LOS ANGELES -- At first I didn't see the hand sticking out from under the table. All I saw was Tajh Boyd in his New York Jets uniform bent over with one of our microphones pointed at the ground. Then I noticed the pale limb jutting out from under the table skirt where, minutes before, three rookies from the Cleveland Browns sat signing football cards and other memorabilia as part of the NFLPA Rookie Premiere.
I asked because I needed confirmation.
"Who do you think?" was the reply I got.
I probably should've known.
Boyd is literally talking to Manziel's hand https://t.co/Py3LfYo83S— ryan van bibber (@justRVB) May 31, 2014
All Saturday morning, Johnny Manziel did his best to hide from everyone on the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. We saw him around 8:00 a.m. for the group photo. He then ducked back into the locker room while the rest of the 42 rookies went about the rotations, having their pictures taken for sports cards and signing things for the handful of partners participating in the 20th anniversary of the union's rookie retreat.
He looked to be carrying a considerable burden from the night before. That was our first interaction with Manziel for the weekend. It was my first encounter with Mr. Football, period.
Prior to that, Johnny Manziel, for me, was just another quarterback represented by semi-anonymous scouting reports and a lightning rod for hot takes. His talent was undeniable, but those of us on the NFL side of the world wondered how his unorthodox style of play would translate to a sport where orthodoxy is valued even at the expense of success. I never did quite understand what made him a target for the Ron Jaworskis and Skip Baylesses of the world.
I still don't know the specifics of what made Manziel public enemy No. 1 to the old timers in the media. I just figured that it was the business model, the conventional way to keep a bankable star in the news. It probably was, and still is, to a large extent. But I suspect, based on my own experience, that there's something else at play when it comes to Johnny Football and his relationship with the media.
Professional football is a game enjoyed by millions of people. It's enjoyed by mass audiences because it's delivered to them via live television. And because it's delivered by live television it's become a massive enterprise, packaged and controlled by a billion dollar entertainment corporation.
The players are actors, with varying levels of celebrity status. Because this is a business with mass appeal, there's an understanding between the product and the media about access. Bill Belichick may not like to talk to reporters, but he's required to at least grunt out a few monosyllabic answers. Roger Goodell may be the most well-polished talking point machine in America, but he at least makes himself regularly available for us to collect those talking points. Celebrity players can carefully manage their brand all they want, but most of them know they need the media to do that.
On the flip side of that, every TMZ ambush at the airport or 22 minutes of "First Take" on Johnny's trip to Vegas makes it that much harder for the rest of us in the media to do our jobs. But we keep trying anyway, sticking to our side of the unwritten bargain.
When a player or someone else doesn't uphold their end, it irks people because it denies them an opportunity to do their work.
Manziel's been hounded by the media for a long time now. It's made him pretty savvy in his dealings with it. He bemoaned signing things in cover stories for "Sports Illustrated" and "ESPN the Magazine" right before news of his autograph scandal broke. Texas A&M kept him away from the press until he had a shot at the Heisman, at which point he spoke up and charmed everyone. It was a similar scene at last year's SEC media days -- recounted here by Spencer Hall -- which happened not long after the Manning Passing Academy incident.
I thought about that during my second encounter with Manziel on Saturday. Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron was interviewing his fellow rookies for our production. He found Manziel and Mike Evans sitting in one of the tents along the field. Before Ebron could ask a few jovial, non-threatening questions of the Browns rookie quarterback, we were chased away by one of Manziel's handlers.
We asked why Ebron and the rest of us had to stop taping Manziel and move along.
That's all we got for an explanation.
Shut down! https://t.co/zzyBaC9juI— ryan van bibber (@justRVB) May 31, 2014
Rubbed the wrong way, I'm still pulling for Johnny Manziel to find success in the NFL. The way he plays the game makes him fun to watch, and the NFL desperately needs more fun to break up up the structured monotony that naturally comes with being a multi-billion dollar international entertainment corporation.
It would be easy to crank out a sermon about a player who's yet to take a snap in an NFL game closing himself off from the media. But the truth is it would still be bad form for an established star to do the same thing.
Manziel's marketing team (the same outfit that handles LeBron James) does a great job for its client. His brand's going to take a hit if he's so tightly managed that one of his fellow players has to settle for a hand under the table. Hamburger commercials and shoe ads will not change the absurd narrative defining the superstar rookie.