African wild dogs are amazing hunters, among the most efficient anywhere in the world. They usually work in packs of six to 20 to feed, covering long distances and going as fast as 35 miles per hour. Watching the teamwork, and the inevitability, makes you feel bad for the chased. The prey rarely gets away. It is particularly hard to watch when the hungry, unrelenting dogs pursue buffalo herds, creating a frenzy that separates mothers that can protect themselves away from panicked babies that can’t.
Which brings us to what we are presently doing with Johnny Manziel, the pimple-faced amateur we have managed to pull away from the protection of the pack.
Are we going to devour him? Or is he going to figure out a way to survive the insatiable gluttony that now engulfs sports and fame?
Before we moved on recently to chase the bigger buffalo (Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Racist Receiver), we spent a slow, dry summer trying to fatten up on Manziel. This is a new time, and this is a new media, and this is a new kind of hunt, an evolution that allows us to keep feeding as traditional journalism starves a little more every day. There are more hungry voices than ever, so a kid coming off his freshman season at a tumbleweed school will have to pass as nutrition, even though we’ve never consumed anything quite like this before.
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But he needs to expect scrutiny because he won the Heisman Trophy, you say?
We didn’t cover Archie Griffin this way, and he won two of them.
Manziel’s problem hasn’t been Southeastern Conference media day; his problem has been weekends. He drinks and could have attitude! Or maybe he’s just 20. Regardless, glamour-position A.J. McCarron, the returning champion at Alabama, isn’t covered this way, followed to frat parties. We don’t care if Jadeveon Clowney, consensus best player in college football, has sparklers in his mouth at the club. And we’ve never once cared how any of the pro quarterbacks have behaved while volunteering at Peyton Manning’s quarterback camp.
So we aren’t even merely covering an amateur like a pro here.
We’re covering him like a celebrity.
Tiger Woods didn’t change; the rules did. And he rather literally got caught with his pants down at the exact moment we were changing them, the #Kardashian Generation making privates public. That’s not something we did to Tiger’s teachers, friends such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, both of whom Woods has run out of his life since his marriage ended in scandal.
Tiger should have known better? Maybe. But how could he? These kind of indiscretions are not something we fed on in sports before we fed on him. His surprise had to be about the same as the one experienced by the dead polar bears who learned rather suddenly that things had gotten so desperate among the other starving polar bears that they had decided to turn to cannibalism.
We chronicled illegalities as news in the fun-and-games department, but a college kid’s possible immoralities? This isn’t politics. Covering immoralities in this arena is about as absurd as having private investigators follow the circus clowns after they’ve left the tent. But we are so insatiable that crawling into the athlete’s bedroom isn’t even quite enough. Now we are rummaging through a college kid’s liquor cabinet.
We’ve begun the build-’em-up-tear-’em-down earlier than we usually do with Manziel. SEC football keeps getting bigger, and sports in general keep getting bigger, and media keeps getting bigger, and our appetite for gossip/information keeps getting bigger … and none of that can possibly result in anything other than fairness getting smaller.
We don’t care that you are a kid, kid. We’ll rationalize it away by saying, hey, you are old enough to fight in a war, and we kind of covered LeBron James this way in high school, as if a previous wrong forgives this one. Truth is, we didn’t cover James quite this way. He was never on ESPN being interrogated about a a possible hangover. We celebrated him similarly at a young age, but we didn’t chase and bite like African wild dogs.
We, as a group, the fans and the media, aren’t as great at examining our own misbehavior as we are at castigating athlete misbehavior. For example, one of the great sins in the cathedral we’ve made of sports is entitlement. We don’t like the athletes who behave entitled. But we, fans and media, are more entitled than we’ve ever been. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have given us glimpses at athletes we didn’t have before, but we aren’t satisfied that they’ve chosen to show us more. No, that just makes us crave what the athletes don’t want us to see.
Manziel is great in front of the cameras when interviewed. And you know how great he is in front of Saturday’s cameras. Once upon a time, that would have been enough, and an amazing mythology would have grown from there. But we are closer than we’ve ever been now, for better and for worse, so it is the other cameras that are problematic, the ones that follow The Social-Media Athlete as he walks through this new world, waiting for him to trip.
And it is probably worth noting that he’s about the same age as fame-soaked Justin Bieber, recently caught on camera spitting from a balcony on his fans.
Our choices don’t seem good ones up there.
Either we chew him up.
Or he grows into something that learns to fear and hate us.