Celebrity train-wreck stories get a lot of mileage in the pop culture press. When stars such as Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears implode, it’s often years before anyone looks back and asks, “Could someone have helped her?” as The New York Times recently did with Spears.
As the latest troubles plaguing former NFL football player Johnny Manziel suggest, it’s time to ask if it’s ethical to consume round-the-clock coverage of celebrity breakdowns. Should we be treating the struggles of a real person as if he was the star of a reality television show?
From USA Today:
Johnny Manziel was formally indicted by a Dallas County grand jury on Tuesday, the latest off-the-field development in the life of the troubled former Cleveland Browns quarterback.
The single misdemeanor domestic violence charge—which stems from an alleged incident with his former girlfriend in January—was handed down by grand jury that convened on Thursday. The charge appeared on the Dallas County District Court records website on Tuesday.
The Class A misdemeanor assault charge carries a maximum of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
For the non-sports fans out there, Johnny Manziel was, for a time, the best player in college football. A Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Texas A&M University back in 2012, in 2014 he was picked by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the NFL draft. He then spent the next two seasons landing himself in trouble off the field on what seemed to be a monthly basis. Johnny Football, as he’s known, likes to party and even spent some time in a rehab facility back in 2015. Last month, the Browns released the troubled young man from their team and, to celebrity gossip site TMZ’s delight, Manziel decided to move to West Hollywood to indulge in L.A.’s notorious club scene.
Last week he was indicted on assault charges in Texas for beating up his girlfriend. For many people, the possibility of going to prison would serve as a wake-up call. Not Manziel. After his court appearance, he went club-hopping. Again.
The people who know Manziel the best have been vocal about their concerns (even as the rest of us watch his breakdown like it’s just another reality TV episode). Over the weekend, Manziel’s former high school football coach told The Washington Post, “I really don’t know that guy. I think they’re two different people. Somehow I wish Johnny could find himself back to being Johnny Manziel.” Manziel’s own father recently said, “I truly believe if they can’t get him help, he won’t live to see his 24th birthday.”
You would think NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would want to use Manziel’s situation to show a little bit of genuine concern and compassion for the young man. Why not have a representative of the NFL stand with Manziel’s dad at a press conference and communicate that they care about this human being and any of their players who are struggling with addiction? Why not use some of the NFL’s record-breaking profits to pay for Manziel’s treatment? But the league has distanced itself from Manziel as quickly as possible.
This isn’t surprising given that this is the same institution that made every effort to bury video evidence of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice cold-cocking his fiancée in an Atlantic City hotel elevator to protect the League’s image. And whose handling of the concussion problem in football has earned it the moniker, “League of Denial.” “There is a thick river of entitlement running through our sports culture,” one critic has noted. And that entitlement starts at the top, where a real lack of accountability by the League means troubled players are simply ignored or fired rather than helped.
But what about the public’s responsibility as consumers of these tragedies? Johnny Manziel might not live to play again in the NFL, or even live to see another birthday, but what responsibility do we bear for watching it all happen, thanks to paparazzi like TMZ.com and other news media outlets who are covering Manziel’s self-destruction with evident glee? The fact that Johnny Manziel appears to be a colossal jerk who abuses women and has a serious substance abuse problem doesn’t change the reality that a twenty-three-year-old is imploding in front of our eyes and all anyone seems to be doing is dissecting his behavior on ESPN as if he were a character in a daytime soap opera.
This has all the elements of a deadly tragedy, and yet we’re watching it like we do the mindless farce of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Do we bear some responsibility for escalating Manziel’s (and other troubled celebrities’) downward spiral?
I think we do. Ultimately, Johnny Manziel is responsible for himself. That fact is incontrovertible. But the people and institutions surrounding him don’t have to celebrate his demise and cover it with more intensity than a presidential election campaign or a hostage standoff. Some celebrities, such as Britney Spears and even Lindsay Lohan, have been able to turn their lives around after a breakdown. But they’ve only been able to do that when we’ve stopped rapaciously consuming their troubles as entertainment.