In honor of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30: Brian and The Boz airing Tuesday night, I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces I wrote during college. While enrolled in professor John U Bacon’s History of Intercollegiate Athletics during the Fall of 2013 – we were tasked with writing a term paper that involved History, and, surprise, intercollegiate athletics. I wrote about the parallels between the controversial college careers of Brian Bosworth during the 1980’s and Johnny Manziel nearly 30 years later. I performed my own research as well as interviewing long time college football writer, Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com. I hope you enjoy it, and strongly recommend you watch the 30 for 30. if you didn’t know about the Boz, he was the forerunner for the current climate change of paying college football players. He was a force on the field and a firework off of it.
This was originally submitted on November 25, 2013, therefore, some information has changed since the time of writing.
Brian Bosworth and Johnny Manziel are two of the biggest celebrities college football has ever seen. Noted by the media as outlaws with their cavalier attitudes, both were at the top of their game during their college careers However, their off field activities have led to much scrutiny of both young men during their college days. Bosworth set the standard in the 1980’s, under no-nonsense coach Barry Switzer at Oklahoma “The Boz,” as he nicknamed himself, built his celebrity on outlandish statements and publicly supported the idea that college football players should be paid. Manziel, on the other hand, had a legend constructed by the twenty-four hour media cycle, but like Bosworth, Manziel embraced the criticism and naysayers by backing up his larger-than-life persona with results on the playing field. Manziel also caused a rift with the NCAA when it was discovered that he was paid to sign autographs, a violation of NCAA amateurism rules. These two men used their athletic performances to back their outlandish attitudes. With legends constructed in two different ways thirty years apart, both serve as models for the type player that has the ability to seriously impact the NCAA and force changes in the rules that would enable college athletes to be paid.
Brian Keith Bosworth was born on March 9, 1965 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He grew to be a gifted high school football player in Irving, Texas. Bosworth was courted by a number of high profile college football programs, including Texas, Texas Tech, SMU and Oklahoma. It was during this recruiting process that the separation of Brian and his media-fueled alter ego ‘The Boz’ began. During Bosworth’s recruiting process, he alleges in his autobiography, that the University of Texas began to attack him for turning down a chance to play college football at UT under coach Fred Akers. Once he was at Oklahoma, before the Red River rivalry game in 1984, he said, “I didn’t go to Texas because I don’t like Texas, I don’t like Fred Akers. I don’t like the city of Austin. And I don’t like their color of orange. It reminds me of puke” (Bosworth, 93). This was quoted in many newspapers in the following days. He backed up his words as during the two Red River Rivalry games in which Bosworth played, Oklahoma won by a combined score of 61-19. Bosworth finally made a name for himself as ‘The Boz’ or ‘Bulletin Board Bosworth’ as he was crowned in Oklahoma. This was just the beginning of Bosworth becoming a force in college football both on and off the field.
Similar to ‘The Boz,” Johnny Manziel is not a player short on opinions. However, ‘Johnny Football,’ as he has been nicknamed, prefers to let his actions speak louder than his words. After some stellar performances his freshman year, media and fans alike were curious about this redshirt freshman from Kerrville, Texas. At the start of his first season, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin instituted a no
freshman policy with the media so his precocious young quarterback was protected from the 24-hour media cycle (Mandel). However, this changed dramatically on Halloween night in 2012. Manziel decided to spend his Halloween gallivanting around College Station dressed as Scooby Doo, and after a few racy photos with some scantily clad coeds appeared, the Johnny Football legend reached a boiling point (“Scooby Doo”, Travis). Manziel’s national fame grew when he beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa two weeks later, and then he won the Heisman Trophy one month later. As soon as he won the Heisman, the media ban was lifted, and Johnny Manziel was open season for the media.
There is an age-old debate in psychology described as nature vs. nurture. The idea that children are either born to be who they are or it is the parental nurturing they receive while growing up that determines who they become (Rockoff). This is most relevant for Bosworth and Manziel, as they had different relationships with their fathers. Brian Bosworth grew up in Texas under a dad who was hard to impress according to Bosworth himself. After winning the National Championship in 1985, Bosworth believed he had finally appeased his father’s sky high expectations “Dad did everything for me growing up, but he was a hard guy to satisfy, second was never good enough for him. Come to think of it, sometimes first wasn’t good enough either. But this first was good enough. I could tell that in his face” (Bosworth, 15) Bosworth’s father helped him turn into one of the greatest linebackers in college football history through an insatiable appetite for success as well as steadfast devotion to raising him well.
Manziel’s father, Paul, is the grandson of a Texas oil magnate and has been able to raise his family in the lap of luxury. However, whenever Johnny seeks refuge at home in Tyler, away from the spotlight and the media and the fans, he cannot do so, as his parents almost always have items for him to autograph (Thompson). The perils of being one of the most famous twenty year olds in America weighs heavily on young Manziel’s shoulders. Do his parents see it as a favor to them? Or is it them succumbing to the celebrity of their son? (Maisel). The key difference here is that even when Bosworth took over America as “The Boz,” Bosworth’s father still saw him as Brian, his only son, and wanted nothing but the best for him. Paul Manziel, unfortunately, saw Johnny as his son, Jonathan, but also as Johnny Football, the Heisman Trophy winner.
Football is a team sport first and foremost, but the individuality and impact of Bosworth and Manziel make them unique. Bosworth and Manziel were the most important players on the field due to the impact plays they made and had the biggest profiles off the field. Brian Bosworth played with a rough, gritty hard-hitting style that had him fighting players on many plays as well as losing chunks of skin from his hands (Bosworth, 3). Johnny Manziel has a flair for the dramatic, being able to create plays from nothing, including his famous touchdown to Ryan Swope at Alabama that spawned from a fumbled snap (“World Gone Wild,” Travis).
Off the field, both men had their fair share of antics. Besides his bulletin-board quotes, Bosworth was most known for his wild hairstyle (Bosworth, 18). ‘The Boz,’ as it became nicknamed, was so quintessentially Bosworth. He spoke fondly of it. “More than anything, it’s a way to express my individuality. It’s a way to show that I don’t buy the established way of doing things – conformity” (Bosworth, 20).
Manziel is a non-conformist in his own special way. Once Manziel began being transformed by fans and the press from young Johnny Manziel, a fresh faced 19 year old, into the fire breathing, beer swilling, bar fighting Johnny Football, he began to embrace it. As previously mentioned, Manziel said nothing about himself until he won the Heisman; people were projecting their own ideas onto Manziel. However, after Manziel won the Heisman, he was seen partying with celebrities, other college football stars, and travelling all over the country with social media tracking his every move (“Scrutinized Athlete,” Travis). When he went on spring break with AJ McCarron, Instagram had the evidence. When he went to meet rapper Drake in Toronto, Twitter had it covered from all sides. ESPN writer Ivan Maisel believes that part of the vitriol surrounding Manziel is that he is jetting around the country partaking in lavish activities, something the regular student-athlete and even regular college students do not do (Maisel). Manziel underwent scrutiny from other players, coaches, fans and the media, and it all came to a head one month before the 2013 season. Allegations were released in August 2013 that Manziel received money from an autograph broker for a signing at the 2013 BCS National Championship game in Miami (Kotloff). This was the first thing he had done that blatantly violated NCAA rules. His punishment was sitting out the first half of the season opener vs. Rice (Fornelli). Manziel decided to make light of the entire situation in the second half of the game. After scoring a touchdown, Manziel threw up his fingers and rubbed them together, implying a “money sign,” a celebration he was derided for even though Tajh Boyd, the Clemson quarterback, made the same gesture, and no one looked twice (Fox Sports). These two cowboys were going to do what they wanted, critics be damned, as long as they could keep their eligibility.
In their individuality, Bosworth and Manziel both harnessed great power, and they both recognized the fallacy of college football. Coaches, athletic departments, schools and TV networks all make millions from 115 players at each school, who don’t see a dime of income. It is defended by the idea of amateurism, and a free education along with other benefits serving as each player’s compensation (Bacon). However, Bosworth played in an era when SMU was blatantly compensating its players with cars, clothes, and other luxuries. Bosworth admitted he was not one to say no, claiming he was treated like a king during his playing days in Norman (Bosworth, 70). Bosworth realized his coach chose to ignore NCAA rules (Maisel), and more so, he recognized the farce of college football. A player of his stature fed the machine, and if Switzer took him off the field, that would dissatisfy the customers who paid to see Bosworth.
Just like Bosworth and Switzer, Manziel and his coach Kevin Sumlin had a unique relationship. Sumlin wisely danced around questions about handling his quarterback, “I think he (Sumlin) has attempted to be an authority figure and probably has had more success than has been made public,” Maisel told me.
However, what happens behind closed doors and what the public perceives are two very different things. Sumlin knew that without Manziel, he would be nowhere near as safe as he is now in terms of job security. When asked before the 2013 season about handling his star, Sumlin replied, “you bet it’s a challenge” (Hairopoulos). Bosworth and Manziel, while living out their larger than life fantasies, took control from their coaches by playing outside the rules off the field while still keeping eligibility. They knew their coaches needed the players, more than ‘The Boz’ and Johnny Football needed their coaches.
Bosworth and Manziel also had unique relationships with the NCAA as a governing body. Bosworth made one final gesture that was responsible for ending his college career. During the 1987 Orange Bowl, a game from which he was suspended due to alleged steroid use. In his book, Bosworth contends it was a botched drug test after food poisoning. Bosworth stood on the sidelines with his team, and once the game became 28-0 Oklahoma, he committed the cardinal sin. He slipped on a t-shirt that said “National Communists Against Athletes” as a final shot at the NCAA. The TV cameras found him and the fans and the media went berserk (Bosworth, 184). He was planning on going to the NFL anyway, but if he had been kicked off his team, he feared it would destroy his draft stock. Switzer had no choice and would not be made a fool by his star linebacker; he threw Bosworth off the team in the spring of 1987 (Bosworth, 186). The lasting impression that Bosworth left was one of dominance on the field and defiance off the field. (Maisel).
Manziel went through his own issues with the NCAA regarding his autograph signing activities, but the key difference is that the NCAA had more control during the Bosworth era. SMU was busted in 1987 for their illegal activities and the NCAA killed the program. SMU football is still recovering from that penalty twenty-six years later. In today’s era, when college football is a billion dollar business thanks to TV contracts, Manziel is nearly untouchable as a player. The NCAA has been found with its tail between its legs a few too many times lately in terms of individual player discipline. This includes stripping Reggie Bush of his 2005 Heisman Trophy after it was discovered that he took improper benefits at USC (Rosenthal). Through this, and the fact that more and more players have been admitting to receiving improper benefits while they were in school such as Arian Foster at Tennessee (Ganguli) and DJ Fluker at Alabama (Getlin and Robinson). These facts support that the players are beginning to recognize as long as they do not get caught, they can receive money under the table while playing college football. The biggest issue is the NCAA never catches these infractions while the players are in college, and they find themselves stripping players of awards and sanctioning current players at the program instead of punishing players while they are in school. To a successful college football player like Reggie Bush, sanctioning USC now doesn’t hurt his NFL career, but it hurts the current crop of USC players. Plain and simple, illegal benefits have been around and will continue to surround college athletics because boosters and others want their program to win, no matter the cost or legality of it (Maisel).
Many people will point out that college football is at a major crossroads right now. What used to focus on the pageantry and tradition of fans and young men coming together on Saturdays for three hours of America’s favorite game has turned into a sport surrounded by billion dollar businesses and corruption.
Through all this, Johnny Manziel appears in his black Mercedes, following the path that Brian Bosworth paved for him a quarter century earlier. Bosworth was the first player to receive unprecedented media attention for speaking out against the NCAA for not paying college football players. Manziel is a unique player in that he lives lavishly, plays well on the field, and he can potentially start pay for play in the process. He is proof the NCAA is losing power over individuals because like Bosworth, Manziel is too valuable for the NCAA to suspend. In an industry now run by advertising dollars and TV ratings, Texas A&M is in a prominent position in the most powerful conference in college football. If Manziel were suspended for 2013, that would make Kevin Sumlin look bad, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive would look bad, and most importantly, ESPN and CBS, the SEC’s TV partners, would be broadcasting games of less significance. There is a perception now that amateurism is no longer the hallmark of college football, and that money is. As long as Manziel plays at a Heisman-like level (he is on pace for his second Heisman trophy) and does not commit any infractions, he will continue to play college football, and cash in when he enters the NFL draft.
Brian Bosworth and Johnny Manziel are inextricably linked through extraordinary circumstances. Two players, two different schools, twenty-five years and monumental changes in college football separate them, but their cavalier attitudes and ability to play outside the rules make them a nightmare for the NCAA. Considering only twenty-three college athletic departments operated in the black in 2012 (Brown), it would be difficult to see pay for play being instituted AND being successful. The NCAA may alter the rules, which would allow schools to find other ways to compensate football players. These may include upping their per diems or using a capitalist type system that allows them to profit off their likeness independent of the school. College football is changing, and players like Brian Bosworth and Johnny Manziel are leading the charge to make those changes happen.
Having now seen Johnny Football drafted into the NFL by the Browns, and seeing how the NCAA has been forced to change it’s stance on paying players, it will be interesting to see who is the next player that fills this Boz/Johnny Football cowboy role. It certainly isn’t Jameis Winston, as he has been scrutinized every step of the way even while being one of the best players in the sport, it may be someone still in the pipeline. On the other hand, so far, Johnny Manziel has had the unceremonious start to his pro career that Bosworth had in Seattle. Like that famous image of Bo Jackson blowing up Bosworth, the lasting image we have of Manziel’s rookie year is his 39 yard catch on a trick play being called back for a penalty. As a Johnny Football fan, I do hope things turn around for him, but Brian Hoyer certainly is playing the role of roadblock in Cleveland. It’s rare to see players like Bosworth and Manziel cause as much ruckus as they did, and until the NCAA firmly changes it’s hypocritical policies (making billions of players who cannot earn a cent) it’s possible we’ll see the next player in the lineage of college cowboys very soon.
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