Rovell: Waiting on Chancellor’s Apology After Johnny Manziel Admits Being Paid for Autographs at Texas A&M

Rovell: Waiting on Chancellor’s Apology After Johnny Manziel Admits Being Paid for Autographs at Texas A&M article feature image
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Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images. Pictured: Johnny Manziel

Eight years ago, after I wrote a report for ESPN detailing that Johnny Manziel was getting paid to sign autographs after his Heisman season, I read something that I couldn’t believe.

It was Texas A&M’s chancellor, John Sharp, who wrote a letter to his constituents supporting Manziel blindly and ripping me.

I can understand how a fan base might be disappointed with a report that could make their star ineligible. Go to the message boards, take out your anger, try to poke holes in my reporting. But to have the chancellor of a major university attack my credibility, with no substance, in front of his people, was beyond strange.

My desire to shout back was quieted by what I had known: My reporting — both for ESPN’s website and what I said on television — was solid. I knew much more than what I could report and everything I had reported was double- and triple-sourced. My producer Justine Gubar and I had sat in the office of the guy who wanted to know everything about our journalistic processes, Vince Doria, and we had painstakingly drilled down every fact with our sources.

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It would eventually come out. I just didn’t know when that day would come.

It took a long time, but here we are. I’m ready for your apology, Chancellor Sharp.

That’s because Johnny Manziel went on with the guys at Barstool’s “Bussin with the Boys” this week and laid it all out. He said he was signing for cheap and then got word that someone was willing to pay him $30,000 to sign. The number we were told was $50,000, and the person paying Manziel was a guy by the name of Kevin Freistat, who made a business in athlete signings.

“So, this guy’s pretty much, ‘All right, go to this room at the Fountainbleu,” Manziel said on the podcast. “All this stuff will be in there laid out. When you’re done, just send me a picture of all of it. I’ll give you the code to the safety (box), the money will be in there.”

You see, I wasn’t just getting tips on the phone as to where Manziel was signing. I was following the trail.

After Freistat wouldn’t answer his phone, I went to his development to try to get some answers. It was a gated community and the security guard wouldn’t let me in. 

I was told of Manziel’s signing at the Fountainbleu. I flew to Florida in July 2013 and checked into the Fountainbleu for the night. I spent more than four hours in the lobby and went to the pool to try to spot Manziel. The hotel doorman told me Manziel was in fact there, but I never did see him. 

But then, here was Chancellor Sharp, making it like it was easy to put my 13 years of journalistic integrity — and ESPN’s for that matter — on the line to put together a narrative that would make Johnny Manziel seem guilty.

“We have had ongoing and productive dialogue with the NCAA during their investigation, as required. However, some members of the media have chosen to declare #2 guilty with no evidence whatsoever. Darren Rovell of ESPN, who broke this story, has been duped before. During his report on Johnny Manziel, he cites unnamed sources who refuse to provide an interview or any tangible proof. In fact, his ‘named source,’ Drew Tieman (initially referred to as the broker), was reportedly booked twice for possession of marijuana and placed on four years probation. He has taken down his Facebook page, changed his telephone number and is refusing attempts to be interviewed by the NCAA. It is surprising that the nation’s largest sports channel would support publication with this lack of corroboration.” — Sharp in an email to Texas A&M fans

When asked what else he knew about Manziel by reporters, Sharp said that the NCAA investigation and its details were above his pay grade, which was then $500,000.

But he did say this: “There’s zero doubt in my mind that Johnny Manziel is innocent. He’s a lot nicer than I am, I don’t think I would have handled it as well as he has. None of us would want our sons to go through what he’s had to.”

I juxtapose how Sharp reacted with how Jason Cook, the head of communications in the Aggies’ sports department, treated me. I interacted with Cook a lot during those days and the guy was a consummate professional. He knew I couldn’t afford to make anything up. He took my call every time, answered every email and knew I was just doing my job as a journalist.

If John Sharp had faded off into the sunset, perhaps I would let this all go, but he’s still the chancellor at A&M. If the statute of limitations had not passed, I would entertain suing him for defamation. My hunch is that he was given a lot more information on Manziel than Sharp let on to his constituency. And even with the high barrier of proof of ill will needed to pass the muster of defaming a public figure, I’d guess that, as the Chancellor, he had access to more of the story.

John Sharp created the insignia on the sash of the Corp of Cadets, the highest ranking cadets on campus. On the top of the shield, the insignia reads “Per Unitatem Vis,” which is latin for “through unity, strength.” Perhaps unity was what Sharp was thinking by blindly supporting Manziel, but in doing so, Sharp likely violated many tenets of the Aggie Cadet Code of Honor, which he swore to some 50 years ago.  

In it, Sharp promised to not knowingly make any false statement, written or spoken. He promised not to use evasive statements or technicalities in order to shield guilt or defeat the ends of justice. 

As reporters, we are slammed for reporting something that is truthful but is not yet clear. Often that revelation never comes. But Manziel, as part of his mental health journey (and good for him), has let all of his story out.

And that means your time is up, Chancellor Sharp. I look forward to hearing from you.

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