What’s the difference between Todd Gurley and Johnny Manziel?
Gurley, a football player from the University of Georgia—and a front-runner to win this year’s Heisman Trophy—was suspended indefinitely Thursday after allegations were reported to the school’s compliance office that the junior running back was paid to sign several sports-memorabilia items in the spring. A decision is expected in his case this week, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Gurley may miss the rest of the season.
Manziel, on the other hand, is a Heisman winner from Texas A&M University who was allegedly paid to sign several items in January 2013. He was only suspended for one-half of a largely meaningless game at the beginning of the 2013 season.
And the stark difference in Manziel’s punishment, compared to the potential punishment for Gurley, is a reminder of just how far the collegiate system leans toward those with means.
Like Gurley, Manziel was seen in pictures and on video signing memorabilia for autograph dealers. Also like Gurley, the autograph dealers in question came forward and said that they had paid Manziel for the autograph sessions. Manziel was said to have taken up to $10,000 for the signings, and three different sources told ESPN that footballs, mini football helmets and other items were signed for an autograph broker. There is also a video of him signing items in a living room that was seen and reported on by ESPN.
But unlike Gurley and the countless athletes before him who had their careers cut short prematurely for violating the draconian rules of the NCAA, Manziel comes from a family with money—lots of it.
To hear his father tell it, “It’s not Garth Brooks money, but it’s a lot of money.”
Manziel’s father owns a car dealership and his mother is a real estate agent, but the family’s real fortune comes from an oil business that Manziel’s great-grandfather founded. It’s worth millions and had “Johnny Football” decided, instead, to become Johnny Custodian or Johnny Public Defender, he would still be able to lead the lavish lifestyle of Benzes and private jets that he exhibited while in college at Texas A&M.
“Johnny is part of a family that has resources,” former Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin told reporters last summer. “People criticize him for showing up at NBA games and flying in private aircraft occasionally, but it's all being done because his family can afford to do that.”
Manziel also had money to hire Jim Darnell, a lawyer based in El Paso, Texas, with experience challenging the NCAA, to defend him. A&M also brought in Birmingham, Ala. law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White to help defend its star quarterback.
Faced with a challenge from not one, but two well-known and well-resourced law firms, the NCAA barely put up a fight. In fact, Manziel’s lawyer told a local television station that the NCAA hadn’t even started an investigation into his client. Rather, the organization offered him a deal too good to pass up and pretended the whole thing never happened.
In the end, Manziel wasn’t suspended for accepting money in exchange for signing memorabilia, but for violating the NCAA rule that states, “Student-athletes cannot permit their names or likenesses to be used for commercial purposes, including to advertise, recommend or promote sales of commercial products.”
Gurley, on the other hand, is more of what one might call a typical college athlete. He hails from Tarboro, N.C., a town with a population of less than 12,000 people and a per capita income of $17,120. When word of the impending NCAA investigation reached Gurley, he did not hire a lawyer, one was provided—and paid for—by the university, in accordance with NCAA rules.
Like most Americans with wealth, Manziel and his family understood the importance of having a lawyer who was paid to represent him—rather than one paid for by the university to defend its interests. And clearly, that approach paid off. Gurley, on the other hand, will also be represented by the same law firm that A&M hired to represent Manziel. But without the means to hire his own attorney, separately, it raises a question about whether Gurley’s lawyers may have more than just his interests in mind.
The great thing about college sports is that they are considered a meritocracy. The Manziel family fortune didn’t help Johnny become the first freshman to win the Heisman—college football’s highest honor—and it’s not what made him a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 2014 NFL draft. In athletics, the best players play and the best team wins.
But when it comes to fighting college sports’ governing body, the story is not quite the same.
Dion Rabouin is a freelance writer currently based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.