I'm a college football agnostic. I grew up in Buffalo in the 1980s, where there was no D-I football. I went to St Bonaventure, which hasn't lost a football game since 1951 because it hasn't had a football team since 1951. I've been to one D-I game in my life, an that was UConn vs. Buffalo. Without that personal connection to the sport, I have neither the interest nor the passion that fuels so much of this sport.
Because of this, I've been detached from the summer of Johnny Football. What Johnny Manziel does or doesn't do in his spare time, what parties he does or doesn't attend, how much he does or doesn't drink*, doesn't really interest me. Wright Thompson's feature story on him was, of course, sensational, but that's about the extent of my interest in this story.
(*-One of the annoying aspects of this story to me is how people who defend Manziel claim he's doing nothing that an average college sophomore doesn't do. Here's the thing: Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. He's the biggest star in college football, a future NFL quarterback who's going to make many millions of dollars. He is, by no definition, an average college sophomore. I don't care if he drinks or has fun, but it's not wrong to hold him to at least a bit of a higher standard).
On Sunday, Outside the Lines broke the story that the NCAA is investigating whether or not Manziel was paid for signing autographs, which would be a clear violation of NCAA rules.
There is some excellent reporting in the story, by Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar. Chief among the good reporting is this:
While college athletes are frequently asked to sign autographs in public places, and those autographs often end up for sale on eBay, the amount of Manziel product that flooded the memorabilia market overall following the BCS title game was overwhelming, memorabilia dealers told "Outside the Lines." ... Officials with both (memorabilia) companies have told ESPN in recent months that they stand by their guarantee that they believe the signatures, some with inscriptions like "Gig 'Em" and "Heisman '12" are genuine. Online verification databases show a single lot of 999 signed Manziel photos numbered sequentially. JSA authenticated 248 items and 376 items that came in in two batches that also are numbered sequentially. Industry insiders say this indicates the signings were done in large quantities intended for wholesale.
That's great reporting - it answers obvious questions the reader would have and lays out the information in specific detail.
And yet ...
There's something missing from this story.
That's the amount of media exposure a Texas A&M study found that the school received from Manziel's season last year. $37 million. And that's only in "media exposure." That doesn't include tickets sold, merchandise, donations, increased revenue for both the school and the businesses in College Station, etc.
Rovell and Gubar do note Manziel's "value":
The value of Manziel is clear in the memorabilia and appearance market: Independent merchandiser Aggieland Outfitters recently auctioned off six helmets signed by Manziel and Texas A&M's other Heisman Trophy winner, John David Crow, for $81,000. Texas A&M's booster organization, the 12th Man Foundation, sold a table for six, where Manziel and Crow will sit at the team's Kickoff Dinner later this month, for $20,000.
The school has committed to renovating Kyle Field, which will push seating capacity to 102,500 by the time it is completed in 2015. Texas A&M officials have said that donors, who make annual contributions of $80,000 to $100,000, have purchased all but two of the 144 suites in the stadium.
Nowhere in the story is the fundamental question addressed: Should the NCAA be investigating at all? Is the NCAA rule fair and just? Is it right that everybody is actively making money off of Johnny Manziel's football skills except Johnny Manziel?
At a time when the NCAA's economic system is literally on trial, this story calls out for that kind of context. It could range from point out the fact that everyone's making gobs of money off this kid, but the kid can't trade his own signature to an outside vendor. It could be more pointed in calling out the inherent hypocrisy of the NCAA's stance.
OTL didn't do anything wrong with this story. It's very well done. It's worth pointing out that they are simply reporting on an ongoing NCAA investigation. It's a straight news story, not an anti-Manziel column. In a lot of ways, it's excellent journalism.
But is journalism that even tacitly defends an indefensible position itself defensible?