Back in the summer of 2016, with Johnny Manziel mired in yet more legal problems and his once-promising football career hanging by a thread, a reporter tracked down the troubled quarterback’s father.
He found a parent at the end of his rope with a son who’d washed out of the NFL and drug rehab and had been making almost daily appearances on TMZ with his outrageous — and even criminal — behaviour.
"He's a druggie. It's not a secret that he's a druggie. I don't know what to say other than my son is a druggie and he needs help.... Hopefully he doesn't die before he comes to his senses," Paul Manziel told ESPN’s Josina Anderson.
"I hate to say it, but I hope he goes to jail. I mean, that would be the best place for him."
On Thursday, after meeting with Manziel the grand total of once, the commissioner of the Canadian Football League announced he came to a very different conclusion.
Randy Ambrosie, you see, doesn’t think the best place for Manziel is jail. No, on the contrary, Randy Ambrosie thinks the best place for Manziel is the CFL.
And so with that, a league that dislocated both its shoulders last summer patting itself on the back for producing a T-shirt that read, "Diversity Is Strength," is welcoming with open arms an accused domestic abuser with a history of drug abuse so severe his father urged authorities to lock him up for his own good.
Paul Manziel made that desperate plea just last year, after his son was indicted for striking his girlfriend so hard that she temporarily lost hearing in one ear, but Ambrosie insists Manziel is already a whole new man.
Indeed, the commissioner is so sure of it that he decided to issue a press release to that effect between Christmas and New Year’s, a period where no one is paying attention to the news and long ago reserved by corporations and governments looking to bury their most scandalous announcements.
CEO’s "seeking new opportunities," cabinet ministers fired, forensic audits commenced — all that unsavoury stuff is issued in the non-existent news cycle that exists between Dec. 26-31.
If you think it’s a coincidence the league saved their Manziel announcement for three days after Christmas and three days before New Year’s, I’ve got some Enron and Bre-X stock to sell you.
But no really, trust us. And trust Johnny.
"Since last summer, the Canadian Football League has been engaged in a thorough process to determine the eligibility of Johnny Manziel," Ambrosie said in Thursday’s statement.
"It has included an ongoing assessment by an independent expert on the issue of violence against women, a review by legal counsel and an in-person interview of Mr. Manziel conducted by the commissioner. As well, Mr. Manziel has been required to meet a number of conditions set by the league."
Who was this "independent expert on the issue of violence against women"? The league didn’t say. What are these "conditions set by the league"? The league didn’t say.
And that’s not all the league didn’t say. Ambrosie announced he's cleared Manziel to play in the CFL in 2018 and closed his statement with this little nugget:
"Mr. Manziel has been informed he must continue to meet a number of conditions in order to remain eligible. These conditions, while extensive and exacting, remain confidential."
Again, trust us.
Yeah, pass. We’ve all seen this movie way too many times with a CFL that might as well stand for Convicts Football League.
The CFL has a long, bewildering and deeply troubling history of welcoming some of football’s most unsavoury characters.
Defensive end Dexter Manley was essentially run out of the NFL in 1991 after he failed his fourth drug test, but the CFL was happy to employ him for the next two seasons.
Running back Lawrence Phillips won a Grey Cup with Montreal in 2002 despite a lengthy previous criminal record that cost him his NFL career and included convictions for slamming his girlfriend’s head into a mailbox, beating up a woman in a nightclub after she refused to dance with him and making a terrorist threat.
This is the kind of guy Phillips was: he was serving a 31-year sentence last year for running over three teens he thought had stolen from him when he killed himself awaiting trial on charges he'd murdered his cellmate.
Ancient CFL history? Hardly. As recently as 2014, the Montreal Alouettes were allowed to sign receiver Chad Johnson, who’d been run out of the NFL two years earlier after he pleaded no contest to domestic battery and served jail time for a probation violation.
All of which is to say that if past performance is the most reliable indicator of future performance, the most surprising thing about this week’s Manziel announcement is that it took the CFL this long to clear him to play.
The CFL is inclusive all right. It doesn't discriminate on the basis of race, creed, colour, sexual orientation or lengthy criminal history.
And make no mistake, Manziel — a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns back in 2014 — has plenty of that last one.
Arrested after an incident at a Texas hotel in January 2016, Manziel’s girlfriend told attending officers the QB threatened her, restrained her and struck her in the head, causing her to lose hearing in one ear.
"I realized immediately I could not hear out of that ear," the woman later said in a sworn affidavit.
Manziel never did admit to the offence, but ultimately did agree to take a court-ordered anger-management course and to enrol in the NFL’s substance-abuse program in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charge.
Again, this is not ancient history; this stuff all happened in the past couple of years.
Indeed, the NFL certainly thinks it’s still relevant, even if Ambrosie doesn’t. Although Manziel was cut by the Browns in March 2016 and has been unable to find any other NFL team willing to take a chance on him, one of the NFL’s top disciplinary officers, Todd Jones, told Jane McManus of ESPN in November 2016 that Manziel would still have to serve a six-game suspension if any NFL team did eventually sign him.
But in the CFL? All is forgiven, according to Ambrosie.
Now, I’m all for guys getting a second chance. I got one almost a decade ago and I’ve been grateful for it every day since.
But in the circle I move in, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. A few steps later, you then make amends to those you’ve harmed.
And as near as I can tell, Manziel is still wrestling with the first step. His words and actions to date repeatedly demonstrate neither remorse or any genuine acceptance of the harm he’s caused to himself, his family, his hapless former NFL team or, most important, to that poor woman.
But it’s good enough for the CFL and the Ticats, who own his CFL rights.
The Ticats, of course, were last seen turning themselves into a public spectacle last August when, with the team winless, they hired Art Briles, for less than a day, as an assistant coach.
Briles had been fired in 2016 as head coach of Baylor University's Bears after an investigation found the Waco, Texas school had, over four years, swept under the rug rampant sexual assault allegations against at least 19 players on Briles’ team.
The Ticats argued Briles deserved a second chance — sound familiar? — but the team quickly backtracked and rescinded the hiring later the same day amid a media firestorm that saw even former NHLer and sexual-assault survivor Theo Fleury protest Briles’ hiring.
The CFL obviously learned a lesson from that debacle — if you’re going to announce a guy with a checkered past involving violence against women is joining the league, do it when everyone is still sleeping off the Christmas turkey.
It’s all so cynical.
Look, I have no idea if Manziel can even play three-down football, much less if he’s genuinely turned his life around.
But what I do know is that last year, the man was indicted for beating a woman senseless and his father was begging authorities to lock up his son for his own good.
Father knows best. The commissioner of the CFL thinks he knows better.
We’ll find out soon enough who’s right.
Read more by Paul Wiecek.