On Sunday, ESPN's Darren Rovell, under the guise of Outside the Lines, reported that the NCAA is investigating Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel for allegedly signing autographs for money. While this seems like a minor, even pointless, accusation, it is nonetheless an actual NCAA rule, which has some historical precedent: Ohio State players were suspended for five games in 2011 because they traded memorabilia for free tattoos and Georgia's A.J. Green received a four-game suspension for selling a jersey for $1000.
Manziel comes from a family with money, and he has stated in multiple interviews that he checks with Texas A&M's compliance office before doing anything particularly questionable: like sitting courtside at an NBA game, or flying to Toronto for a Drake concert. Why would a 20-year-old athlete who comes from a family with Texas oil money accept a payment for signing autographs? Manziel has publicly commented through stories by ESPN and Sports Illustrated that he signs thousands of autographs for his family and others as a courtesy to his fans but he never alluded to ever being paid for them.
It doesn't matter whether you think Manziel is guilty, whether you want him to be guilty, or if you think the NCAA rule should be changed, the rule is the rule and Manziel is accused of breaking it. The rule states that Manziel can sign as many autographs as he likes, but is not allowed to sell any, or be promised money in the future for signing. If Manziel violated NCAA Bylaw 18.104.22.168, he could be ruled ineligible for an undetermined period of time; While the NCAA has precedent, every case is different and they don't have a strong track record of uniformity or competence. If a cooperative Manziel is found to be guilty, I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s back on the field in Week 3 when Alabama comes to College Station. TV ratings matter more than integrity sometimes.
The problem that the NCAA has with this investigation is proving that Manziel did it. The sources that Rovell cites in his story are all unnamed, and only had information on Manziel's actions – signing a large quantity of memorabilia for a prominent broker, Jeff Tieman, in the days leading up to the 2013 BCS title game in South Florida, with the allegations of a five-figure payment. These sources, while numerous, saw no actual transaction of money between the broker and Manziel. ESPN released an additional report, Aug. 5, stating that an autograph broker had Manziel sign over 200 pieces of memorabilia in Nov. 2012 before and after A&M's victory over Alabama, but "the broker [said] he did not compensate Manziel for either of those sessions." The only potentially damning evidence ESPN gathered is Manziel's personal assistant Nate Fitch told the unnamed broker that Manziel would no longer sign autographs for free, but the broker to whom Fitch gave that ultimatum has not claimed to have paid Manziel for anything.
A third broker spoke to ESPN’s Joe Schad, Aug. 6, claiming that Manziel accepted a $7,500 payment from him, and that he has a video of Manziel signing items. While Manziel signed over 300 items for this broker, he still hasn’t been physically shown taking money from someone, or agreeing to it. The broker shopped this video to ESPN, who declined to purchase it, but did view it. The video could be seen as catching Manziel in the act by some, but it was filmed for authentication purposes – to prove to the broker’s clients that Manziel actually signed the items. On the alleged video tape, Johnny Manziel is “heard saying ‘you never did a signing with me’ and not to tell anyone.” The broker also alleges that Manziel said he would use this $7,500 to buy new rims for his car. (NCAA: Go check Johnny’s rims and ask if he still has the receipt.) But why would someone who knew he was signing autographs and being videotaped say that? A lot of this either doesn’t make sense, or makes Manziel look clueless when it comes to NCAA rules.
This case, while increasingly compelling, is far from a sure thing for the NCAA. Basically, this entire story is based upon hearsay. The NCAA can attempt to interview Manziel, Tieman, or the most recent anonymous broker to come forward and allege payment – the first broker to personally allege that he himself paid Manziel, not a source with knowledge. The NCAA still has to prove Manziel accepted money and the latest broker to come forward “said he does not intend to cooperate with the ongoing NCAA investigation involving Manziel and autographs.” The Tieman allegations were from secondary sources and Tieman declined comment to ESPN; The broker from the Alabama game has ignored six of the NCAA’s calls.
If they aren’t going to cooperate in the investigation, why talk to ESPN at all?
The NCAA will have a tough time finding actual proof of any wrongdoing, but a paper trail isn't completely necessary. CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler wrote: "The NCAA likely will be looking for a paper trail from a dealer to Manziel, but according to a sports attorney with knowledge of the NCAA's investigations, the enforcement staff can build a case with circumstantial evidence since the NCAA's standard of proof is not the same as a criminal standard.”
Texas A&M should absolutely look into this to the fullest extent, but they should also support Manziel like Auburn did with Cam Newton. Auburn did their own investigation and found nothing wrong with Newton: they maintained his eligibility, the NCAA could never pin anything on him, and he won a Heisman and the national title. A&M has already taken a step forward in defending Manziel's honor by retaining the services of the Birmingham, Ala. law firm Lightfoot, Franklin and White – the same firm that represented Auburn and Cam Newton during that investigation.
While the evidence, or lack thereof, paints Manziel in a negative light (like it did with Newton) and rouses the 21st century-standard public perception of immediate guilt, Texas A&M, Manziel and all involved in this investigation should keep quiet and make the NCAA find the result – positive or negative – on their own.
Johnny Manziel should go about his business, deny the allegations if he wants, maybe not even comment on them. He should focus on football and leave his off-the-field drama in its rightful place, off of the field. Maybe he can prevail through this fog of controversy and lead his team to success like Newton did at Auburn. It is a ludicrous rule, but it is a rule. And Manziel knows the rules. (Honestly, I think Manziel should do the ol' Marshall Henderson "Landshark" move to the NCAA, but that's just me.)
Hopefully this clears and Manziel can return to his day job without suspension. People have already forgotten how incredible he is on the football field.
Photo: USA Today Sports