Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Johnny Manziel will get the start for Cleveland against the 49ers on Sunday, and the job is his for the remainder of the season if he can hang on to it. Of course, that’s what we thought three weeks ago, before some bye-week partying put him back on the bench.

Head coach Mike Pettine said today the team didn’t realize just how much Manziel’s drinking would affect the Browns when they made the call to draft him.

“You see the reputation, what was out there,” he said of pre-draft analysis. “I don’t think we anticipated that his problems, his issues, how deep-rooted they were, the extent of it.”


Everyone wants to dance around what those problems are—Pettine can’t even bring himself to say “alcohol” or “drinking”—because alcoholism is a medical diagnosis and one that Manziel hasn’t publicly acknowledged. But that’s what we’re all talking about here. He’s gone to counseling for alcohol and anger issues (and did so before he went pro). He’s gone to rehab. His father says he uses alcohol to deal with stress. He lied about his drinking, and told his friends to lie about it. He’s let drinking interfere with his work. These are signs of alcohol dependence.

Now, it can be tough to tell the difference between a budding alcoholic and a hard-partying college student. (And that’s if you don’t consider college binge drinking a form of functional alcoholism in itself.) But the reason those in and around sports have tiptoed around putting a label on Manziel’s issues is because most of society still considers alcoholism a failing of both morals and willpower, even if, intellectually, we know it’s an addiction and formally a mental health disorder.

This society-wide failure to acknowledge alcoholism as a disease—a failure birthed at some nexus of our puritanical roots, our uncommon-sense policies toward substance abuse, and general deficiencies in mental health awareness—is what makes Manziel’s very real problems something that can’t be spoken of in polite company. It led the Browns to delude themselves about the impact of Manziel’s off-field choices, it leads fans and media to treat it as a running joke, and it leads the league to have no infrastructure in place to help him deal with those issues.


The Browns’ only tactic is a public threat: get caught drinking again and you’re done.

“If something were to occur, I imagine the repercussions would be harsh,” Pettine said.


I don’t know what the answer is here. Addiction can be pernicious and overwhelming and sometimes simply can’t be treated or counseled away. I do know the answer almost certainly isn’t to repeatedly order Manziel not to relapse, expect him to comply, waive him if he does it one too many times to countenance ... and then watch as he ends up with the Cowboys. “Getting tough”—one more strike and you’re out—is a ludicrous and objectively ineffective way of dealing with an employee’s substance abuse. A good start would be for the Browns and observers to acknowledge that Manziel isn’t doing something wrong when he’s off the wagon—and that he’s not automatically healthy when he’s on it.

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