Last year a freshman quarterback at Texas A&M burst onto the SEC scene with one of the single greatest single seasons in college football history. The player, Johnny Manziel, led his team past the Alabama Crimson Tide and became the first freshman in the history of college football to win the Heisman Trophy, an award given to the best player in College Football. Johnny Manziel went from being an unknown college freshman to a celebrity in a matter of months. His exploits were so incredible he was given the moniker “Johnny Football” by the Texas A&M faithful. His rising fame landed him on various prime-time television shows, magazine covers, and sports talk radio stations. It was quite a year.
Since his Heisman crowning however, the headlines have been far less positive and complementary. Manziel got arrested for public intoxication, was thrown out of a rival schools frat-party, was dismissed from a prestigious passing camp, and most recently accused of selling autographs for profit (a practice prohibited for College athletes). Suddenly the people who stood in awe of his abilities, praised his greatness, and lived vicariously through his victories, turned on him. He went from being a sports god to a villain. From being a target of worship to a target for hatred and anger.
A couple of weeks ago an embattled Johnny Manziel led his Texas A&M Aggies against Alabama in what was dubbed the biggest game of the college football regular season. For those of you who follow college football you know what happened. Alabama won the game, but Manziel was brilliant (leading the Aggies to a record high points against Alabama). The game certainly lived up to the hype.
The Monday before the showdown an article was posted on ESPN.com about a bar in Alabama that had created a Johnny Manziel piñata imaging the player and reflecting his recent personal struggles. The bar invited its patrons to mark up the piñata with a sharpie, take comedic pictures of themselves with the image, and gather together during the bars’ trivia night to take swings at the source of their envy and hatred. In the interview, the bar assured everyone that it was all in good fun…J Sounds like it!
To be sure, it feels good to beat a piñata…especially when the piñata represents something or someone who has brought you misery or shame. I would actually say that beating a piñata can be fairly therapeutic. Rather than have all that anger bottled up inside, a piñata allows us to externalize our emotions in a safe and harmless way. We are afforded the same opportunity at sporting events or in front of our televisions. We can yell and scream at players, coaches, and referees who disappoint our expectations without having to carry the burden of feeling like we have done something inappropriate or harmful. Even though some fan behavior would be considered incredibly inappropriate and concerning in any other situation, in the world of sports much different rules apply. As onlookers, we are given the opportunity to project our own personal frustrations onto the participants of the sporting drama. A new freedom is afforded us to unleash our own unconscious demons. We are allowed to rage against futility, curse at the limitations that curb our dreams, and identify ourselves onto the victorious. Every play can send us into adoration or despair. One thing is for sure, what is happening in us is much more intense and important than the word “fan” depicts. Our very sense of self if tied to these moments.
A couple of years ago my father told me that he had quit watching Auburn University play football. Upon hearing this I was confused and curious because watching Auburn play football on Saturdays was always an important ritual in our family. I pressed my dad further and he eventually described how difficult it had been for him to watch Auburn lose. I understood this in my own way, I was not a fun person to be around after an Auburn loss. For him though, the experience of watching Auburn play football stirred many old insecurities and a large amount of shame. Auburn has played second fiddle to The University of Alabama for most of their existence…a reality that is carried in the hearts of everyone who has grown up in Alabama. In Alabama, like many southern states, choosing your allegiance to a team is deeply personal reality. My father and I are more than Auburn “fans”, we “bleed” Orange and Blue. When Auburn loses, we lose. When Auburn is embarrassed on the field, we carry the shame of defeat with us. Their victory is our victory, their press is our press, and their hope is our hope.
During Auburn games I remind myself often, “it’s just a game Knox, just a game…breathe…you’re okay.” The grief and disappointment of my own limitations as an athlete hover over me like a cloud in these moments. At my best as a fan I can attempt soothing myself with the reminder that I am worth more than the outcome on the field. In my worst moments I find myself fused with my team. Their outcome is my outcome. My very sense of worth hanging in the balance.
So it is with our favorite athletes. So it is with Johnny Manziel. Whether you find yourself celebrating or envying his athletic abilities, you can rest assured that his performance will evoke much more than any box score could narrate. In one second we are Johnny Manziel’s biggest fans, his performance acting as the salve that cleanses our own insecurities and shame…or he is the reason for our demise, an object that intensifies and exposes what we long to cover up. A villain worth beating with a stick.
Read the last few sentences again. What you see here is a projection of sorts that can work as a two way mirror for our souls.
In it lies a formula that reveals a lot more about how we view ourselves than it does about Johnny Manziel the football player. You see sports fanatics…our rage was never at Johnny Manziel. Our rage was only at who and what he reminded us of.