Sport has always been both a mirror and a beacon of the society from which it emerges. In America, we like our sports heroes to be emblematic of all the high ideals we purport to hold as the moral pillars upon which we established our Nation. Today, the sport which occupies our red-white-and-blue blood is football, particularly college football.
The pinnacle honor for any college football player is the Heisman Trophy, exemplar of football talent on the collegiate gridiron. Still, we expect more from those young men who are so gifted and so honored. We expect them to set the metrics of decorum, demeanor, and, above all, integrity. These qualities can collectively be considered dissections of a moral fabric woven by their upbringing, their coaches, and the sport in which they contribute.
We have been fortunate for several years to have seen the Heisman winners exhibit the traits of humility, honor, team, and civility in the likes of Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III. We have even been graced by such runners-up as Colt McCoy, Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, and Manti T’eo. They all had at least two things in common – talent and, for lack of a better word, “class.”
Today, we are faced with a total anomaly to the paradigm which the Heisman award represents. That’s right, “Johnny Football,” a boy who is as talented on the field of play as he is bereft of any semblance of decorum, humility, or maturity elsewhere. And the truly sad element in all of Johnny Manziel’s behavior is that he really does not know that he is just plain wrong!
Our great nation faces many crises both domestically and internationally, but our citizens have a passion for sport and sport heroes – you know, the kind who will win big, then go and offer a hand of comradeship to the defeated opponent, knowing that the competition would not be a competition without opponents. Sport offers us a pause from the treacherous tedium we face daily in the rest of the world, so we need our sport and our sport heroes to stand for something besides themselves.
Recognizing the validity and value of an opponent, I have always believed, is the first moral principle of sport participation. Without it the contest degenerates into a chaotic morass of destruction and conquering without any redeeming qualities. And that is NOT what Americans want in sport – nor do we want characters who, outside of their God-given talent, are truly the Lilliputians of the moral world. And last Saturday, Johnny Manziel revealed what a moral Lilliputian he is.
Manziel has exhibited to all of us that he enjoys being the anti-hero, the braggadocio, the self-absorbed brat who, because of his talents on the field, will be tolerated in all realms of his behavior in other venues. Some might call Manziel’s antics “brash.” I call it impudence. Same might call him “spirited.” I call him arrogant.
And this is most assuredly not the example of sport ethics we either want or need in our sport icons. Our youth often seeks to emulate those sport heroes, but this rash, impetuous child behaves so garishly that even my 12-year old son, a real sport aficionado, shared with me an unsolicited view when he said, “Papa, Manziel is just a jerk!” Nice job, “Johnny Football,” at least my son knows immaturity when he sees it.
So what are we to make of a talented football player whose father even admits that he is near unmanageable?
We now know that there is a serious fracture within the Texas A&M football family – between the Manziel family, the alumni, the boosters, and even the team itself. The tragic hero in all this is his very fine coach, Kevin Sumlin, who must deal with Manziel’s demon-like conduct on a minute-by-minute basis. It is he who is in the hot seat in a sense. Texas A&M wants to win, but at what price? Will boosters tolerate Manziel so long as he wins? At least Arkansas had the moral courage to dismiss Coach Bobby Petrino for his immorality. Will there be any moral courage exercised in College Station? Time will tell.
Manziel reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables. It is the one about the thief who is on his way to execution and asked that he see his mother. As she approached him along the procession, he begged her to come near so that he could whisper something to her. As she came closer, the thief bent down and bit her ear almost completely off. And the thief then shouted something to the effect that he wanted her punished because when he was young, she never stopped him or punished him and merely dismissed his thievery as petty.
Perhaps when the final offense Manziel engages – and I will bet the farm that it will come – however outlandish or modest, someone – his parents, his high school coaches, the NCAA (for “punishing” him for 30 minutes), or Texas A&M itself – will have to wonder if they could have done something earlier to discipline a child so blessed with talent that they overlooked his peccadillo’s.
But does anyone still read Aesop?
Dr. Arthur Ogden, the Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy, can be reached at email@example.com. Ogden has coached college football for 12 years, including as defensive coordinator at Auburn University, and served as a Director of Athletics at the collegiate level for 10 years. His doctoral dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of education won the coveted Dilley Award for Outstanding Dissertation of the Year in 1995.