When Narratives Collide: Michael Sam Meets Johnny Football

In this week’s thrilling episode of When Narratives Collide, the ongoing story of two men struggling to be football players without being lost forever in the uncharted quadrants of Really Bad Journalism, we begin with about 11 minutes left in an NFL preseason game in Cleveland, a game that fairly well defined the concept of “nondescript,” as well as the concepts of “meaningless,” “tedious,” and “Hell with it. This is freaking awful. Let’s beat the traffic.” The Cleveland Browns — who eventually would lose the game, 33-14, to the St. Louis Rams — had the ball in a third-and-21 situation on their own side of the 50-yard line. As dozens of spectators looked on, Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel dropped back to throw. Off to his right, a St. Louis Ram named Michael Sam put a quick move on Cleveland tackle Martin Wallace, beating him to the outside and enveloping Manziel for a 6-yard loss.

On the surface, the play meant different things to the two rookies. For Sam, a defensive lineman who is going to have to fight to make the team, it was a big moment. For Manziel, who has lost the starting quarterback job very temporarily to Brian Hoyer, it was a bad play on a night he made a number of good ones. But these are not ordinary rookies playing in an ordinary exhibition football game. Have you seen the Vine yet?

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In our media-saturated InfoWorld, it has become easy for us to make representational action figures out of human beings who have the misfortune of capturing our massed attention. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Michael Sam came out as a gay man before this year’s NFL draft. This was seen as yet another acceleration in the remarkable speed with which our institutions have transformed themselves on the issue of sexual orientation. It made Sam stand for something, whether he wanted to or not — and all indications are that he wanted to, which is more than commendable. On the other hand, Johnny Manziel has already played the roles of both Heartwarming Youngster (when he won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman at Texas A&M) and Threat To Our Youth (as he kept popping up in your news feed, partying at casinos and drinking with casual starlets who, all evidence suggests, did not go to Baylor). This “behavior” raised “doubts” in “some” minds about Manziel’s “maturity.”1 Last week, he was fined $12,000 for throwing the bird at the bench of the Washington football squad. I prefer to think he was just flipping off the world.

It’s part of the deal now, and I understand that. It’s a clause in a subparagraph in the implicit contract struck between athletes and their fans that athletic celebrity is now indistinguishable from a celebrity, full stop. The camera is always on, the microphone always hot. You will stand for something even if all you want to do is sit down and catch your breath. But if you accept all this as part of the legitimate transaction of fame and celebrity, it’s your part of the bargain to understand that it’s fundamentally dehumanizing to use real people as characters in your private passion plays. Michael Sam’s courage does not ennoble you. Johnny Manziel should not stand in for all the furry little monsters running around your own unruly id. Look at them as they are — two young men trying to win a job. Do that simple thing, and we all stay a little more human.

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You become a realist quickly in the NFL. Michael Sam is a realist. He was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year even before he became a pioneer and a symbol, but he is still 6-foot-2 and 261 pounds, light for a defensive end, and he is still a rookie drafted in the seventh round. He has speed, but the power of his inside rush is lacking. It is coming down very close to the final cuts, and he is fighting for a spot on the roster. His primary rival is an undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M named Ethan Westbrooks, about whom the world never has heard. Westbrooks is slightly taller and heavier, and he’s been getting more reps in the games than Sam. Sam knows what that means, too. He is looking at a choice between being a St. Louis Ram and embarking on the life of a professional football gypsy.

“I think I got better today, which is very important,” Sam said. “When you don’t have many plays, you know you have to perform at a high level. You have to do the best with the plays you have, and I thought I had a good fourth quarter.

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“I can only control what I can control. I am not only interviewing for the Rams, I’m interviewing for the other 31 teams, as long as I keep getting better. I make sure I’m listening to the coaches and getting better at my technique. There are 31 other teams in the NFL, so I have got to get better.”

For what was popularly considered the last bastion of macho insecurity, our sports entertainment complex has become acclimated to the presence of gay athletes faster than many people thought it would. (This obviously also has been the case with marriage equality.) Last year, there was the NBA’s Jason Collins, and then there was Sam’s decision to come out this past winter, which was far more of a gamble. Collins was at the end of his career. Sam’s professional career was just beginning. His decision to come out put his draft status, which was not entirely secure in the first place, completely in play. His openness about his sexuality became another item on the clipboards, probably circled in red, with his lateral quickness and his upper-body strength. He put the scouts through their own emotional Wonderlic test.

From the moment he became something more than a middling pro prospect, Sam invariably has done the right thing. Of course, out in the wild kingdom, things were not so simple. He kissed his boyfriend on draft day, and social media lit up as an oooh-ick frenzy overcame some NFL players. Throughout training camp, there has been a relentless deluge of questions about how Sam is “getting along” with his teammates and “fitting in” with the team; Tony Dungy, whose history on these issues is, well, spotty, acted as though Sam had dropped in from the Planet Fabulous.

Sam has answered questions about his being gay honestly and openly. He endured a carnival of foolishness at the NFL combine. Whether or not to draft him became a multifaceted debate. He has answered questions about his professional future just as honestly and just as openly. Sam — and, it should be said, the Rams — have handled the situation with considerable weary aplomb. He has declined to let the world define him. He will be a person, a witness to himself, and not be rendered either a cheap symbol or a convenient bogeyman. Right now, he’s just a guy trying to beat out Ethan Westbrooks, and struggling to do so.

“The guy goes through all this stuff. He gets heckled by everybody, I’m sure,” Johnny Manziel said of Michael Sam. “The guy came over and said hello afterwards. I thought he played pretty well tonight.”

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To put it quite simply, the Cleveland Browns are a dead-assed football team if Johnny Manziel is not playing quarterback. Brian Hoyer is seen as a safe alternative, even though on Saturday night he threw one bad interception and coughed up the ball while being sacked. Manziel puts a charge into every stadium in which he plays. He is the kind of football player to whom other football players respond — edgy and reckless. He was solid, completing 10 of 15 passes for 85 yards, but he provided the evening’s only real excitement in the third quarter, when he took off up the middle, ball-faked a St. Louis defender into next Thursday, and dove over Ram cornerback Marcus Roberson for a touchdown — after which, of course, he came up doing his little show-me-the-money finger-rub thing. The crowd, such as it was, went semi-wild.

“The crowd was great tonight. I thought they were extremely electric,” said Manziel, who obviously has a different definition of “electric” from the rest of us.

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If the Browns have any chance at all of getting out of the Great Grimpen Mire that is their brief history, it rests with Manziel, and people had better get used to that. That includes people like Boomer Esiason, who always has been That Guy in the Manhattan joint whom you slide down the bar to avoid because he has Some Thoughts To Share on everything from what’s going on in Gaza to the proper way to core an apple. Google “Johnny Manziel” and “maturity,” and you’ll find that, all over the country, the inner schoolmarm of American sportswriting is back on crystal meth again. Esiason stated on his WFAN radio show that:

Yeah, OK. You’re gonna get wrecked, son. You know, the NFL is about as unforgiving a place as there is on God’s green earth. It is a men’s place. It is for people that have a very, very strong constitution. … Whether or not you can handle it is going to be determined by your maturity level. And right now, this kid is a baby.2

So the NFL “is a men’s place.” What does that even mean anymore? It used to mean that players didn’t complain if they got sent back into the game after their 40th concussion. It doesn’t mean that anymore. It used to mean the game was meant for ruff-tuff, mighty XY types who were plainly heterosexual as well as being heterogametic. It doesn’t mean that anymore, either. I’m not sure it ever meant that your quarterback couldn’t be something of a wild man off the field, and something of a showman on it. That certainly would have come as some surprise to, say, Ken Stabler or Joe Namath, to name two quarterbacks who were developed under that ultimate man’s man, Bear Bryant, at Alabama. It certainly doesn’t mean that now.

Ultimately, the two men who collided in the fourth quarter in Cleveland on Saturday night, and the two narratives attending them that also collided, are both engaged in a process of redefinition, and it can be fairly said that they are involved in the process of redefining what a “man” is in the context of the NFL, Michael Sam most dramatically. But at the same time, they are two young men trying to get a job, Johnny Manziel most dramatically. After sacking Manziel on Saturday night, Sam stood up and gave Manziel the show-me-the-money thing right back at him. It was a fine moment. It was a human moment.

“You sack Johnny,” said Michael Sam, “and you gotta do that, right?”

Filed Under: NFL, Charles P. Pierce, Michael Sam, Johnny Manziel, Johnny Football, St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, 2014 NFL Preview

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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