What Johnny Manziel is guilty of is playing the wrong sport on the wrong day of the week.
If the Texas A&M quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner were playing on Sundays in the National Football League, instead of Saturdays in the Southeastern Conference, no one would care if he got paid to put pen to pieces of memorabilia.
The same would be true if he were playing minor league hockey or baseball, instead of minor league football — that’s what major college football really is, a free feeder system for the NFL.
The Internet went into overdrive after an ESPN report last week that an East Coast autograph broker said that he paid Manziel $7,500 to sign helmets back in January. If Manziel’s alleged QB sneak is true it would be a violation of NCAA rules and Johnny Football, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, would be Johnny Ineligible.
This is the fun house mirror-warped reality of big-time college sports, where indentured athletic servitude masquerades as higher education. Indentured servants were provided with housing, clothing, food, and occasionally education, in return for working to make someone else a profit for a contracted period of time. That sounds like a college football scholarship to me.
It’s time for the NCAA to stop hiding behind the sham of amateurism and stop placing the burden of maintaining an untenable system on the very student-athletes it exploits. A stipend system to compensate athletes is a solution rife with logistical problems, but there is nothing stopping the NCAA from allowing a player like Manziel to profit from signing his own name.
In the current system, it’s acceptable for the NCAA, which until last week was selling Manziel’s nameless jersey online, Texas A&M, and even ESPN to market and profit from Manziel. But it’s sacrilege for Manziel to do the same.
That violates the idyllic notion of amateur athletics that remains the intellectual foundation of the NCAA’s self-serving and sanctimonious concept of having “student-athletes” playing its sports.
The NCAA originally came up with the term student-athlete in part to avoid liability in workers’ compensation cases for football players, according to an excellent explanatory piece by Taylor Branch in The Atlantic Magazine in 2011.
It was never conceived as an apogee of amateurism. It was designed to save money.
There are true student-athletes playing football in the Ivy League and the New England Small College Athletic Conference, where sports is put in the proper perspective relative to the college experience.
But in the Bowl Championship Series there are only athlete-students, who produce a lucrative product at a low rate.
College football is a booming industry, just look at some of the television contracts that conferences are getting or the seismic shifts in college conference realignment, which were driven by Football Almighty and the almighty dollar.
The newly formed and comically named College Football Playoff (Really Important College Football Games, as I call it) garnered a television contract from ESPN worth $470 million per year over 12 years.
According to the latest Harris Poll, conducted last December, college football ranks as the third-most popular sport in America, behind the NFL and major league baseball.
Schools profit from this popularity. In May, Texas A&M announced plans for a $450 million expansion of its stadium, Kyle Field. Coaches profit from it. University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban has a contract that will pay him more than $5.6 million per year.
But if Manziel gets $7,500 for autographs it’s triggering the fall of Western civilization.
Those who crow about the fact that scholarship college athletes are compensated with a free education, usually neglect to point out that scholarships are non-binding for schools and coaches.
It is at the discretion of the coach and school on a yearly basis whether a scholarship is renewed. The player has no say. Running off a few players to create space for more talented ones happens, particularly in college basketball.
Manziel would be better off being an undrafted, rookie NFL quarterback than the best player and face of the billion-industry that is college football.
The NFL minimum salary for a player with no credited seasons of service is $405,000.
Manziel is far more recognizable and valuable — both on the field and off it — than the potential 53d man on an NFL roster. He knows it. The NCAA knows it.
Manziel is not without fault, if he solicited payment for signing memorabilia. By media accounts, Manziel is cocky, petulant, and struggling to cope with the fishbowl life of fame.
He knew the rules, as unfair as they may be. If he violated them then he will have to accept the consequences. (If Manziel is ineligible one of the players who could replace him is Kenny Hill, son of former major league pitcher and Lynn native Ken Hill.)
But I would say the NCAA’s priorities in policing the actions of student-athletes are misplaced.
Manziel would be ineligible for getting paid for his John Hancock. But LSU running back Jeremy Hill, who, while already on probation, punched a man from behind in the back of the head in the parking lot of a bar in April, is cleared to play.
Hill got probation after he pleaded guilty in 2012 to a misdemeanor charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile, stemming from a 2010 incident with a 14-year-old high school classmate. In the fight case, he pleaded guilty to simple battery, but the judge merely extended Hill’s probation.
LSU reinstated Hill, the team’s leading rusher last season, hours later.
This is the hypocrisy and bureaucracy of the NCAA.
Viciously punching people in the head doesn’t threaten a player’s eligibility, but attaching dollar signs to signing your own name is a crime.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.