Commentary

Let Johnny Manziel be himself

Originally Published: September 10, 2013
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN.com

There is a vocal contingent of college football fans, and an even louder collection of media pundits, sports moralists and general know-it-alls, who cannot wait for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel to grow the hell up.

[+] EnlargeRic Flair
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel should embrace his inner bad guy and style and profile like Ric Flair.

You've probably heard these people recently, or at least read some of their comments, because frankly they're not shy about sharing their opinions. It seems everyone feels duty bound of late to weigh in on the increasingly troubling antics of Johnny Football. Barry Switzer wants to jerk him around by his face mask. Matt Millen wants to put a size-13 boot up his rear end. Tom Brady thinks Manziel is acting like a "turd." Brian Urlacher said he's acting like a punk. Even Lou Holtz said he'd like to grab Manziel by the throat and straighten him out.

Whatever happened between Manziel and an autograph broker, and the investigation that got him suspended by Texas A&M for half a game against Rice, might be in the past, but plenty of people are still clamoring to see some sign of remorse from the Heisman winner. Or, at the very least, a dose of humility. They want proper reverence paid to the game. They want to see maturity and class. Because what we've seen from Manziel so far this season -- pretending to sign autographs after touchdown throws, pointing to the scoreboard, the post-tackle peacocking, the cash money hand gesture -- is currently giving them a serious case of the vapors. It's just not honorable.

If, in the most anticipated college football game of the year, Manziel leads the Aggies to an upset victory over the Crimson Tide, and he once again prances around the field trolling his haters, a lot of people are going to need to seek out the nearest fainting couch, post haste. Or, adjusting accordingly for rage, find a set of restraints and stronger blood pressure medication.

I am not one of those people.

In fact, if you're looking for life lessons, or smug judgment, please look elsewhere.

In anticipation of this week's epic showdown with Alabama, I've realized I want the opposite from Manziel. I want him to fully embrace his heel persona.

In anticipation of this week's epic showdown with Alabama, I've realized I want the opposite from Manziel. I want him to fully embrace his heel persona.

I want him to put on the black hat, so to speak, and score 100 touchdowns, steal 100 girlfriends, draw 100 penalties, and apologize for nothing. If he played the rest of the season like a cross between Ric Flair and Roddy Piper, I'd be ecstatic. I'd high-five my television screen. If he makes it back to the Downtown Athletic Club as a Heisman finalist, I hope he wears his sunglasses indoors, dresses in a tuxedo T-shirt, and brings Miley Cyrus as his date. When ESPN puts together a package of his 2013 highlights, I hope we set them to the Emperor's Theme from "Return of the Jedi."

Why? Because "villains" and "rogues" have always made every form of entertainment more enjoyable. Sure, we might root for Luke Skywalker when we're kids, but as we grow up, we realize it's Darth Vader who made those films interesting. Villains are more compelling. This is frequently true in sports. People seem annoyed that Manziel isn't as polite as Tim Tebow, or as composed as AJ McCarron, but ask yourself this: Why does he have to be?

Why can't he, instead, be Brian Bosworth's and Jim McMahon's spiritual heir? Wouldn't that be more fun than watching him struggle to conform to a pointless set of behavioral standards we arbitrarily apply to him and no one else? Remember how much fun college football was when Bosworth was the game's most polarizing player? Or when the Miami Hurricanes were the Bad Boys of South Florida? You can dislike Manziel all you want, root against him and condemn his theatrics as immature and unsportsmanlike, but the trumped-up outrage over his "attitude" is as overcooked and phony today as it was when similar talk was directed at players such as Jerome Brown and Michael Irvin.

Besides, let's not pretend like Manziel could even begin to defile a sport as morally bankrupt as college football. If you were up in arms about Manziel's hand gestures, but barely raised a peep when LSU allowed troubled running back Jeremy Hill to return to action last week, spare me the sanctimony.

Sports are entertainment, not a morality play, but some people can't resist trying to make them one. It's not enough to merely be good at throwing a football or evading tacklers, your athletic ability must also be a reflection of your superior character, and the pride you feel representing your institution of higher learning (for pennies on the dollar), which is the easiest way to explain why so many people have such unshakable affection for Tim Tebow. We invest so much time and energy into following sports, it's natural that some of us want the athletes we're rooting for to be good people, to reflect our alleged values. And you don't have to apologize for feeling that way.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesWhat's so bad about Manziel flashing hand signals on the field?

But there's nothing wrong with rooting for Manziel either. No one should apologize for that, and no one should be threatening him with physical harm. Even if you believe Manziel is behaving badly, he's still good for college football. You can't take your eyes off him. You might be eager to watch him fail, but mostly you're just eager to watch. And if you're worried about what effect watching Manziel's histrionics might have on your kids' view of sportsmanship -- because after all, WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??? -- here's some free advice: Be an involved parent. You'll have far more influence over your kids than Johnny Manziel ever could.

Manziel's not one of the most intriguing players to come along in years just because he can carve up a defense with his arm and his legs. (Robert Griffin III could do both just as easily when he was at Baylor.) It's because it feels as though he jumped off the pages of a Dan Jenkins novel, grabbed the last cold one out of your fridge (without asking) and started hitting on your date. He's cocky and unpolished and emotional, but that swagger is also what makes him great fun.

If he played for Nick Saban, there is a good chance all the things that make Manziel a lovable rogue (at least in my eyes) would be smothered and suppressed within an inch of their existence. Manziel would speak in clichés and live in constant fear of upsetting his boss, and people would fawn over his discipline and praise his boring brilliance as a player. But part of college football's unique appeal is there has always been a place for those who thrive amid conformity, and a place for the outlaws.

Before I head off to round up as many fainting couches as a man can muster on short notice, let me pause one last time to appreciate the joy of watching a Heisman-winning outlaw. May Johnny Football continue to troll us all, prancing and peacocking after each beautiful, improbable touchdown throw, and may he continue signing fake autographs as he jogs to the sideline, fueling yet another round of fake outrage.

Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine

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