Column: Is game's new 'it-boy' in over his head?
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By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
Remember those commercials that ran nonstop during the Final Four last spring, the ones in which the voice-over concluded, "There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes -- and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports"?
Well, here's hoping that Johnny Football beats the odds and makes it to the NFL someday. Because the kid is hopelessly amateurish at just about everything else.
The latest suggestion that college football's new "it-boy" was in over his head arrived via ESPN, with reports Johnny Manziel was essentially shaking down memorabilia dealers, swapping autographs for cash in clear violation of NCAA rules. No matter.
Considering how weak the NCAA is at the moment, and how well lawyered-up Texas A&M is already, the chances that an investigation will result in any meaningful punishment for player or school is practically nil. The Aggies hired the same firm -- Lightfoot, Franklin and White, from Birmingham, Ala. -- that got Panthers quarterback Cam Newton off the hook when pay-for-play allegations surfaced during his brief stay at Auburn. And who knows, those same lawyers might have put Newton in touch with Manziel for the few counseling sessions that Newton confirmed Tuesday, but declined to discuss in detail.
About all Newton would say, beyond the fact that the two talked several times, is that he hopes "that everything works out in the best for him so he can get back to what he likes to do and that's playing football."
Apparently, though, that's not the only thing Manziel likes to do. He also enjoys sharing photographs of himself mocking other rules, whether it's flashing a fistful of bills fanned out, or waving a bottle of champagne in a nightclub, even though Manziel is just 20 years old. When those pranks and others Manziel staged during an eventful offseason were raised at SEC media days last month, he said he'd learned his lesson:
"Of course, I've made my mistakes. It's time to grow up."
Don't bet on it.
He'll likely survive this latest scrape, in part because the NCAA enforcement staff has been decimated in the wake of its bungled investigation at the University of Miami, and a new, less strict penalty structure the organization rolled out barely a week ago. That much seemed apparent by how breezily Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin deflected questions about his quarterback's future.
"There's not a whole lot I can say about that," Sumlin replied, which he repeated in one form or another to every question about Manziel, including whether he ever asked the Heisman Trophy winner whether he accepted payment for autographs.
"We got a game Aug. 31," Sumlin said sternly. "My job is to get this football team ready to play."
For those counting, that's three-plus weeks. Forget about the mornings for the first of those weeks, since his "student-athletes" will actually be bogged down with classes. Ditto for the weightlifting sessions, when they're out of breath, and the film sessions, when they're too busy taking notes.
But would it be too much, if during a training-table meal one evening, Sumlin simply leaned across the table and instead of saying "Pass the salt, please," he asked Manziel, "Did you get paid for those autographs?"
Apparently so, since much like the Newton investigation, we're going to be told that game preparation is so important, there just isn't time for detours into complicated matters that have nothing to do with football.
Yet there's no mistaking where kids got the idea that getting along meant going along. Once their universities and conferences got tangled up in more conflicts-of-interest than they could keep track of -- TV contracts, sponsorship deals and the like -- they became decidedly less interested in each other's faux pas than ever.
The guys in charge might pretend to be pained, but nobody gets too worked up about amateur stuff like eligibility any more, least of all the kids on whose backs the empire rests. They, too, can see college football for what it's become: the NFL's de facto minor league. It's great to have rowers, field hockey players and cheerleaders who will become engineers, accountants and marketing reps in the future.
They make for good commercials, and a good front for a non-profit like the NCAA, but they don't make any money. They're the farthest thing, in truth, regarding what college sports is really about.
Instead, it's about kids like Manziel -- and Newton and Terrelle Pryor, too -- and keeping their sense of entitlement in check long enough to make a few dollars off their talent before they get theirs. If nothing else, Manziel already looks like one of those guys who's going to make the higher-ups earn every penny -- plus more than their fair share of heartburn in the bargain.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlike(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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