But it wasn't an injury that nearly kept the charismatic sophomore quarterback off the field – it was a potential NCAA violation, for being paid to sign autographs. Earlier this month, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported that the 20-year-old had received a five-figure fee from a Florida autograph broker, Drew Tieman, to sign hundreds of photographs, footballs and other memorabilia last January. Would the NCAA really sack its biggest star?
Meet Johnny Football
When the 2012 season began, the Texas-born Manziel was a largely unheralded redshirt freshman (technically a sophomore who had sat out the previous year) in college football's most dominant conference, the SEC. The obscurity didn't last long. In his fourth game, against Arkansas, he broke a 43-year-old conference record held by Archie Manning (father of Peyton and Eli), by rushing and passing for 557 total yards. (Two games later, Manziel broke his own record, putting up 576 yards against Louisiana Tech.)
But the legend of "Johnny Football" (the now-trademarked nickname given to him by Aggie Fans) truly began on 10 November, when Texas A&M upset the defending champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide, at their home stadium in Tuscaloosa. Manziel then darted past other college football records as if they were Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend – by the end of the season, he was the first freshman (and only the fifth player in NCAA history) to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. In December, he was awarded the Heisman Trophy, given to the best player in college football – the first time in history that a freshman had received the honor. Entering this year, Manziel was the favorite in Las Vegas to become the first repeat winner of the Heisman since Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1975.
A Blitz of scandals
Even before he threw his first pass as an Aggie, Manziel was arrested following a fight in College Station, Texas, and charged with three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, failure to identify himself to police and driving with a fake license. (Last month, he pleaded guilty to failing to properly identify himself; the other two charges were dropped.)
More controversy followed in the offseason. In January, Manziel posted a photo of himself on Twitter, flashing some cash he won in an Oklahoma casino. A week later, he mocked all the haters who didn't like that display by taking another photograph – this time with a young cancer patient while holding some fake money. "Great visit to the hospital today in Connecticut made a ton of new friends," Manziel tweeted, tweaking the NCAA's rules. "Hopefully this picture passes compliance."
This summer, Manziel was thrown out of a fraternity party at the University of Texas; the same month, he left the Manning Passing Academy after missing morning meetings because he "overslept". (Manziel claimed his phone had died.)
"The spotlight is 10 times brighter and 10 times hotter than I thought it was two months ago," he said. "I guess I feel like Justin Bieber or something. I never thought it would really be that way."
Johnny Football or Johnny Cash?
Following the Outside the Lines report about Manziel being paid for autographs, the NCAA opened an investigation. Although ESPN's sources had witnessed Manziel signing autographs and claimed to have knowledge of a financial arrangement, neither saw money exchanged. That put the NCAA in a no-win situation: If they determined that Manziel had violated rule Bylaw 188.8.131.52 – which prohibits a student-athlete from using his name or likeness for commercial purposes – he could be ruled ineligible for the entire season and the fans would lose out on the game's most exciting player.
On Monday, CBS reported that Manziel had met with the NCAA for nearly six hours and denied that he had accepted money for autographs. For its part, Texas A&M stiff-armed reporters this week with a statement from athletic director Eric Hyman that confirmed Manziel will be in uniform this week:
The focus of our coaches and student-athletes is solely on preparing for Rice this Saturday, and in the best interests of Texas A&M and the 100-plus student-athletes on the team, I have instructed Coach Sumlin, his staff and our student-athletes to refrain from commenting on or answering questions regarding the status of our starting quarterback, Johnny Manziel.
Just in time for the season to start it was announced, via a joint statement from the NCAA and Texas A&M, that Manziel would be suspended for the first half of the first game of the season for "an inadvertent violation regarding the signing of certain autographs."
The NCAA suspended Manziel for the first half of the season opener against Rice, without acknowledging that he received money for autographs. Any further punishments? Manziel must address the team about lessons learned from the situation and the university update its education relating to autographs. That wrist slap is unlikely to affect Manziel's throwing arm.
Upon further review:
The Manziel saga has reignited the debate over whether college athletes should be paid. After all, if schools are making millions from their sports programs, why shouldn't star athletes like Manziel get a piece of the action? Among the NCAA's counterarguments is that if athletes are paid, the richest schools will wind up with the best talent.
The compromise deal reached in Manziel's case leaves us not much wiser over the future of NCAA players and payments.
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