Over the past year, as he went from unknown to Heisman Trophy winner to one of the biggest figures in sports, Johnny Manziel embodied the modern athlete better than anyone in one respect: cultivating an image.
He was Johnny Football, full of swagger and improvisation and don’t-give-a-damn, and even as the walls of fame caved in on him, it was the thing he protected more fiercely than anything. This was him. America would consume him as he saw fit. They could take his privacy, but they couldn’t take away who he is.
Such is the irony of the latest news in Manziel’s circuitous career as quarterback at Texas A&M: It’s his image, literally, that may be his downfall. It’s his likeness being turned on him because of what he chose to sign, perhaps for money.
“A picture,” Desmond Howard said. “A picture of himself.”
Twenty-two years ago, Howard won the Heisman Trophy while a senior at Michigan. He did so by promoting and cementing his own image by striking the Heisman pose following an electrifying touchdown, a moment captured with one snapshot that stands among the most iconic pictures in college football history.
Like the signed pictures of Manziel that may have run afoul of NCAA rules and has prompted an investigation, Howard too is embroiled in a dispute over a picture of him – a picture that has cost him tens of thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit against him and has led him to the brink of action.
Howard told Yahoo! Sports he is considering attaching his name to the O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit that is challenging long-held NCAA business practice.
“I’m seriously contemplating it,” he said.
Under current rules, the NCAA owns a player’s likeness in perpetuity. The O’Bannon case looks, among other things, to overturn that rule and has the capability of significantly altering the way college sports operate. Howard would become the highest-profile former college football player to support the case and would be additionally notable because of his current role as an ESPN broadcaster, where he must continue work inside NCAA football.
That may be something worth dealing with.
And while the suit may not be enough to save Johnny Manziel, it would ensure that going forward a player would maintain, as he should, a modicum of control over his image.