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Johnny Manziel, Boring Twentysomething

A lot of what Johnny Football does that pisses people off so much is just stuff 21-year-olds do.
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the reasons America loves football, the most mundane is that football players have jobs in organizations reminiscent of corporate America and struggle in ways ordinary people can relate to. Anyone who was passed over for that promotion can understand the tension of a quarterback controversy, anyone with incompetent coworkers feels for the wide receiver who doesn't get balls thrown his way, anyone who's ever had a lousy day through no fault of his own grimaces in sympathy when a ball carrier gets crushed milliseconds after taking a handoff thanks to a half-assed block. We know that feel.


How are Johnny Manziel's Browns going to do this season? Beats us. Read more.

Football players are part of the same absurd capitalist machine as all of us; like us, they perform bizarrely specific tasks over and over again, occupy spaces on a complex org chart, and maintain contradictory relationships of cooperation and competition with their coworkers. Football teams fail for all sorts of reasons, but when they succeed it's often for the same boring reasons businesses succeed: stability at the top, finding employees who fit into the already existing system and culture, and doing the little things right over and over again ad nauseam.

Likewise, football players who have long, fruitful careers tend to be, well, boring. Think of Peyton Manning, who picks apart defenses with the precision and professionalism of a financial planner telling you not to buy a boat. Think of Terrell Owens, who despite his reputation as a "distraction" followed an extraordinarily strict diet and workout regimen that helped him stay in otherworldly shape well into his late 30s. The secret to success in professional sports is to believe all those gym-teacher aphorisms about working hard, practicing, and treating your body right. If many star athletes come off as squares with no room in their heads for anything but the trajectory of a ball and how to catch one, it's because extraneous thoughts can only slow them down.


Johnny Manziel seems unconcerned with such matters. He captivated the media most recently on Monday night during a preseason game against the Washington SLUR in which he played like the Browns quarterback that he is—7 for 16 through the air, nothing on the ground. What caused the commotion, however, wasn't his play, but a middle finger extended toward the Washington bench after one of his passes Clevelanded incomplete.

It was just one more data point in the unending narrative of Johnny Football: He's a gamer, he's got that fire in the belly, but he's an uncontrollable force both on and off the field. In a lengthy piece for ESPN last year, #schlongreads journalist Wright Thompson delved into what he perceived to be Manziel's fairly toxic psyche—the daddy issues, the uncontrollable rages, his sudden and jarring rise to superstar status, the new social circle of models and celebrities, the insane media bubble that College Station, Texas, became for him, and the drinking problem that hovers in the background of any story about the Heisman Trophy winner. Those things are what people refer to when they refer to Manziel's "troubles" or question whether he can "put it together." The question the media circles around is, roughly, "Can Johnny Manziel corral his talents, his anger, and his fairly clearly hinted-at substance abuse issues and get himself in the place to have a decent completion percentage?"


This is an interesting question if you're personally invested in Manziel's career (which would make you a Browns fan, I guess). But framing this as some unique, almost folk-heroic struggle between becoming an elite NFL quarterback and flaming out is pure ESPN-bred hype. A young man who sometimes drinks too much and who hasn't quite figured out how to control his emotions? A talented kid with promise who breaks etiquette and hasn't mastered the finer points of his chosen field, who often allows embarrassing photos of himself to surface on the internet and brags to anyone who will listen? This is just called "being in your twenties," and it's wholly unremarkable.

Young men are prone to puffing themselves up: Bryce Harper once blew a kiss at a pitcher, Yasiel Puig makes everyone angry by jauntily flipping his bat, Joel Embiid is publicly trying to date Rihanna, every corner in the NFL has announced himself to be the best corner in the league. Manziel's middle finger, his tough-guy posturing, his Drake-ish hand gestures—it's all just everyday twentysomething bullshit. Everyone has gotten a little too proud of themselves over the first good job they've had, everyone has sent an ill-advised snippy email or otherwise let anger take over. Plenty of people have veered into a slightly too-debauched lifestyle in or after college, too, and most of them make it to the other side OK. Manziel's coming of age is only different in that it's happening in front of millions of people who are ready to pour over his every move and turn it into a meme.

According to Washington safety Ryan Clark, what prompted that middle finger heard 'round the world in the first place was a comment along the lines of, "This isn't college anymore and people are faster than you are"—which is, incidentally, a truth Manziel will have to navigate around. He can't simply run rings around entire defenses anymore, and he's facing the added challenge that many highly touted quarterback prospects do when they end up on lousy teams. Manziel must alter his game to match the insane speed and complexity of NFL defenses, and he has to do it on a team that's trying not to fall apart.

Beyond the football stuff though, Manziel has to figure out the regular human being stuff. That means not exploding with rage when things don't go your way and not jumping for joy when they do. It means recognizing that you can't do everything but you can do some things. Sometimes it means that you figure out how to be a cog in a rather unfriendly capitalistic machine because that's the only way you can do what you love and get paid for it. Mostly, it means that you figure out how to do your job and live your life without it being a disaster or a world-historic triumph. That's admittedly harder to do when actual adults on television treat everything you do like a disaster or a world-historic triumph and you can be fined $11,000 for a routine obscene gesture, but being 21 is difficult for everyone.

Harry Cheadle is almost out of his twenties, thank God. Follow him on Twitter.