Johnny Manziel, Scandals, and NCAA Hypocrisy

Monday's sports news was dominated by a pair of scandals: Biogenesis suspensions in MLB, and the possibility that the NCAA will suspend reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for selling autographed memorabilia.

I often criticize sports media for its treatment of scandals, but on Monday, most outlets got it right. The Biogenesis suspensions in baseball are a big deal. Performance-enhancing drugs affect the game, and suspensions affect it even more. The Tigers and Rangers lost starters for 50 games apiece, and for Texas in particular it could be the difference between winning the AL West or not, maybe even making the playoffs or not. This isn't just off-field gossip, it's a huge sports story.

Manziel's issue is a little murkier. He's been in the news throughout the offseason, and always for the wrong reasons. It doesn't seem like he's handling celebrity particularly well, and the media is excited about it, ready to turn him into football's version of Lindsay Lohan. But when the NCAA takes notice of your activities, and those activities include making money, all of a sudden there are very serious on-field implications. The biggest star in college football could miss games in 2013, and he potentially could miss a lot of them. This isn't a story sports journalists can ignore.

That is incredibly frustrating. When Manziel is suspected of criminal activity (underage drinking) and abandoning his commitment to youths at the Manning Passing Academy, the NCAA takes no action. When he sends out classless tweets insulting College Station, no action. But when he tries to profit from his talent, it's an abomination.

I'm not suggesting that he should be punished for the other stuff, because it's all pretty venial. But the NCAA's position on amateurism, in the 21st century, is absurd. Rather than reforming its rules to acknowledge modern realities and evolve, the organization doubles down on its insistence that athletes abstain from all forms of capitalism.

Amateurism is a holdover from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For decades, playing sports for money was looked down upon — despised, really. Players and clubs went to comical lengths to hide that money was being exchanged. Today, college football and men's college basketball are billion-dollar businesses. In many states, the coaches of those sports are the highest-paid state employees. Why is it okay for the coach to make millions, and the school tens of millions, but essential that the actual players earn nothing? There's no ethical argument to justify that, only a practical one.

The standard argument is that players are compensated: they receive a free education. You almost never hear this argument from someone who played college sports. I played college football, but at a Division III school, and I was always a backup. It was nothing like the commitment made by a starter from a BCS conference. But I spent more time on football than any of my classes. Practice was three hours a day, but that doesn't include studying the playbook, two-a-days, weight-room sessions, gamedays, or road trips. For a national star like Johnny Manziel, add media commitments and events with fans, alumni, and boosters. Someone like Manziel doesn't have time to commit himself to classes; he's majoring in football.

Big-time college sports make billions of dollars, and the players who facilitate that are expected to take nothing and like it. Not only are their services unpaid, they're forbidden to make money through other avenues, as well. I'm not interested in arguing over whether players should be paid, because there are a hundred headaches and hurdles in the way, but I'm sick of the NCAA's false piety on amateurism. Its member schools don't want the situation to change, because they're making huge profits from an unpaid labor force. There's no principle in play: this is about people and institutions who have money not wanting to share it. Holier-than-thou is always ugly, but never more so than when it masks that kind of hypocrisy and avarice.

It's appropriate that Manziel's possible suspension is a national story, because it's the biggest college football news in months. But it's sad, and an ethical foul ball, that what might finally get Manziel in trouble isn't really wrong, or at least not in a vacuum. If Manziel really did sell memorabilia, that was stupid and selfish, because he knew he could be suspended, but selling memorabilia doesn't hurt anybody; there's nothing inherently bad about it. It's wrong only because the NCAA says it's wrong.

Of all the things Manziel has done this summer, trying to make a little extra money is probably the least odious, yet that's what the NCAA gets fired up about. Serious crimes like DUI and assault are mostly handled by the schools, and usually with a slap on the wrist, but the slightest whiff of capitalism and the NCAA unleashes its indignant fury. No other organization in sports has so wildly misplaced its priorities.

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