The first time many fans saw an Internet photo of Johnny Manziel, it was June 2012, an image that was seared into their collective memories: a shirtless, sneering mug shot, taken after an early-morning fight in College Station, Texas. A month later, on July 31, Manziel joined Instagram ( jmanziel2) and fought the negative press with his first post: Bible verses. It was a snapshot of Proverbs 4:20-24, and the first line reads: "... turn your ear to my words ..." We did. We turned our ears, our eyes and especially our smartphones. And ever since the war over Manziel's image has raged on, culminating with judgment day: the 2014 NFL draft.
Over the next year, the mug shot would be followed by photos on Halloween featuring Manziel partying in a Scooby-Doo onesie, some candids from spring break in Cabo, a shot of him holding fistfuls of casino cash, a portrait with Rick Ross and, of course, a notorious shot of Manziel inside a Dallas club, celebrating Texas A&M's Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma with a lit sparkler in his mouth and a bottle of champagne in his hand. Whether they were posted to his own account or courtesy of TMZ Sports, Manziel couldn't escape the smartphones, even if he had wanted to.
And remember: These were just the photos. In June 2013, after he'd won the Heisman and we'd come to know him as Mr. Football, Manziel caused a stir when he tweeted about "bulls---" that made him eager to leave College Station, then told fans to "walk a mile" in his shoes -- a proverbial admonishment stemming from ... a parking ticket. A month later, after he was sent home from the Manning Passing Academy for sleeping late, the online chatter hit another peak when Manziel started the season on the bench, suspended for a half for violating NCAA rules (aka "autograph-gate").
Is Manziel's Internet persona proof that he is just another spoiled, out-of-touch jock? Or is he simply a victim of the popularity of football and the exponential influence of social media? Regardless of the answer, that's not a debate NFL GMs want to have when it comes to selecting a franchise quarterback. So in January, just five months before the first pick in the NFL draft and with millions on the line, Manziel took on the daunting and unique challenge now facing all 21st century "athletainers": to repair his image by channeling the same social media platforms that nearly devoured him over the past two years.
"Johnny Manziel shows the good and bad of social media," says Marcus Messner, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's school of media and culture. "It can be a clear danger to people in the spotlight, especially athletes that can be caught in unfavorable situations and then have the pictures go viral. But on the other hand, it can also be used for very effective PR and image rebranding."