its football program surges in popularity. Yes, Manziel gets tuition, room, board, coaching and a platform to shine, but to argue he isn't, at the least, a partner in his popularity is the definition of arrogance. Not that college sports lacks for such leaders.

"If Johnny Manziel was playing arena football tomorrow, what is his uniform worth?" Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, arguably the most powerful man in college athletics, asked this spring.

Probably more than an A&M No. 2 jersey would be worth without Johnny Football.

The NCAA is generations behind on this argument and could find itself facing a significant legal challenge to the practice if a federal judge in California later this month class-certifies the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit that challenges this policy.

Allowing athletes to make money off their own endorsement deals, appearance fees or simple fame is a different argument than "paying" the players. No school money is involved. This isn't about a salary or stipend.

Instead, it leaves everything to the open market (a right any other student at the school enjoys) and is only opposed because athletic departments would prefer to control all of the possible revenue available from their sports.

Better to have Adidas pay Texas A&M for Manziel to wear its shoes than pay Manziel directly.

Or have Manziel sign pictures sold through the school, not an autograph broker in Florida.

So, the NCAA long ago wrote up a big rulebook as a way to corral every last penny it could – all while claiming doing so meant it was just a lowly amateur sports organization like your local Little League. As such, the NCAA said it deserves to avoid paying billions in taxes.

Now the nation's most fascinating football player is in the crosshairs of that policy. And so, too, once again, is the NCAA and its bent and backward way of thinking.

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