Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) watches from the sidelines in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 14, 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by Tony Dejak/AP

Could the Johnny Manziel mess have been avoided?


The indictment of former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel on domestic violence charges Tuesday has perhaps put a final nail in the coffin of the controversial star’s football career and also reopened conversations about whether the NFL is complicit in his downfall.

Manziel’s troubles may have been apparent before he was even drafted — and now that he is being linked to an issue that dogged the NFL for much of 2014-2015 season, there have been calls for the league to take action on par with their eventual indefinite suspension of former running back Ray Rice. That disciplinary action came after Rice’s high-profile domestic abuse incident two years ago, although the decision was later overturned on appeal.

“If he signs with a club, he would be subject to all aspects of the NFL’s personal conduct policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told MSNBC on Tuesday. And yet, even if the man The New York Times has dubbed the sports world’s Lindsay Lohan” isn’t currently under the league’s jurisdiction, there are plenty of critics who are wondering why his former team and the NFL didn’t intervene sooner.

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After all, the incident in question, which led to his indictment, occurred in January, when Manziel was still on the Browns’ roster. In her affidavit requesting a protective order against the now 23-year-old quarterback, his ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley alleged that he beat her, restrained her, and at one point told her, “Shut up or I’ll kill us both.” Crowley also claimed to have suffered hearing loss in one ear as a result of a blow from the NFL star. Manziel was not arrested by law enforcement authorities or punished by the NFL in connection to the allegations.

Last October, Manziel and Crowley were involved in another domestic dispute, this one allegedly following a round of heavy drinking. There were reports that the quarterback struck Crowley repeatedly, and photos later surfaced of her scratched arm after the confrontation went viral. This incident was partially captured on dash cam video, after police stopped Manziel, who was allegedly swerving on the road. The NFL independently investigated the incident and determined that Manziel’s actions did not warrant suspension. Crowley also didn’t press charges at the time.

“I think the pictures of what we saw of what he did to Ms. Crowley are evidence that something happened,” Ruth Glenn, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence told MSNBC on Tuesday. “I would hope that no NFL team would want to be a part of that.”

Glenn, who is an avid football fan herself, still wants to believe the NFL will follow through on commitments they made over a year ago to upgrade their response to and awareness of issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, but she has also been frustrated by the lack of action from the Cleveland Browns and the league when it comes to Manziel.

“It is concerning when any large or influential cultural organization like the NFL is not more proactive in addressing bad behavior,” said Glenn. “The Browns also have been really quiet and I find that surprising.”

MSNBC asked the Cleveland Browns if they had an official reaction regarding the Manziel indictment, and they said they did not. They cut the embattled quarterback from their team last month after selecting him late in the first round of the NFL draft in 2014. They have long maintained that only the league had the authority to suspend Manziel for his off-the-field behavior. The Browns could have cut him from the team, of course, but they risked losing millions in the process.

“In a perfect world, you want every player to be the perfect leader and the perfect guy, right?” Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam said last month at a league owner’s meeting, according to ESPN. “But it is real life, and these are young, young players. I think, we wish the best for Johnny and [that] he develops into the man he needs to be.”

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Manziel’s brief NFL career saw his less-than-inspiring performances on the field routinely overshadowed by controversies off it — whether it be allegations that he showed up to practices late, and in at least one case drunk, or an alleged assault on an overzealous fan by him and his entourage. Manziel was fined for various infractions, and even did a stint in rehab, but his reputation as the league’s enfant terrible was perhaps cemented last November, when he lost his QB starting position after he was caught lying to his team about footage of him partying in Austin, Texas. Not one, but two agents have come and gone, he’s lost an endorsement deal with Nike and his own father has publicly pleaded with his son to seek treatment for addiction.

“I truly believe if they can’t get him help, he won’t live to see his 24th birthday,” Paul Manziel told The Dallas Morning News in February. 

And although there has been buzz that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been interested in procuring his services, he currently is without a home in the NFL. Still, just prior to his indictment, Manziel insisted that he still wants to play pro football this upcoming season and his attorney Jim Darnell released a statement Tuesday that said in part that he “will certainly plead ‘not guilty’ and we believe the evidence will support that plea.”

We do, however, believe that Johnny will be acquitted at the conclusion of the case,” he added. But even if Manziel does not triumph in the legal process or in the court of public opinion, he many benefit from certain advantages that some other NFL players might not have — like inherited wealth from his family’s oil business, and his race.

“Johnny Manziel is not your typical NFL player because he comes form a background of privilege,” Shana Renee Stephenson, editor in chief of All Sports Everything, told MSNBC on Wednesday. “What we saw from the league even before the domestic violence allegations is that people kind of just shrugged it off as him just being young and immature.”

There were warning signs that Manziel was a bit of a loose cannon during his playing days at Texas A&M, including an arrest as a freshman following a fight and the use of a fake ID, but Stephenson believes he’s been given a pass, in part, because he is white.

“There is no doubt that if Johnny Manziel was a black quarterback … he would have been out of league a long time ago,” she said, citing the harsh criticism MVP Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, an African-American, received last year, despite never having been charged with a crime or violating the NFL’s personal conduct policies. Stephenson also brought up the fact that Manziel was never asked to take a breathalyzer test during his traffic stop last October. 

I do believe that if he was a black man that would not be the case,” she added. “Although, to be fair, I think that the NFL just in general is lax in terms of forcing these policies they have in place.”

Prof. Kali Nicole Gross of the University of Texas at Austin, who has written about how Manziel has benefited from racial double standards in the past, said her reaction was “it’s about time” when she learned of his indictment and she hopes its will be a “teachable moment” for football fans and league officials who may have cut the ex-Browns star some slack because he’s white.

“I think for me it’s a sad reminder of how far we have to go in terms of race relations in this country,” Gross told MSNBC on Wednesday. “It reminds me of the excuses that folks have made for the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.”

In that case, Gross argues, there was a willingness by many to presume guilt on the part of a child. She also pointed to the fact that in 2014 both Ray Rice and the victim of his abuse, then-fiancee Janay Palmer, were arrested in connection to their domestic violence incident. “With the white couple nobody goes to jail. There is a fundamental belief in the goodness and humanity of white folks that does not exist for black folks,” she said.

Gross believes that had Manziel been arrested back in October during his traffic stop, he might have been able to turn a corner. Instead the NFL now has to grapple with embarrassing headlines about another wayward player. 

If there is a silver lining amid this personal and public relations debacle, it is that more victims of domestic abuse may be motivated to come forward.

“High-profile cases, like the Johnny Manziel case, draw a great deal of public interest, but the reality is that 12 million Americans experience domestic violence every year in this country. When victims see indictments for domestic violence, it may restore their faith that through the criminal justice system, offender accountability is possible,” Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told MSNBC in a statement on Tuesday.

What’s troubling for Gross is that “there is almost no concern for [Colleen Crowley], she is getting beat up all over the place. She’s lucky she didn’t lose her life,” she said. “In some respects, it does seem like one step forward, two steps back almost.”

Domestic Violence, NFL and Sports

Could the Johnny Manziel mess have been avoided?