We are all Johnny Football.
I could hear your indignation as you read that, but let me explain.
First, I am a former professional football coach who has seen the game at three levels – high school, college and the National Football League. And I currently teach a university class that includes most of the freshmen student-athletes. In that class, I preach the same thing that I once preached to players at the professional level: personal responsibility.
Johnny Manziel was recently indicted on domestic violence charges, and let me be clear, if Manziel is found guilty of the misdemeanor assault charge that was just levied by a Dallas grand jury, then he deserves the full weight of the law.
But this unfortunate saga is like a Greek tragedy that we have witnessed before. If Manziel plays the role of Icarus (who didn’t heed his father’s warning) and the Earth represents reality, then we – the fans of this sport – are the sun.
We have created a toxic environment that strips premiere athletes of perspective and accountability. We want our touchdowns, and we want them now. We crave wins and despise loses. What we have deemed soft skills, the ability to cope with adversity, empathize and lead with integrity, is now second on our depth chart for life.
Consider this: Of the 10 largest stadiums in the world, eight are American college football stadiums. The combined capacity of those stadiums stands at roughly 830,000. Rest assured, we will top the 1 million mark as rival schools continue to double down in the infinite game of “construction dare.” And the schools have the money to do it – the 128 teams of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) have a combined value of $20 billion.
These holy sites serve as a home to our irrational exuberance. Unfortunately, they are also the trading floor for lucrative capital markets also known as college football.
According to the NCAA, 52 percent of the young men who play college football believe they will reach a professional roster. The stark reality is that 1.6 percent of them will make it. And before we make a collective nod of disapproval, a study conducted by Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 26 percent of all parents hope their children become professional athletes.
Now, combine that anticipation with the college football recruiting process and the result is a tropical storm of delusion. Just last year Rivals.com took the unprecedented step of posting the profiles of sixth-graders. The quest to herd the nation’s most talented players onto the football rosters of premiere college teams has created a race to the bottom.
Even some coaches are playing a part. College coaches are flying helicopters over target high schools (Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M), climbing trees and inviting themselves over for sleepovers (Jim Harbaugh of Michigan). While players are eviscerated for dancing in the end zone, their head coaches “dab” in locker rooms, fully aware that the team’s social media coordinator will promptly post the content on social media. After all, “hip” coaches are good for business.
We should not be surprised when a system that crowned its first freshman Heisman Trophy winner at the age of 20 falls from grace. In a society that pays more attention to falling 40-yard dash times than rising SAT scores, it is time for us to encourage athletes to create an identity outside of their sport. The truth of the matter is that at some point, the ball will go flat for every player. And when it does, he will be left to pick up the pieces.
Manziel released a statement after being indicted saying, “I’m hoping to take care of the issues in front of me right now, so I can focus on what I have to do if I want to play in 2016.”
Unfortunately for Johnny Football and the rest of us, the delusion continues.
Daron K. Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spent seven years as an NFL and college football coach.
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