The investigation into Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has dominated college football news this month. There have been a handful of allegations made by anonymous sources while Texas A&M tries to prepare for the season that opens later this month against Rice. There has been a lot of speculation and guessing about how the NCAA and the school may handle what appears to be a very murky process. To help sort out some of this, I spoke to an expert on NCAA and compliance issues, Dr. David Ridpath, an Assistant Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University. Ridpath has dealt with issues like this, he says, albeit not with the reigning Heisman trophy winner. In 2001 his school had to sit several players in Marshall's first game against Florida.
Q: What are A&M's compliance responsibilities in light of the allegations to Manziel?
Ridpath: The No. 1 thing is they need to exhaust all of their measures in determining if a violation indeed happened. While it is frustrating for the general public in a high-profile case like this, A&M must move deliberately, work cooperatively with the NCAA and gather as many facts as they can before determining if a violation(s) did in fact occur. The NCAA will take that into account, and I am certain, the A&M staff is working hard to determine the facts and not let outside influences dictate the speed of this. They could be hampered if Manziel and others are less than forthright, but if they give their best effort in determining the facts, my guess is the NCAA will be lenient against them and potentially Manziel if he is cooperative.
Q: Beyond asking him, 'Did you accept money for signing autographs?' what questions do you think A&M will pursue?
Ridpath: Of course that is the big question, but they certainly need to delve into his contacts, their relationships, if they are profiting off his image, etc., and based on the ESPN Magazine article -- the family. All of them need to answer, "What did you know and when did you know it" -- more specifically what did Johnny know? Is he really that stupid as Herbstreit says? Maybe so -- he is still a kid dealing with stuff most 20-year olds have no idea how to handle.
Q: In light of the Jim Tressel case, as well as the circumstances at Ga. Tech a few years back with the AD and Paul Johnson, how much can Kevin Sumlin and/or coaches ask Manziel without perceptions that the coaches "could be impacting" an investigation?
Ridpath: This is a tough one -- for me in situations like this I told the coaches, essentially demanded, that they stay out of it. Any information was on a need to know basis, but if they got involved, even in a benevolent way, it could be perceived as tampering. Most coaches love control and they usually get it. When they don't have control they tend to get erratic and think they can fix things.
Sumlin seems smarter than that and he is likely following strict instructions on what he can and cannot do. I imagine the compliance office is grilling him on what he knows and any contact with Manziel that he has outside of practice (and maybe even during practice) is monitored during a time like this. Crazy I know -- but it is the world we have created. Hopefully one day rules like this and the amateur ideal will just go away and we can watch the games.
Q: How much do you think those two cases, as well as Penn State with Jerry Sandusky, may impact how schools or more specifically coaches handle NCAA investigations, if at all?
Ridpath: It could go several ways -- head coaches have always been adept at deflecting blame and knowledge, but apparently under the new four-tier structure they will be held more accountable (I will believe it when I see it). On the other hand, if we are limiting their access and ability to find out information they would have a point on not really knowing everything. I see this as a very delicate balance. The best answer is head coaches need to be more preventative and proactive rather than being reactive so they can at least be seen as possibly trying to maintain institutional control.
Q: Given the Cam Newton loophole, how do you think the NCAA may evaluate the role of Manziel's high school buddy Nate Fitch in this if Fitch claims he acted on his own without Manziel's knowledge?
Ridpath: I think this is the get out of jail free card -- if there is no evidence pointing to Johnny's knowledge and/or actual evidence of payment or perks, then this may all be a moot point. If I am A&M, I am praying to a higher authority this works out -- and frankly the NCAA is hoping the same thing. Johnny may know, but if Fitch takes the bullet or truly acted on his own without any knowledge from Manziel then I think we have a simple eligibility restoration process and he misses zero games.
If there was some or even overt knowledge, I think the NCAA invokes the "Sugar Bowl" rule and figures out a way to let him play or just miss 1-2 games. The NCAA wants no part of this and is desperately hanging on to amateurism and they are losing grip every day.
If Johnny is suspended for a length of time -- the impact would be huge, but there might be a larger victory in that we can finally decide to let players capitalize on their own marketing utility and restrictions like this are silly. No one cares if he or the OSU players profited off their likeness -- we will still watch A&M vs. Alabama. That's the bottom line -- but in the present A&M has to deal with the crazy system we have and if they can pawn it off on Fitch or someone else -- this might be Johnny Football's greatest escape.
Also -- in defense of the NCAA -- they cannot win regardless of what is decided, but it is the world we live in.