Like all good Johnny Manziel stories, this one starts in Texas. But unlike all the rest, this one starts in a Texas Walmart. Four Sundays ago, I was in the Walmart Supercenter in Lufkin, Texas. I was in the middle of a road trip, and a diet of rest-stop fast food had my stomach sounding like Mike Trivisonno. I was hoping the Walmart sold fruit, because I wasn't sure where else to find anything that wasn't industrially distributed meat. For a few minutes, I wandered aisles aimlessly, tripping slightly on the physical enormity of the place. I could nearly see the curvature of the earth in the vast ceiling. Eventually I found the fruit corral.
Greedily clutching my bananas and apples, I found myself in line behind two guys buying several bags of chicken wings from the deli (it was 9 a.m.), a bunch of T-shirts, and troubling amounts of Gatorade. They were paying for their haul with a combination of a taped-together $20 bill and two credit cards. So I had a minute to ponder the Lufkin Walmart's checkout area.
The first thing I noticed on the racks of register-side goodies was a proud orange Browns helmet blazing on a display box of NFL trading cards. Photoshopped into the face-hole of that helmet were the endearingly beady eyes of Cleveland's current backup QB, Johnny Manziel.
Now, a store in east Texas proudly displaying Manzieliana is not surprising. I was two hours from Tyler, the man's birthplace, and a different two hours from College Station, where he won the Heisman Trophy as Texas A&M's star freshman quarterback. But the Manziel phenomenon wasn't limited to Lufkin. As I unintentionally reenacted Johnny Football's journey from Texas to the shores of Lake Erie, I saw him everywhere. He peeked out from magazine racks at gas stations and convenience stores across Arkansas. His face flashed on TV screens in diners and truck stops in Tennessee. That puckish grin insinuated itself in even the briefest glances at social media in Kentucky. Back in the Great State of Ohio, Manziel stayed right by my side. He was and remains inescapable, even in the non-physical realms.
The Browns' rookie second-stringer has been drafted into the role of human clickbait. If you've tuned into ESPN, Cleveland.com or TMZ — or merely walked past a powered-on radio, computer or television set — you've likely heard more about Manziel than about Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson or Peyton Manning, coming off a record-obliterating season, or any other single NFL player.
As training camp gave way to the exhibition season, microscopic dissections of all things Manziel gobbled up every spare column-inch and molecule of airtime. Starting QB Brian Hoyer told a journalist (from ESPN, natch) that he had to stop consuming sports news to avoid the hype, if that's even possible. Manziel is and will be everywhere, except starting under center for an NFL team. How did the Browns wind up with a mega-celebrity as their backup quarterback?
Quick, name your all-time favorite Browns second-string quarterback. Mine is Mike Pagel. The three syllables of his full name made a little percussive rhythm that I liked to repeat in my head as a kid. And his #10 jersey and white pants were always so clean. Because he never played, unlike the succession of post-1999 backups pressed into action. Let me also honorary-mention Todd Philcox, because he was balding, and god loves a balding quarterback.
The short version of how we got here: We're obsessed with Johnny Manziel because ESPN is obsessed with him, at least if you buy into the narrative of ESPN creating the demand in the market rather than answering to it. There's no doubt the cable sports juggernaut has a serious fascination with Manziel. We've seen the network start grease-fire hype before, with another SEC quarterback. But Tim Tebow was just John the Baptist to Manziel's Clickbait Jesus. Tebow briefly displayed an uncanny ability to be on the team that won the game, despite playing terribly. But behind Tebowmania was an exceptionally nice, exceptionally religious, exceptionally boring guy who wasn't very good at playing quarterback. Manzielmania (Manzielosis? Manzielfest Destiny?) is something else: This is what happens when a gifted athlete also happens to be a natural-born 21st century secular celebrity.
After JFF leapt from the regional, tribal world of college ball to the all-devouring coast-to-coast obsession that is the NFL, ESPN ratcheted up its attentions. The Worldwide Leader dropped Manziel into Tebow's old parking place and hired a crew of 50 to wash and wax its shiny new toy 24/7. All summer, the competition for the starting QB gig of a small-market team coming off (another) 4–12 season was above-the-fold hot type. When Hoyer got the official nod on August 20, ESPN broke out the Breaking News klaxon. Ordering the depth chart for the equally 4–12 Jaguars, Raiders, or Buccaneers didn't get the same treatment.
While ESPN is the bell cow of national sports media in obsessing over Manziel, Cleveland's press corps has energetically contributed to the turd-hurricane of hype in their own doofy way. But, of course, in Northeast Ohio, the Browns garner intemperate amounts of attention year-round regardless of their prospects. Remember when we talked ourselves into Brady Quinn?
So the Browns drafting a player with some actual starpower predictably led to some forgettable moments in media history, even by the adjusted standards of the era. The listicle "House Hunters: Where should Johnny Manziel live in Cleveland?" was probably the nadir. But maybe ESPN Cleveland affiliate WKNR 850, which broadcasts Browns games and a daily team-produced show, overkilled it best when the station renamed itself ESPN Johnny Cleveland for a day after the draft.
But maybe we're all to blame as social media bullshit enablers, like the time a blurry photo of Manziel enjoying a strenuously unremarkable post-work beer at a strip-mall bar went viral. But then there was the time he was five minutes late to a meeting and it made national headlines for three days. Or the time...
ESPN The Magazine is planning an entire issue about our fair city for September. There's no doubt that the Decision 2.0 (or the Revision or the Recidivism or whatever we're calling LeBron's return on our T-shirts) will be a huge part of that issue. But can you really imagine what Cleveland sports topics they'll cover other than Manziel? The oral history of the Gladiators? Dan Gilbert's favorite hair gel? Rick Manning's picks for the best tanning salons in town? Pumpkinhead: Behind the Gourd?
To find out why Manziel is all over ESPN, I thought I should start at the horse's mouth, or at least the PR office for the horse, in Bristol. ESPN's PR office politely brushed off my questions about their Manziel obsession, likely in between pumping out press releases about Johnny's upcoming appearance on ESPN's Monday Night Football. ESPN's ombudsman, veteran sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, told me he couldn't comment on Manziel as the network's newest infatuation. Having received the corporate middle finger from ESPN and confirmed that the people who talk about Johnny the most prefer to talk about why we talk about Johnny the least, I found less uptight sources that could speak to how the media fell for the impish Texan.
Spencer Hall, editorial director at SB Nation, watched Johnny Manziel terrorize SEC defenses for two years. I asked him what made Manziel an eyeball-magnet, which was surely among the more impossible questions he fielded that week, even including those from internet trolls. Hall saw the mania start with Manziel's unique on-field style. "The attraction, whether that's negative or positive, is always rooted for [Manziel] in the way he plays," Hall said.
Indeed, going all the way back to Tivy High School in Kerrville, Manziel's fame started between the hash marks. His elusive running and powerful arm came before the social-media shenanigans. Manziel's volatile style and ad-libbing are capable of derailing both opponents and his own team, as coach Mike Pettine told Sports Illustrated: "He has a tendency to keep both teams in the game." But as we average citizens enjoy a budding para-social relationship with Johnny Football — through his partying, his celebrity friends and the media obsession with turning every molecule of his public life inside out — it becomes clear that Manziel's on-field insouciance merely reflects his off-field personality. And that personality is divisive, to say the least.
Manziel's rare combination of athletic prominence, colorful family backstory, and ironclad commitment to enjoying himself in public make him something of an (inflatable) black swan. "The people who confound other people the most are those who have no choice but to be what they are," Hall mused. "It's a paradox that someone who is so incapable of being anything other than what he is, and who will always react the same way in a situation, why that would confuse anybody. It's the easy dynamic in the world. It's what he is. And yet it's the one that seems to make people angriest."
Deadspin's Tim Marchman sees Manziel's special celebrity as a matter of contrast. "The animating force in American life is homogenization. Everything becomes more centralized over time; Walmart runs all the local stories out, the Internet crushes local radio, and so on. The NFL being the NFL, it epitomizes that in a lot of ways," Marchman told me. "Manziel doesn't really fit that as a personality, and what really resonates is that he doesn't fit that as a player either. If the model is supposed to be a dull, studious Tom Brady type [Ed. note: See also "Brian Hoyer"] who efficiently carries out someone else's plan, the idea of this guy who's too small, too reckless, too inattentive to the plan and too much of an improviser to win — and who does so anyway — is really appealing. Add in the off-field stuff and it's irresistible."
I grew up in Berea, the shabby but sweet-hearted hamlet that hosts Brownsworld. Even after two decades of practice, I still get a little reflexive dingdingding of recognition when sports news stories are slugged DATELINE: BEREA. When a random meatwad sports reporter does an inane standup from First Avenue (that's what "Lou Groza Boulevard" used to be called), I think about home. I mostly think of Browns HQ as being down the road from the convenience store where I tried to buy beer at age 15, or across the street from Ohio Nut & Bolt, whose sign made me laugh every time my immature self rolled up Front Street to Burger King. Because it said "nut." I'm talking about the old Burger King, before it burned down and was replaced with ... a Burger King.
Young me believed with absolute certainty that this was the center of the known sports universe. Current me can't believe it's actually now true.
Armed with some sense of where our Manziel infatuation comes from, I wanted to grok the economics of his runaway celebrity. After all, Manziel's trademark move is rubbing his fingers together in the international sign for moolah.
I talked to Victor Matheson, an economics professor at Holy Cross who studies the intersection of sports and money, to learn more about how hype translates to dollars. Surely the Browns get a major boost from drafting such a big attention-getter, right? "They're going to get a ton of money from this," Matheson confirmed. "But it's the NFL that's making the money, not the Browns themselves."
As Matheson explained, the nature of NFL licensing means that all those $99.95 Nike MANZIEL jerseys in the Muni Lot won't generate as much loot as you'd think, at least not directly for the player or his team. The NFL pools apparel revenue, tithing a percentage to the players' association and splitting the remainder of the take 32 ways. So even if Manziel's #2 laundry tops the sales charts, the Browns will get the same cut as the Cowboys, who passed on drafting Manziel. (The thesis of Jimmy Haslam and his Browns as the downmarket Jerry Jones/Dallas Cowboys is another thinkpiece for another thinkday.)
Wait, aren't we adding to the problem here? Why are we even talking about Johnny Manziel, putting him on the cover of Scene the week of the Browns opener? After all, local-guy-made-good Brian Hoyer is the starting QB. If there were any justice after his bummer of a knee injury, Hoyer would have a chance to actually enjoy being the toast of town instead of counting down the years until the NFL Network airs a five-minute hologram retrospective called something like "Hoyerville: Two and a Half Weeks of Glory in 2013."
If I'm so worried about all the clickbait about Johnny Manziel... well, isn't this just another reeking bucket of digital chum? Shouldn't Scene, you know, be the media criticism we want to see in the world? A celebrity-obsessed corporate fourth estate can pay electron-microscope-level attention to every fleeting second of JFF, turn him into a ratings-driving famous-for-being-famous reality star a la those Duck Dynasts or the Kardashians. Big deal. That's just a basic involuntary respiratory process in American media in 2014. Let's don't act like this is our first McDonald's MDP. We're better than this, right? Aren't we?
To their credit, the Browns as an organization are presently trying to quiet down the whole Manziel thing (though one could argue that about-face came only after milking him dry prior to the start of preseason). Rob McBurnett of the Browns media relations team, when asked by Scene for credentials for practice to examine Clickbait Jesus in person, calmly reminded us that Hoyer is the starting quarterback, and offered some free editorial advice, saying, "We really don't think it's a good cover story." McBurnett then gave us an unconvincing sell on what a Manziel-free 2014 Cleveland Browns feature might include: "The organization knows Johnny is part of the reason why fans are excited about the team, but we also have a new GM, and Donte Whitner."
But Ray Farmer and the artist briefly known as Donte Hitner, swell as they might be, aren't the reason packs of news trucks hover at the gates of the team complex in Berea like stray animals waiting to be fed, nor why the Browns have sold over 60,000 season tickets (the NFL cap on season tickets, by the way, is 62,000). The Browns drafted Johnny Manziel to play quarterback, but his first and best position is himself.
Manziel is a 21-year-old with a lot of money in and out of his pockets, but he's also a nearly darn-perfect thumbnail of how Americans relate to fame, wealth and celebrity right now. At his douchiest, JFF can come off like the dark Tebow, a gremlin-grinning apostle of hedonism. But his unruliness is not about lechery as much as it's about the freedom conferred by wealth, be it legal tender or athletic celebrity. Manziel's signature moneyfingers are a triumph of self-characterization. A room full of screenwriters couldn't top the creation of a sports-management major who dropped out after two years only to dominate every sports conversation around the country.
Maybe the explanation for all the hype is bone simple. "Everybody needs a heel," Spencer Hall told me. "And people who aren't having fun really dislike people who are having fun."