What’s Johnny doing?
Right now, in the offices of TMZ and Deadspin online and the cubicles of sports reporters in print and other media, that is one constant question. What has Johnny Football done now? Is he grabbing a beer, smooching a porn star, waving a wad of cash (because it’s more impressive than flashing a charge card)? Will he punch a waiter, get a speeding ticket, insult a reporter, demand special treatment, compare himself to LeBron James or Jesus Christ?
Will he touch a football? Never mind, doesn’t matter yet. More in the now, what does Jay-Z think of Johnny? Or can we get a quote from the Sports Fan In Chief?
Weeks before his professional football career has officially begun, Johnny Manziel is being followed and scrutinized more than any athlete in these parts since Sports Illustrated put high-school student LeBron James on the cover.
James, you will recall, was kind of a big name. But he wasn’t Manziel because, while the former Texas A&M star has sought attention with plenty of off-the-field antics, James was mostly exemplary as a young man. Even now, James has been known to draw a curtain around aspects of his life.
Manziel is made for the Instagram era, repeatedly launching a cycle: behavior, reports of behavior, comments on reports, reaction to reports and comments — and debate over whether comment is even required. The Browns hierarchy must by now feel as if someone has been poking a finger repeatedly in its chests: You gonna do somethin’ about Johnny? You gonna say somethin’?
Yet, as older, staid observers shake their heads over Manziel and how he reflects The State Of Modern Sports, Manziel’s activities, vivid as they are, reflect those of sports stars from long before Manziel was born.
Consider a brash 22-year-old fighter, then known as Cassius Clay, who a little more than 50 years ago was an Olympic boxing champion with a big mouth that then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston was expected to shut. As with Manziel, there was some skepticism about Clay’s likely success in his profession. One historian has called Liston “such a formidable opponent that most members of the sports media spent their time debating just how many punches Clay would be able to take before he was knocked out cold by the favored heavyweight.” Still, Clay won the fight and kept talking — including about his conversion to the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali.
Remember the Boz?
Staying in Manziel’s field of football, there have been players like the notorious Brian Bosworth, the University of Oklahoma star known for outrageous acts in games and out.
Writing about the wild conduct at Oklahoma in the late ’80s, Sports Illustrated reported “an NCAA-mandated drug test revealed that Bosworth had been using anabolic steroids, and he was banned from the game. As he stood on the Sooner sideline, Bosworth wore a T-shirt bearing a crude slur on the NCAA, and that bit of arrogance was apparently more than even (coach Barry) Switzer could tolerate. He booted the Boz from the team in a rare — and certainly tardy — show of force.”
Bosworth nonetheless went to the NFL, though without great success. When ESPN listed the biggest sports flops of 1979-2004 as part of its 25th anniversary, Bosworth ranked sixth in a poll of experts and third in a survey of sports fans.
Which is not to say Manziel will fail. After all, SI.com’s Bryan Rose recently called Manziel “the modern day equivalent of iconic quarterback Joe Namath.”
Namath was the pre-Twitter Manziel in many respects. Mainly remembered for accurately predicting his New York Jets winning Super Bowl III, Namath was a colorful character bringing life to a team that needed it, a football star with a historic pedigree (playing at University of Alabama for the legendary Bear Bryant) and the aura of an upstart (the Jets were then part of the younger, NFL-rival American Football League).
He also had an eye for fame that went beyond what he accomplished on the football field for Alabama and the Jets. The Encyclopedia of Alabama notes that the man born Joseph William Namath “transformed his middle name to ‘Willie’ because he thought the name befitted an Alabama quarterback.” Those who ponder Manziel’s antics may have forgotten that Namath was suspended from Alabama — and a Sugar Bowl game, no less — for violating curfews. Nor did he graduate from Alabama, the encyclopedia says, until 2007 — long after his playing days had ended.
Indeed, Rose said that — while Namath and Manziel share a work hard, play hard attitude — “the former Texas A&M product isn’t as flashy as Broadway Joe.”
Sum that up in one word: pantyhose.
Namath has spoken up for Manziel, praising him as a player and defending his behavior.
“I’ve been to Vegas,” Namath said in an interview reported on NFL.com. “You guys have probably been to Vegas. Give the man a little bit of room. But in his position, he’s not entitled to be a regular guy, 22 years old, 21 years old. Everything’s blowing out of whack.”
Besides, Namath said: “Football is a sport, but it is show biz. It is entertainment.”
In Namath’s day, entertainment could be measured in terms of newspapers sold and TV ratings. These days, for Manziel, it also means page views and retweets.
But the intersection of sports, entertainment and celebrity is an old one, and it has not taken much to move an athlete beyond the sports pages. Joe DiMaggio’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe is the stuff of legend — but by the time he married Monroe, DiMaggio was a decade divorced from another actress, Dorothy Arnold.
In the 1940s, the U.S. Military Academy had a formidable football team starring Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. It even inspired a 1947 movie The Spirit of West Point, with Davis and Blanchard playing themselves.
Because of that movie, Davis met teenage star Elizabeth Taylor, and they dated for a bit. Taylor even hinted to reporters about marriage. That did not happen, but Davis was not the only athlete to fall into Taylor’s orbit. Ralph Kiner played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kiner told Taylor biographer C. David Heymann that while on their date, Taylor at one point introduced him as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback.
“I didn’t bother to correct her,” Kiner said. And why would he have? He was famous either way. Manziel knows that very well.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.