Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Casual slander and reckless clichés

A “warped ex-faculty member of Texas A&M that enables Johnny Manziel”—according to the Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise, that’s what I deserve to be called for crying foul when he says in a column that Manziel, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the Texas Aggies, is “about a trailer park away from Tonya Harding.” (To be fair, I called Wise a moron for making the comparison.)

Those who are new to the Manziel story may wince at the snobbery of Wise’s “trailer park” crack. All it really proves is that Wise, a graduate of Cal State Fresno, is anxious to shed his class origins and join the East Coast élite. Reading the comparison to Tonya Harding, though, uninformed readers are going to assume that, like her, Manziel must have done something criminal. After all, Harding arranged an assault on Nancy Kerrigan, her skating opponent. Harding acted less like an athlete, seeking to defeat her competition, than like a gangster who wanted to maim a gangland rival.

Although Harding avoided prison through a plea bargain, Manziel may not be so lucky. Or so at least you would be right to assume after reading Wise’s column on him. And what exactly did Manziel do wrong, then? Hire thugs to break the legs of A. J. McCarron, the quarterback for Alabama? What else could be comparable to criminal assault? Here is what Manziel stands accused of: apparently he sold his autograph. For filthy lucre. ESPN has the incriminating photo of him signing his name. Signing his name? The monster!

For a college athlete to profit from his possibly short-lived fame is a violation of regulations set down by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). If he sold his autograph then Manziel admittedly “broke the rules.” What few in the sportswriting world are prepared to do, however, is to step back and look hard at the NCAA rule that prohibits athletes from trading on their own identity. Yet how is it even legal for an organization to prohibit someone from selling his own autograph? Doesn’t it belong by rights to him?

The truth is that the NCAA rule is an unenforceable contract seeking to restrain trade. It is an illegal and unethical maneuver to prevent competition from athletes, who might cut into the NCAA’s own profits—and the profits of its member schools—if they were allowed to trade freely in memorabilia. In economic terms, the NCAA is a cartel not unlike OPEC, which colludes to set prices and squeeze out competitors. Why else do college football coaches, middle-aged men, overwhelmingly white, earn seven-figure salaries while the players, who actually win and lose the games on the field, risk career-ending injury for a “scholarship” (tuition waiver, room and board, school supplies) that is “worth” less than the median household income in the U.S.?

Wise explains why the system is fair and why Manziel is as rotten as Tonya Harding:

Prominent athletes who stand to reap great rewards from their considerable physical talent and personal appeal have to understand, even at 20, that they are held to a higher standard of decency and behavior than other kids hitting the kegger in the back of the dorm room. Signing a scholarship with a school of Texas A&M’s caliber means you literally sign up for that double standard.You’ve got to love the language. Manziel “stands to reap great rewards” someday. So he should shut up and accept the “double standard” by which he earns 1.3% of what Kevin Sumlin, his coach, is paid for inserting Manziel into the lineup. Because, you know, Johnny Football (as he is called) stands to reap the rewards later. Unless he gets injured, of course. Or unless sportswriting hacks like Mike Wise succeed in ruining his reputation.

You will read Wise’s column and not learn any of this, because despite the fact that Wise is paid to be a journalist, he is less interested in facts than in casual slander and reckless clichés.


Unknown said...

Ignoring the ad hominem attack, the issue with Wise's argument is the legality of NCAA's rules as well as being the unethical exploitation of college athletics. It just seems kind of petty for colleges and the NCAA to essentially own an individuals likeness forever, while this particular player selling his autograph is being made an example of.

I think the only solution to this is to remove athletics from colleges and create a semi-professional organization loosely affiliated with said colleges allowing the athletes to be compensated and be able to negotiate the ownership of their likeness. Or even creating a llc within the college systems so that both colleges and the teams can be protected against attacks against nepotism towards athletes and the money invested into college athletes. Although this brings up new issues about the less popular sports...

Ultimately I think the issue with this particular issue is the individual right to own his/her likeness (ability to profit from minor celebrity, etc) and the plantation-esque management of college athletes which is embodied a sort of gateway into the professional league.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, and I made the same argument over twenty years ago here.

George said...

What are Mike Wise's class origins, or should I be able to infer them from the information that he went to Cal State Fresno? And as a reader of The Washington Post for 35 years, I find amazing the notion that a column in the Post's sports pages makes the writer a member of the East Coast elite.

That said, on the one hand Wise is correct to say that Manziel must stay on the good side of the cartels that promise him, some day, a good living. On the other hand, no, he should have not compared Manziel to Harding. Nor should have pulled in Kevin Federline, a man as far as I know guilty only of odd taste in women.

I think that sports and college sports would be better off if football and basketball had a system comparable to baseball's minor leagues.

Rand Careaga said...

@George: For "Cal State Fresno," read "Clown County Community College." Worthy institutions each in their own way, one does not doubt (although Victor Davis Hansen was apparently on the Fresno faculty at one point, which must surely be counted as a black mark against the school), but among their alumni few will be found who were not constrained by talent or by means when it came time to choose a berth in higher education. Wise is accordingly sneering at the trailer park not from his parents' summer place in the Hamptons, but from their ghastly tract home across the street from the trailer park in California's Central Valley. [capcha acting up: possible dup post?]

Robert D said...

@Rand Careaga Are you joking? Say what you will about VDH's politics, but his stature as a classicist is not to be denied. He wasn't hired by CS Fresno to be an opinion writer, but his knowledge of ancient Greece and the peloponnesian wars is pretty dang solid. You look like a baffoon making ignorant statements like that.

Rand Careaga said...

@Robert D: Who are you calling a baffoon? Context counts for much, and you have clearly misconstrued the harmless joshing of a fellow alumnus. You see, Victor Davis Hansen (or “Vikram” as he preferred to be known in those years), D.G. Myers (oddly, he styled himself “David G.M.” back then) and I were all schoolmates four decades ago at UC Santa Cruz. By day, I am sorry to report, Vikram was a bit of a stiff, a dreary, doctrinaire, nose-to-the-grindstone Gender Studies major, but once the academic day was over and you got him properly liquored up, he could be a lot of fun at parties. Get D.G. to tell you sometime about how after a kegger at Morrison House, Vikram led a group of us down to the Lower Quarry and introduced us to the practice of cow-tipping, which is apparently very big in Fresno County. I wish I could tell you that I recognized greatness at the time, but I frankly never saw in him the seeds of a man who would one day hobnob with titans like Rich Lowry and Charles Krauthammer.

I can tell you, though, that if I was not present at the turning point, I at least heard about it within a couple of days. It seems in spring quarter of 1973, late in his sophomore year, someone slipped him some “Greek Sunshine” blotter acid — I always thought Robert McDowell was responsible, but McDowell swears it was Mark Jarman — and, following a dangerous hallucination of Art Linkletter hovering in mid-air outside a fifth floor window at College V “A” Dorm, beckoning seductively, Vikram experienced a transcendent vision of Sappho (actually not a difficult feat in the UCSC of that period) that changed his life. When he returned that fall, he’d cut his hair — indeed, he’d shaved *every square inch of his body — switched majors and taken up a life of monastic self-denial and sedulous scholarship, greatly to the sorrow and consternation of his former drinking buddies. Once embarked upon the path that would one day land him a coveted slot on the Fresno State faculty, he never deviated.

Gosh, now you’ve got me feeling all nostalgic for those vanished days, which I admit I may not have remembered perfectly in every detail.