In February 2013, Johnny Manziel applied for a trademark for his well-known moniker, “Johnny Football.” In the wake of all the other things Johnny Manziel has recently done, attempting to trademark his nickname hardly seems notable; Manziel is well-known for his on-field swagger and off-field antics—although, at this point, perhaps “antics” isn’t quite the right word. Most recently, he’s been accused of domestic assault against his ex-girlfriend. Before that, his forays into drugs and alcohol garnered national media attention. But, when people descend tosuch murky depths, sometimes it’s not the most notable things that propel them there.
“I truly believe if they can’t get him help, he won’t live to see his 24th birthday.” These are words no parent ever wishes to utter about his child. To say them about a son who has been considered a prodigy of sorts from the time he was old enough to begin playing sports seems even more absurd. And yet, these are the words Paul Manziel said of his son on Friday, February 5th. Johnny’s 24th birthday is ten months away.Objectifying athletes has terrible consequences. When we do it, we neglect the fact that they’ve been created in the image of God.
I don’t passionately follow college football, but I knew who Johnny Football was long before he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 22nd overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. After his freshman year, he made history by becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy—one accolade among several. The nickname “Johnny Football” followed him from high school to Texas A&M, where he attended college. It was quickly obvious that Manziel was more than a prolific quarterback—he was a legend of sorts, an icon.
And, even though his professional career has been less illustrious, he continues to be iconic. Perhaps that’s the dangerous undercurrent his father fears will pull him under in less than a year without intervention; perhaps Johnny Football™ has consumed Johnny Manziel, and the atrocious acts that have recently dotted headlines are the scraps of the human being left in Johnny Football’s wake.
While the media can speculate on the causes of Manziel’s downward spiral, it’s impossible to know exactly what triggered his descent. Could it be losing his starting job for the Cleveland Browns shortly after it was awarded in November? News that he’ll likely be released by the Browns in March? Maybe. These developments very likely played a role in Manziel’s very public collapse—but I don’t think they mark the extent of it. His descent into what his father and former girlfriend describe as mental instability seems to have begun much earlier than November—probably somewhere around the time he ascended to football greatness.
For years, Johnny Football has been an identity Manziel has hauled around with him. Sometimes it’s granted him extreme privilege; at others, though, it’s cast a shadow over the personhood of a boy who happened to be great at football. These effects did not occur alternatively, but concurrently—an intrinsic curse that comes along with the blessings of fame and fortune. The warm glow of a spotlight always casts a shadow, but that shadow is frequently and woefully ignored.
However, because the downside to Johnny Manziel’s fame makes for interesting headlines, we now have an opportunity to address an uncomfortable truth: Objectifying athletes has terrible consequences. When we do it, we neglect the fact that they’ve been created in the image of God. We apply pressure with our scrutiny and a false sense of importance with our praise—and I do mean “praise.” We take men and make them icons, and we all feign surprise when those icons crumble to reveal the decaying remains of a person. It’s a predictable, broken dance, and it yields predictably broken people.
Some athletes may cope better when tasked with reconciling the icon they’re supposed to be with the person that icon is said to represent. We hold those people up as media darlings and juxtapose them with the Johnny Manziels of the world. This makes the divide between icon and man even more jagged for athletes who struggle, and we exploit this jagged line for pat narratives of Good Athletes and Bad Athletes. Maybe the world is easier to understand through the lens of such black-and-white narratives, but it’s an unfortunate myth for real human beings—who, after all, occupy a largely gray ethical middle ground—to perpetuate. It’s a myth, in fact, that does’t leave room for the truth, which is that human beings are born in the image of God as surely as they are born into a sinful nature.
Johnny Manziel is breaking apart before our very eyes because for years, we have told him he’s important because he’s great. We have held him to impossible standards. We’ve waved the banner of his success and begged for more. We’ve given him playful “you rascal, you” jabs on the arm when news of his drug use came to light. We have given him reason to think he should trademark his name.
While his trademark may be official, though, his name is still pending review.
Image by Erik Drost via Flickr.