Home Ethics Legal NCAA’s Manziel Suspension Evokes Our Willing Suspension of Disbelief

NCAA’s Manziel Suspension Evokes Our Willing Suspension of Disbelief


For those deluded souls out there who still believe that the NCAA has any moral authority to exercise “control” over collegiate athletics, please take close scrutiny of the Johnny Manziel “scandal” – the Heisman Trophy winner who allegedly sold his autograph.

Just for the moment, though, please turn with me to the great English Romantic Poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.”

NCAA punishes Texas A&M Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel by suspending him for first half of opening game with Rice.

Coleridge was offering an insight into the appreciation of his poetry and wrote, “so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief (italics added) for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” in his Biographia Literaria. In short it refers to a temporary acceptance as believable given events or persons who would otherwise be seen as incredible.

Sound familiar when it comes to some of the NCAA’s rulings and regulations?

Travel with me a step further into the fantasy land of NCAA “enforcement” as we review how the NCAA, an organization with a published net worth of $500 million, has botched, or otherwise fumbled, some recent “investigations,” to wit:

1) the suspensions of five Ohio State football players for selling memorabilia in 2011 after the Sugar Bowl;
2) the feckless pursuit of Cam Newton at Auburn in 2010, which turned up nothing, even after the “Bama Nation” had claimed “irrefutable” proof, conjured by its alums in both Dallas and at Mississippi State; and
3) the total disaster of the investigation of the University of Miami in which NCAA investigators had made a rather shady deal with other attorneys.

Is it really any wonder that the Manziel case would have resulted in the “penalty” which was assessed? A half of a game! By what quantum calculus was that reached? Probably the calculus known as Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief, see paragraph two above for its definition.

But, hey, this is serious stuff! A young man supposedly signed some football “memorabilia” – more likely some pieces of plastic slapped together in some sweat-shop in Asia – and was allegedly given money for it!

Heaven forfend! This is a violation of rules which preserve the integrity of college athletics by keeping those athletes pure amateurs! I mean it says so in the NCAA’s massive Manual – yup, Bylaw, can’t make any money off your autograph…and if you do, you lose your purity. But the NCAA itself can license your likeness and pictures and jerseys, etc. – hence, the $500 million net value!

So, just why did Manziel, being driven by Texas A&M at this point, agree to the half-game suspension? As I see it, the line of compromise crystallizes in the following logic:

1) The allegations came curiously the day before A&M started Fall practice (I say “curious” because the timing is highly suspicious);
2) The NCAA’s investigative processes are laboriously tedious and lengthy;
3) With less than one week to the season’s opening game against Rice, these same NCAA “wheels of inaction” threatened to keep Manziel off the field for at least two weeks, which runs into the game with Alabama, admittedly a crucial game for both teams and with national implications;
4) The only leverage the NCAA had was to trudge along at its usual pace, thus insuring that for at least two weeks and perhaps more, Manziel would not be on the field;
5) Finally, the NCAA and A&M agreed to the half-game suspension.

Even though the NCAA admitted it had no evidence that Manziel actually broke Bylaw, they could have held the entire program hostage to its tortoise-like processes. But in getting A&M to agree to the half-game suspension the NCAA could preserve some form of “control” over the situation and preserve our willing suspension of disbelief that there is actually any honor left in the NCAA’s enforcement processes.

Because, hey, this is “serious” stuff!

After this debacle, if there is anyone left who really thinks that the NCAA has either real authority, integrity, OR really cares about student-athletes, I respectfully refer them to Coleridge’s formula for a willing suspension of disbelief.

Dr. Arthur Ogden, the Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy, can be reached at aogden@ussa.edu. 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.


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