National Columnist

Manziel has Texas A&M, NCAA running scared; both look other way

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- They're scared. That's what's going on here. Texas A&M and the NCAA are scared to tell Johnny Manziel that they don't believe him -- they're scared of what would happen next -- so both decided the safest course of action would be to look the other way, pretend someone as self-centered as Johnny Manziel signed all that stuff for memorabilia dealers for no gain at all, and get on with the lucrative business of the 2013 college football season.

Manziel will be suspended for the first half of Texas A&M's opener Saturday against Rice. That's the punishment, because this is the inadvertent violation the NCAA and Texas A&M have decided occurred:

They decided Manziel did in fact sign a bunch of memorabilia -- so much stuff that it flooded the market this offseason, catching dealers by surprise at the sheer volume of it all -- but that he didn't sign it for money. He signed it for free. Just because.

It's plausible, right? It's plausible that Johnny Manziel, whose own family has been quoted this summer as saying they're sick and tired of the fortune being made off his amateur brilliance, would sit down and give hours of his dwindling free time to memorabilia dealers offering nothing in return. That makes sense.

Right?

Of course it doesn't make sense, but don't get the wrong idea; it doesn't make sense to the NCAA nor Texas A&M, either. They're not stupid. They'll pretend to be stupid, because that's their only play in this game. They can either be smart and acknowledge the overwhelming likelihood that Manziel got paid for all his time and suspend him for a large part of the season and let whatever happens next happen ... or they can pretend to be stupid and act like they believed Manziel when he told the NCAA this weekend that he'd received nothing for all those hours with all those memorabilia dealers.

Manziel wasn't in a courtroom, and the NCAA didn't have to meet that legal standard of proof. Beyond a reasonable doubt? The NCAA didn't have to go that far. According to the NCAA's website, "its standard of proof is whether the information is credible, persuasive and of a nature that reasonable people would rely upon in the conduct of serious affairs."

There's that word again -- "reasonable" -- but it's not followed by "doubt," and it's not the same thing. The way the NCAA describes it, the burden of proof is whatever conclusion "reasonable people would rely upon" given the evidence.

What's reasonable about the notion that Johnny Manziel -- whose endless offseason showed him to be all about Johnny Manziel in a way that cannot be denied -- would devote hours of his time to memorabilia businessmen for no financial gain?

Those memorabilia dealers refused to speak to the NCAA, by the way. Would they refuse to speak to the NCAA if they'd done nothing against NCAA rules? If Manziel signed for free -- as he said he did -- he did those dealers a huge favor. Would they decline to back up his story if his story were true?

Is that reasonable to believe?

Of course it isn't, but the NCAA was terrified to hammer Manziel without something unassailable. That was the burden of proof the NCAA was going for in this case: unassailable proof that Manziel had been paid for his time. And they didn't have it. Going forward, if the NCAA wants to change its burden of proof from "reasonable" to "unassailable," then the NCAA should do that in the future and own it now. But that's not what happened here.

What happened here is Manziel sat across from the NCAA, denied taking money, and dared the NCAA to blink. And the NCAA did. The NCAA backed down from Manziel because the NCAA is on dangerous ground here, reeling from the backlash against its squashing of Penn State and its ham-handed investigation of Miami. The NCAA is scared that the biggest football schools in the country -- schools led by the SEC, of which Texas A&M is a member -- will hasten their exit from the organization.

That's what I believe. Do I have unassailable proof of that? No. But I have the NCAA's standard of proof, something reasonable people would rely upon, given the way high-ranking college administrators have been talking for years and given the talking points uttered this summer by the biggest conference commissioners, all of whom were in agreement that the NCAA must change its ways or else.

Hammering the most famous, most marketable football player in the country -- and the SEC -- is not in the NCAA's best interest right now. Not without unassailable proof. So the NCAA blinked. It backed down. It decided that if Texas A&M didn't have the stomach to suspend Manziel for more than one half, then the NCAA didn't have the backbone to do it.

The Aggies are scared of Manziel, too. They're scared of what he'd do if he were suspended multiple games -- would he just bail on college, sign with an agent, get the money he so badly wants and prepare for the 2014 NFL Draft? -- and they're scared of what would happen in the third game of the season, against No. 1 Alabama, if that's the first game for Manziel. Facing that Alabama defense is no way for Manziel to open the season. Something could go wrong. Texas A&M could lose. And the Aggies' season, such as it is, would be over.

Kevin Sumlin is the head coach at Texas A&M, but Johnny Manziel is the team. In the future Sumlin will do fine without him, assuming he doesn't follow Manziel into the NFL after this season, but for this season the Aggies are built around Manziel. They could probably win eight or nine games without him, but they could run the table with him. Who knows if it'll happen, but it could. Manziel is that good. A national title is on the table, and if the NCAA wasn't going to do it for them, the Aggies weren't about to push away the opportunity at such a prize.

Johnny Manziel said he didn't take money, and NCAA and Texas A&M believed him. Whether they believed him or not.

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