Manziel – another Namath or another Lohan?

Sally Jenkins

It’s going to be really fun to watch Johnny Hungover try to play quarterback in the NFL with nightclub-baked eyes and the shakes. Jonathan Paul Manziel appears to be engaged in a contest within a contest: Can he beat the game? Can a footloose, sleep-deprived carouser take his Saturday night attitude into the NFL and win on Sundays?

What it boils down to is whether juvenile defiance can succeed in a man’s league. Manziel insists he can chug champagne from an inflatable swan on his personal vacation time, and treat the NFL like a five-day job, and survive. “I’m not changing for anybody,” Manziel has said. He refuses to be cramped by what he obviously considers the NFL’s overly grim mold of year-round professionalism. It’s the attitude of a summer intern, who swears he’ll never wear a suit to work.

It’s impossible to predict whether Manziel will turn out to be the next Joe Namath, or the next Lindsay Lohan. But watching this war of wills, Manziel against the NFL nags, has been one of the high entertainments of summer. Does the Cleveland Browns’ first-round pick have a permanent address? In just the past week or so, we’ve seen Johnny dancing the Nae Nae on a stage in Vegas, Johnny partying with Justin Bieber and Floyd Mayweather in Beverly Hills, Johnny in a bathroom rolling a $20 bill into a shape convenient for inserting up his nose, with a plastic cup of whiskey at his elbow. Most recently, there was Johnny yet again, 600 miles from Cleveland at a Boston Red Sox game surrounded by four college cheerleaders, or Hooters waitresses, or whoever they were.

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He’s the star of more inky videos and grainy snapshots than a porn actor.

Which led him to complain recently of being unfairly dogged by social media. “I want to wake up with a week and not have my name going through something,” he said. Why, he wanted to know, isn’t he entitled to enjoy his simple weekend pleasure like other people? Presumably meaning other people who like to suck on liquor bottles while floating in a rooftop pool.

Which was a very young and stupid thing to say, unless it was just purely disingenuous. If Manziel wants a quiet week without publicity, he should try staying away from bright lights and popular bars. Which Charles Barkley busted him on. As Barkley pointed out, “Most of his pictures are selfies, and that tells me he’s just too immature to handle this fame thing right now.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Manziel’s partylogue is that, according to an ESPN report, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam only recently sent orders to Manziel to tone it down. If true, that suggests Manziel is more than immature; he also has an oppositional streak.

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“I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong,” Manziel responded to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I’m going out … I’m not doing anything that’s putting myself in a harmful situation, or jeopardizing what I do here through the week, or what I’m looking forward to doing this season.”

Namath managed to pull off that act because he was an immediate All-Star as an AFL rookie, and “the most beautiful, accurate, stylish passer with the quickest release I’ve ever seen,” according to Bill Walsh. Also, it was a more indulgent and colorful era in some ways, with a lot less corporate money at stake.

Manziel has yet to throw a pass as a professional; unlike Namath he hasn’t proved he can burn the candle and win at the same time. He is 23, and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Among the things he doesn’t know is how the NFL changes guys against their will – how quickly it can ruin youth, and illusions of self-determination, and how badly it can crush joints, or damage brains. He doesn’t know how few players learn to use the league, without being used up by it.

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Browns training camp begins July 26 – and that’s when the real trouble may start for Manziel, because football will become a far more grinding pursuit for him. Manziel is a joyful competitor who continually refers to the game as “fun.” But life in the NFL is only occasionally fun; mostly it’s a soul-deadening, body-destroying exercise, in which the competitors grind away at mundane details and overwork is a constant danger and players have to conserve their physical and mental resources the way a miser hides money under the mattress.

Some of Manziel’s critics are not just media commentators or scolds demanding he conform for the sake of image. They are people who know more than he does about what it takes to be a pro. Emmitt Smith recently said in a radio interview that Manziel has to decide who he wants to be, because “The candle gets small fairly quick.”

In college, Manziel’s immaturity was a perfectly natural state. He played the game like a kid: He romped, and that was what made him so much fun. But the NFL demands maturity from an NFL quarterback for a good reason, and not just the physical or mental kind, but what’s known as “social maturity.” Psychologists define it as the ability to look beyond yourself and your own wants to the welfare of others, and it’s the crucial element in leadership. Good NFL quarterbacks don’t care about self-presentation for the sake of conformity, or image. They care so that teammates will trust and follow them.

Manziel doesn’t yet understand the extent to which an NFL quarterback’s behavior can affect the livelihoods of those around him, his teammates’ contracts, their incentive clauses, not to mention the executives who risked drafting him. He doesn’t get the interconnectedness of his performance, that it was one thing to spend his own time and talent the way he wanted to as a college boy, but the perception is growing that he’s willing to squander the professional efforts of others. It’s an unforgiving league in that way.

Without social maturity, Manziel won’t be an NFL quarterback. He’ll just be a wastrel. And then it won’t be a problem where he drinks, because no one will want the picture. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and one of the things he doesn’t know is how quickly people will stop caring about him.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at