The Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M is quite a place. It's a testament to the nothing-is-too-good-for-our-kids philosophy of college architecture -- glass, stone and steel, with luxurious sitting rooms and restaurants and whatever else you might need to escape the infernal College Station heat.
There's a little social commentary going on inside the official student bookstore, too. It's evident from the moment you walk through the door that one sport -- and one young man -- runs the show. The most prominent clothing items are "No Heisman without the MAN" T-shirts and "Heisman Football" T-shirts and No. 2 jerseys and No. 2 T-shirts and No. 2 baseball caps. It's all very careful: no direct reference to Johnny Manziel and no mention of "Johnny Football," the nickname Manziel has attempted to protect -- and eventually monetize -- through copyright.
I walked through the bookstore on a quiet and hot June afternoon a couple of weeks ago, and I thought about it again when I read the uproar over the ridiculously minuscule controversy regarding Manziel's ill-advised tweet after a parking ticket last weekend. And then I thought about it again when reading about the upcoming decision in what has become known as the O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA, which could change the dynamics of far more than the racks at the Texas A&M bookstore.
The overriding perception of tremendous young athletes has always been confusing. A 19-year-old can design a T-shirt or a computer game that sells millions and we call him a prodigy, an entrepreneur. We celebrate his ingenuity and his wealth. But a 20-year-old whose college football jersey sells millions isn't entitled to that money, or to the money generated by his talent on game day. And if he points out the unfairness of this relationship in any way, he is labeled an ingrate for not understanding the value of his college education. It simply doesn't matter that his school is probably selling enough individually branded gear -- however obtuse the presentation -- in a week to pay for his scholarship several times over.
(Texas A&M working with Manziel to help copyright the Johnny Football deal is not a coincidence. In part because of the O'Bannon lawsuit, the timing is significant -- it's a dicey time for an NCAA institution to go after a Heisman Trophy winner who has been a human ATM for the school and the NCAA.)
For decades, the NCAA has done a remarkable job of public relations. The NCAA powers that be know we all look back fondly on the days when we were playing games, and that sentiment is a powerful influence when it comes to old guys deciding who should get what and who should just shut up about it already.
It's easy to draw a connecting line from the bookstore to the parking ticket to the tweet in which Manziel expresses his disgust for College Station and a desire to leave "whenever it may be." Without the Heisman and the adulation, of course, nobody would care. The idolatry creates something you can't just un-create. Just as obviously, Manziel's mistake was a technology issue. It used to be that college-age kids complained to their friends or parents when they were unhappy about something. Overreaction is part of the deal. Now, though, with social media providing an instant connection to the world, even the most insignificant complaints end up as headlines.
If you felt you received a bogus parking ticket on campus 20 years ago and told your roommates, "I can't wait to get out of this place," they probably would have nodded and gone about their business. No big deal, even if you had a Heisman on your mantel and a store full of shirts bearing your number.
Is Manziel immature? It seems like it. Should he, and every other high-profile athlete, be judicious about using social media to voice petty concerns? Definitely, if only to avoid having to explain his way out of something insignificant.
But Manziel's momentary displeasure with his surroundings -- spurred, it must be noted, by his decision to park his Mercedes, which has windows tinted too darkly, pointing the wrong direction -- brings up an uncomfortable truth: Athletes at Manziel's level are just doing time in college, wherever that may be, on their way to something better. You might get all misty-eyed when the band plays the alma mater after a big win, but these guys don't. Just because it was the best years of your life doesn't mean it's the best of theirs.
That's the crux of the O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit, which aims to give current and former players a cut of media revenue and other merchandise -- A&M No. 2 jerseys, for example. It raises a multitude of important questions, and here's one related to Manziel: If college athletes were paid, would a player such as Manziel -- a college hero with a questionable NFL future -- be more inclined to stay in school through four years of eligibility? Would the NCAA, in effect, become a short-term competitor for the NFL?
USC athletic director Pat Haden, an attorney in addition to being a former player and Rhodes scholar, has warned the NCAA not to take the suit lightly. If successful, he said, it could cause seismic change.
Good. From the botched Miami investigation to the unfair transfer rules to the outrageous coach salaries, serious tectonic movement is a hell of an idea. It's a concept we should all embrace.
Predictably, the doomsday scenarios are being trotted out. Big Ten president Jim Delany says it wouldn't be out of the question for the conference to adopt a Division III, nonscholarship model if college players gain financial control over their likeness and performance.
It feels like an outrageous suggestion -- mostly because it is -- but there's another way to look at it: If the lawsuit goes forward, and the players win, there might be no need for scholarships. One thing is for sure: Judging by the clothes hanging in the A&M bookstore, Johnny Manziel wouldn't need one.