Clickbait Jesus: How Johnny Manziel Became JFF and OMG ESPN BFD ASAP and We'll Stop There Because You've Already Decided to Read this Story

Clickbait Jesus: How Johnny Manziel Became JFF and OMG ESPN BFD ASAP and We'll Stop There Because You've Already Decided to Read this Story
Illustration by Oliver Barrett

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While ESPN is the bell cow of national sports media in obsessing over Manziel, Cleveland's press corps has energetically contributed to the turd-hurricane of hype in their own doofy way. But, of course, in Northeast Ohio, the Browns garner intemperate amounts of attention year-round regardless of their prospects. Remember when we talked ourselves into Brady Quinn?

So the Browns drafting a player with some actual starpower predictably led to some forgettable moments in media history, even by the adjusted standards of the era. The listicle "House Hunters: Where should Johnny Manziel live in Cleveland?" was probably the nadir. But maybe ESPN Cleveland affiliate WKNR 850, which broadcasts Browns games and a daily team-produced show, overkilled it best when the station renamed itself ESPN Johnny Cleveland for a day after the draft.

But maybe we're all to blame as social media bullshit enablers, like the time a blurry photo of Manziel enjoying a strenuously unremarkable post-work beer at a strip-mall bar went viral. But then there was the time he was five minutes late to a meeting and it made national headlines for three days. Or the time...


ESPN The Magazine is planning an entire issue about our fair city for September. There's no doubt that the Decision 2.0 (or the Revision or the Recidivism or whatever we're calling LeBron's return on our T-shirts) will be a huge part of that issue. But can you really imagine what Cleveland sports topics they'll cover other than Manziel? The oral history of the Gladiators? Dan Gilbert's favorite hair gel? Rick Manning's picks for the best tanning salons in town? Pumpkinhead: Behind the Gourd?


To find out why Manziel is all over ESPN, I thought I should start at the horse's mouth, or at least the PR office for the horse, in Bristol. ESPN's PR office politely brushed off my questions about their Manziel obsession, likely in between pumping out press releases about Johnny's upcoming appearance on ESPN's Monday Night Football. ESPN's ombudsman, veteran sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, told me he couldn't comment on Manziel as the network's newest infatuation. Having received the corporate middle finger from ESPN and confirmed that the people who talk about Johnny the most prefer to talk about why we talk about Johnny the least, I found less uptight sources that could speak to how the media fell for the impish Texan.

Spencer Hall, editorial director at SB Nation, watched Johnny Manziel terrorize SEC defenses for two years. I asked him what made Manziel an eyeball-magnet, which was surely among the more impossible questions he fielded that week, even including those from internet trolls. Hall saw the mania start with Manziel's unique on-field style. "The attraction, whether that's negative or positive, is always rooted for [Manziel] in the way he plays," Hall said.

Indeed, going all the way back to Tivy High School in Kerrville, Manziel's fame started between the hash marks. His elusive running and powerful arm came before the social-media shenanigans. Manziel's volatile style and ad-libbing are capable of derailing both opponents and his own team, as coach Mike Pettine told Sports Illustrated: "He has a tendency to keep both teams in the game." But as we average citizens enjoy a budding para-social relationship with Johnny Football — through his partying, his celebrity friends and the media obsession with turning every molecule of his public life inside out — it becomes clear that Manziel's on-field insouciance merely reflects his off-field personality. And that personality is divisive, to say the least.

Manziel's rare combination of athletic prominence, colorful family backstory, and ironclad commitment to enjoying himself in public make him something of an (inflatable) black swan. "The people who confound other people the most are those who have no choice but to be what they are," Hall mused. "It's a paradox that someone who is so incapable of being anything other than what he is, and who will always react the same way in a situation, why that would confuse anybody. It's the easy dynamic in the world. It's what he is. And yet it's the one that seems to make people angriest."

Deadspin's Tim Marchman sees Manziel's special celebrity as a matter of contrast. "The animating force in American life is homogenization. Everything becomes more centralized over time; Walmart runs all the local stories out, the Internet crushes local radio, and so on. The NFL being the NFL, it epitomizes that in a lot of ways," Marchman told me. "Manziel doesn't really fit that as a personality, and what really resonates is that he doesn't fit that as a player either. If the model is supposed to be a dull, studious Tom Brady type [Ed. note: See also "Brian Hoyer"] who efficiently carries out someone else's plan, the idea of this guy who's too small, too reckless, too inattentive to the plan and too much of an improviser to win — and who does so anyway — is really appealing. Add in the off-field stuff and it's irresistible."


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