Keeping Score

Johnny Manziel “Suspension” Is The World’s Most Confusing Punishment

The defending Heisman champ received no money for his autograph, according to the NCAA and Texas A&M. Then why is he being suspended at all? The answer might make your head hurt

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Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Johnny Manziel at a game on April 13, 2013 in College Station, Texas.

The NCAA has unfortunate rules. One of them does not allow a player like Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the defending Heisman trophy champion whose football team delivered $52 million in revenue to his school over this past year–thanks in large part to his astounding ability–to accept money from people who want to give it to him. In early August, ESPN reported that Manziel signed autographs for money, a clear violation of NCAA regulations. An outcry followed, not because most fans and commentators were upset that Manziel “cheated.” No, they wondered, “what the hell is wrong with accepting cash for your autograph?” We should all be so lucky, to have people want to pay us for scribbled ink.

So when word came down that Manziel would be suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s opening game against Rice on Saturday, forgive me for thinking, for a second, that at least the punishment fit the crime. It was almost a tacit admission: we know this rule is kind of ridiculous, so we’ll give him a ridiculous penalty. Wait: make that “penalty.” Because a punishment that involves sitting out the first half against an inferior opponent – and addressing his team about the lessons he learned, like a fourth grader — deserves sarcastic quote marks.

But then you start to think a little more. Well, if violating a rule has such little consequences, why have the rule in the first place? Then, you read the joint NCAA-Texas A&M statement explaining the penalty: “Texas A&M University and the NCAA confirmed today that there is no evidence that quarterback Johnny Manziel received money in exchange for autographs, based on currently available information and statements by Manziel.”

Let’s all scream together. “THEN WHY ARE YOU SUSPENDING HIM AT ALL?”

(MORE: Johnny Manziel Could Change The NFL’s Rules Forever)

The next sentence says that Manziel committed an “inadvertent violation.” Huh? If whatever Manziel did was “inadvertent,” why slap his wrist in the first place? Anyway…so what did Manziel accidentally do? Searching, searching … the statement doesn’t say. So much for basic transparency.

Look beyond the statement, however, and you’ll learn that an NCAA spokesperson confirmed to ESPN that Manziel violated NCAA bylaw The rule says, in part, that a college athlete is ruled ineligible if he or she “accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”  Manziel did not “accept any numeration for” his autograph, according to the NCAA and Texas A&M. So, he’s being punished for “permitting” someone else to sell his name.

Texas A&M, its football coaches, its athletic department, the television networks, and so many others already profit off of Manziel. At the same time, if Manziel inadvertently permits another person to profit off his name, he gets punished. And how, exactly, do you inadvertently offer someone permission to do something? Stubbing my toe: that’s inadvertent, that’s an accident. Letting someone enter my office, or drive my car, or sell my autograph: these may be things I regret. But they’re not accidents.

“Student-athletes are often asked for autographs from fans, but unfortunately, some individuals’ sole motivation in seeking an autograph is for resale,” said NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs Kevin Lennon in the statement. “It is important that schools are cognizant and educate student-athletes about situations in which there is a strong likelihood that the autograph seeker plans to resell the items.”

So not only is a “student-athlete” prohibited from profiting off his autograph. He must also police others who are trying to profit off his autograph. Are football players supposed to scan the crowd while signing stuff after a game, and try to figure out who is going to resell it on eBay? Hey, look at that kid: I just signed his hat, and he just ran it over to his father. Dad looks a bit too happy to have that signature. I bet you he’s going to resell it. Call the NCAA!

The NCAA’s enforcement apparatus is in such disarray, and is so toothless, that there’s little reason to trust that Manziel actually received nothing for his signature. The NCAA even left a little room to change its mind. “If additional information comes to light,” read the joint statement, “the NCAA will review and consider if further action is appropriate.”

Uh oh. Manziel’s status for A&M’s clash with mighty Sam Houston St., next Saturday, is clearly in jeopardy. At least for a few possessions.

(MORE: Today In NCAA Injustice: A Grieving Player Is Benched)