The Trouble With ESPN's Big Johnny Football StoryS

The most interesting passage in Wright Thompson's new and much-discussed profile of minor league football player Johnny Manziel comes about three-quarters of the way into the story, which is long and rich with detail, so that you could forgive a reader whose eye ran past it. At this point in the piece, Manziel's parents, Michelle and Paul, are worried because their son, whose every whim they have apparently always indulged, has just been in Toronto visiting with Drake, the sort of thing on which Michelle feels the need to pray.

"They're concerned," Thompson writes. "Paul thinks Johnny drinks to deal with the stress. After his arrest, Johnny's parents and Sumlin mandated he visit an alcohol counselor; Johnny saw him six or seven weeks during the season."

This is given little more weight than any number of other details. (The writerly details here pile up like dandruff on a shoulder). If you go by word count, it gets less emphasis than the one about how Michelle was upset that her son got a tattoo. It's strange. A 20-year-old who drinks to deal with stress, who has been arrested in a booze-related incident, who has repeatedly found himself in embarrassing scenarios at least in part due to his drinking, and who has been forced by his employer and parents to see an alcohol counselor is pretty plainly a 20-year-old with a serious drinking problem. And yet at no point during a 6,000-word meditation on the meaning of Johnny Football does ESPN's premier longform writer, who can put you on the scene as his subject quaffs in an alarming variety of places, and who will name you the precise drinks his man prefers (Crown and Sprite, Stella), write anything like this plain English sentence: Johnny Manziel is a drunk.

It's an important omission, especially when you consider the second-most interesting passage in the piece, which has to do with Johnny Football and his father, here presented as a rich failure living vicariously through a son who hates him:

Not long ago, backstage at a country music concert, the two Manziels hung out with some of Johnny's friends. There was Uncle Nate, a high school teammate named Bryan and Johnny's buddy Colton from College Station. Everyone stood around, the band warming up. Without so much as a nod, the Crotch Shot Ninjas struck: Paul punched Nate in the nuts, and, simultaneously, Johnny kicked Bryan and hit Colton, both in the balls, both at the same time, and as the three dudes doubled over and the band howled in laughter, Johnny and Paul gave each other a fist bump. Mission accomplished.

In that anecdote you can see the future of America: a rich douchebag and his jackass son kicking their flunkeys in the balls, forever. It's a nice bit of reporting that buttresses some of the other nice reporting here. A man who would do this, and raise a son who would do this, is exactly the sort who would buy all the drinks for a son who's giving every sign of having a serious drinking problem. It kind of explains Johnny Football.

This story isn't really about alcoholism or horrific one-percenter stage parenting, though, even if its subject's life is, and if those riffs had been cut, their loss wouldn't much have affected the profile's thrust. The compelling parts of this #longread, in other words, are incidental, because it is a story principally about its own studious neutrality. To say straightforwardly that Johnny Football is a drunk who was raised by an asshole would be to compromise that pose of perfect objectivity. That's why the above nutpunching episode appears as a cute anecdote about the bond between father and son. As is, some people will come away from it saying, If they don't get that kid under control, it's going to cost him in the draft, and others will say, These damn moralists won't even let a kid be a kid. Debate will have been embraced, and the piece will have done its work.

The problem with this sort of scrupulous agnosticism, though, isn't just that you end up with a narrative that doesn't quite align with its details. It's that holding up ambiguity as inherently virtuous is essentially a rejection of journalism. It puts the hardest work—the work not just of saying, I saw this, but of saying, This is what it meant—on the reader. It's a confidence trick derived from modernist fiction.

Interestingly, there's a very different story tucked away in this one's pocket. Early on, for instance, we get a scene of Johnny Football watching himself being mythologized on a screen:

All day, he watched television as people ripped or defended him. They showed the montage of his jet-set offseason: courtside seats, beaches in Cabo, rounds at Pebble Beach. The montage led inexorably back to his arrest before last season, and he got to relive that too.

This is where a certain sort of reporter might note his own piece's complicity in the mythmaking it purports to critique. He might remind us that the television station paying for the piece we're reading, one with serious financial interests in minor league football narratives, routinely shows montages of its subject's jet-set lifestyle. This same reporter likely wouldn't call Manziel the "most important student" at Texas A&M (who's third?) or, after describing a young man's life as a sequence of binary questions, suggest that "This season will bring the answer." Of course, this reporter probably wouldn't have been assigned the story in the first place.

It is, of course, possible that Manziel is the very most important of the 50,000 unique souls who attend his school, and that what he does over the course of a few football games during the months before he turns 21 will prove to be what decides whether he'll spend his life as a boy or become a man. (Thinking of things this way will certainly keep us tuning in to ESPN to see how the story plays out.) It's also possible that he's just another kid with a drinking problem and an awful family who will take a long time to figure things out, getting fussed over because there is good money to be made fussing over young men who throw footballs well. Who can say? It's all very ambiguous.

What you can say is that there really are two stories here. One is about an unfairly put-upon celebrity on the verge of a crack-up and the flawed but loving family trying their best to protect him. It's a story about good people, people worth apologizing to when their words end up on the television, trapped in the gears of the machinery of fame. The other is about the construction of that machinery, and the engineers who make it so artfully that you can fail to see it working right in front of you, and how they never question their purpose.

Photo credit: Getty