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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I grew up in Berea, the shabby but sweet-hearted hamlet that hosts Brownsworld. Even after two decades of practice, I still get a little reflexive dingdingding of recognition when sports news stories are slugged DATELINE: BEREA. When a random meatwad sports reporter does an inane standup from First Avenue (that's what "Lou Groza Boulevard" used to be called), I think about home. I mostly think of Browns HQ as being down the road from the convenience store where I tried to buy beer at age 15, or across the street from Ohio Nut & Bolt, whose sign made me laugh every time my immature self rolled up Front Street to Burger King. Because it said "nut." I'm talking about the old Burger King, before it burned down and was replaced with ... a Burger King.

Young me believed with absolute certainty that this was the center of the known sports universe. Current me can't believe it's actually now true.

***

Armed with some sense of where our Manziel infatuation comes from, I wanted to grok the economics of his runaway celebrity. After all, Manziel's trademark move is rubbing his fingers together in the international sign for moolah.

I talked to Victor Matheson, an economics professor at Holy Cross who studies the intersection of sports and money, to learn more about how hype translates to dollars. Surely the Browns get a major boost from drafting such a big attention-getter, right? "They're going to get a ton of money from this," Matheson confirmed. "But it's the NFL that's making the money, not the Browns themselves."

As Matheson explained, the nature of NFL licensing means that all those $99.95 Nike MANZIEL jerseys in the Muni Lot won't generate as much loot as you'd think, at least not directly for the player or his team. The NFL pools apparel revenue, tithing a percentage to the players' association and splitting the remainder of the take 32 ways. So even if Manziel's #2 laundry tops the sales charts, the Browns will get the same cut as the Cowboys, who passed on drafting Manziel. (The thesis of Jimmy Haslam and his Browns as the downmarket Jerry Jones/Dallas Cowboys is another thinkpiece for another thinkday.)

***

Wait, aren't we adding to the problem here? Why are we even talking about Johnny Manziel, putting him on the cover of Scene the week of the Browns opener? After all, local-guy-made-good Brian Hoyer is the starting QB. If there were any justice after his bummer of a knee injury, Hoyer would have a chance to actually enjoy being the toast of town instead of counting down the years until the NFL Network airs a five-minute hologram retrospective called something like "Hoyerville: Two and a Half Weeks of Glory in 2013."

If I'm so worried about all the clickbait about Johnny Manziel... well, isn't this just another reeking bucket of digital chum? Shouldn't Scene, you know, be the media criticism we want to see in the world? A celebrity-obsessed corporate fourth estate can pay electron-microscope-level attention to every fleeting second of JFF, turn him into a ratings-driving famous-for-being-famous reality star a la those Duck Dynasts or the Kardashians. Big deal. That's just a basic involuntary respiratory process in American media in 2014. Let's don't act like this is our first McDonald's MDP. We're better than this, right? Aren't we?

To their credit, the Browns as an organization are presently trying to quiet down the whole Manziel thing (though one could argue that about-face came only after milking him dry prior to the start of preseason). Rob McBurnett of the Browns media relations team, when asked by Scene for credentials for practice to examine Clickbait Jesus in person, calmly reminded us that Hoyer is the starting quarterback, and offered some free editorial advice, saying, "We really don't think it's a good cover story." McBurnett then gave us an unconvincing sell on what a Manziel-free 2014 Cleveland Browns feature might include: "The organization knows Johnny is part of the reason why fans are excited about the team, but we also have a new GM, and Donte Whitner."

But Ray Farmer and the artist briefly known as Donte Hitner, swell as they might be, aren't the reason packs of news trucks hover at the gates of the team complex in Berea like stray animals waiting to be fed, nor why the Browns have sold over 60,000 season tickets (the NFL cap on season tickets, by the way, is 62,000). The Browns drafted Johnny Manziel to play quarterback, but his first and best position is himself.

Manziel is a 21-year-old with a lot of money in and out of his pockets, but he's also a nearly darn-perfect thumbnail of how Americans relate to fame, wealth and celebrity right now. At his douchiest, JFF can come off like the dark Tebow, a gremlin-grinning apostle of hedonism. But his unruliness is not about lechery as much as it's about the freedom conferred by wealth, be it legal tender or athletic celebrity. Manziel's signature moneyfingers are a triumph of self-characterization. A room full of screenwriters couldn't top the creation of a sports-management major who dropped out after two years only to dominate every sports conversation around the country.

Maybe the explanation for all the hype is bone simple. "Everybody needs a heel," Spencer Hall told me. "And people who aren't having fun really dislike people who are having fun."

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