National Columnist

Overwrought media make Johnny Manziel a sympathetic figure

Lou Holtz wants to choke Johnny Manziel. Barry Switzer wants to jerk his facemask. Matt Millen wants to shove a foot up his rear end, and Mark May wants to lecture him.

This is how the tide of public opinion turns ...

... in favor of Johnny Manziel.

You can see it coming, right? I can because I study history, and not stuff like the Battle of Hastings or the Industrial Revolution or anything as boring and long ago as that. I mean recent history as it relates to the delicate balance between the media and the rest of the sports world. I'm talking about the Battle of Hansbrough and the Tebow Revolution and even a little bit of Tiger Woods and J.J. Redick.

This history lesson comes with an equation. It's like math, only easier:

When the media brazenly pushes its agenda too far, people revolt.

We revolted against Tebow, and I can tell you the exact moment it happened: The 2009 BCS title game. You remember what Fox's Thom Brennaman said that night on TV?

If you're fortunate enough to spend five minutes or 20 minutes around Tim Tebow, your life is better for it.

I know Thom, and I like Thom, but that's silly and people hated it. And they started to hate Tebow for it. Hold up anyone as a bastion of all that is good -- or in the case of Hansbrough, all that is hustle -- and the world refuses to go along. Because the world is smarter than the media when we in the media make the mistake of believing our own hyperbole. Tebow is flawed like anyone else. Hansbrough tried hard, but did he try harder than everyone else?

When he was good, Tiger Woods won so much that golf writers (and columnists like me) fawned over him and compared him to Nicklaus and decided he was the greatest golfer ever, and while all of that may well have been true, golf fans got sick of it. Why was the Tiger backlash so brutal when his affairs came to light? Because people were waiting for a reason to hate him. The media built him up so much that we ignored other great golfers, and we treated PGA Tour events with Tiger as something superior to PGA Tour events without him. I remember those days, writing pro-Tiger stories and receiving exasperated comments from readers, well before Tiger's downfall.

By his senior year at Duke, after four years of ESPN shoving his greatness down our throat, J.J. Redick was the most despised college basketball player in America. That has always bothered me, because I knew Redick. I covered Duke for the Charlotte Observer, and he was like so many college athletes -- a good kid who became a nice young man. But fans didn't know that. They just knew that four years of media fawning was too much, and they were sick of him. And they turned on him.

The tipping point works against athletes, but it works for them as well. It eventually worked for baseball players well after the arrival of the steroid era. Baseball writers were so relentlessly sanctimonious about The Game that readers and listeners started tuning them out. For years I'd write about steroids in baseball and be stunned at the sound of crickets that would greet those stories. Then one day in 2006 I overreached and wrote a column about Ryan Howard where I wondered how a guy could be hitting 58 home runs in an era where it seemed like only cheaters were hitting that many home runs. I went too far, and readers turned on me, and I deserved it.

Now people are turning away from the media and toward poor little picked-on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and the media -- we -- have nobody to blame but ourselves. Here we are, so determined to crush Manziel like the disrespectful bug (we think) he is, that our audience is rebelling against us. And I played a small role here. On the Tim Brando Show a few weeks ago I said Manziel has been acting like a "spoiled little douchebag," and Texas A&M fans went nuts. They found my phone number, they called it until I changed it, and they made Twitter miserable. And I deserved it, because I overreached. I went too far.

But the backlash against the Manziel-hating media is much bigger than that. See, people don't like to be told what to think -- and more than that, they don't like to be told what to think by a bunch of fools who don't recall their own fallibility.

As a player Matt Millen once punched the opposing general manager in the face after losing an NFL playoff game. People know this. But on Sunday during the Louisville-Ohio broadcast, without acknowledging his own infamy, Millen said he wanted to kick Manziel's rear end with his "size 13 boot" because Manziel had taunted Rice on Saturday.

Barry Switzer oversaw one of the most renegade programs in college football history, the Oklahoma Sooners of the 1970s and '80s, and people know this. But this week Switzer had the gall to tell ESPN's Colin Cowherd that he "wanted to jerk [Manziel's] face mask" and then he somehow said something dumber when this man, this coach whose own starting quarterback at Oklahoma in 1988 was selling cocaine on the side, said he wondered "where the core value system comes from, if [Manziel] has a core value system. This young man needs a damn hell of a lot of development."

Lou Holtz left behind a trail of NCAA issues -- Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina all went on probation after his tenures there -- and people know this. So while I'm not sure there's ever a right guy to say on ESPN that "I would have grabbed [Manziel] by the throat," I'm positive Lou Holtz isn't that guy.

Same goes for Mark May, who as a college player at Pittsburgh was found guilty of criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. May has been cluck-clucking and tut-tutting about Manziel for weeks, and again, there is much to cluck-cluck and tut-tut about here. Manziel has not come off as admirable or even likeable in the last few months, but people are starting to tune out the message out of revulsion for the messenger.

After the Rice game and the negative reviews of Manziel, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said this on Sunday: "I [didn't] know how I really felt about Johnny Manziel, but I feel like now that everybody hates him, he's quickly becoming my favorite player in college football."

Ironic, right? The media has come down so clumsily on Manziel that we've made him a hero.

 
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