TW: This article discusses instances of domestic violence.
NFL character rehabilitation is a funny thing. At the tail end of his Cleveland Browns tenure, marked by persistent off-field run-ins, quarterback Johnny Manziel was reportedly considered by the Dallas Cowboys. When allegations surfaced that he had hit his ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley so hard that she sustained a ruptured eardrum, the interest predictably dissipated. Until Manziel sought treatment, he was untouchable (Sports Illustrated, “The Fall of Johnny Football,” 03.15.16).
Apparently, the standard for employment in the NFL is “seeking treatment,” even when it comes to violence and abuse. That said, Manziel will likely not be free to play in the early part of the season if signed by an NFL team. Players now get suspended for off-the-field violent transgressions, a recent development that took hold in the fallout from the Ray Rice incident of 2014.
But Manziel knows what he has to say now: Treatment, treatment, treatment. He’s making an effort to do the right thing. And in an important sense, he is doing the right thing. Being able to recognize one’s own need for treatment is a crucial step in tackling substance abuse, of which the quarterback has a well-documented history. But when a celebrity pronounces their humility before the disease, the media assumes that declaration as one of only good will and good tidings. In sports, this hopeful narrative is further imbued with optimism by the imperative to see great athletes compete and to have triumphant stories take shape.
A Manziel comeback would captivate a new height. The speedy quarterback burst onto the scene at Texas A&M as an underclassmen with exceptional talent and a penchant for the dramatic. It wasn’t a rarity to see Johnny escape two or three defensive linemen before launching a long successful pass into the opponent’s secondary. “Johnny Football” was a shooting star, and his “show me the money” gesture was all the rage.
For this kind of spectacle to become viable in the NFL would be a media windfall. In fact, even if Manziel only achieves a backup quarterback status, his every move will nonetheless be chronicled.
Yet, there is a problem with this sports media narrativizing. It skips important steps of the rehabilitation process: recognizing and taking responsibility, making amends, demonstrating an understanding of gravity, and finally taking action to prevent negatively affecting others.
Unfortunately, the normative, sports-world comeback narrative really obscures this whole aspect of substance-abuse rehabilitation. The focus, as anticipated, has been entirely on whether or not Manziel can make the NFL, whether he can overcome his shortcomings.
Colleen Crowley dated Manziel for years. They met in college, and she was present with him throughout a good deal of his sudden rise to national celebrity status. As Manziel’s career crumbled, Crowley began to take the brunt of his abuse. On one particular night in January 2016, Manziel struck her head with an open hand, threw her by her hair into the back of his car and drove her to her apartment. According to Crowley, he then threatened kill them both, while laughing and crying simultaneously (New York Post, “Johnny Manziel’s ex: ‘I was lucky to have survived,’” 03.03.2018).
In a close look at Manziel’s life since the NFL, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert only sees fit to document December 2016, when Manziel reached an agreement on the domestic abuse charges mandating his admittance to a treatment program (ESPN, “821 Days and Counting: Johnny Manziel’s time away from the NFL, 03.37.2018).
Despite Crowley’s harrowing account of his behavior, the story of Johnny Manziel presented by the media will evidently continue to be about his personal trials and travails. The effect of this is that any actions he has committed with consequences for others are essentially reinscribed as personal to him. They become a unilateral experience with no important ramifications for anyone else. Crowley contests this narrative vehemently, but it remains to be seen whether her voice will be enough to match the obstinate cognitive dissonance of the sports media.