Johnny Manziel, Bipolar Disorder and the Dangers of the ‘Bust’ Label

The newest member of the Montreal Alouettes is more complex than you thought he was, and he’s not alone.

In the harsh world of professional sports, one of the worst things you can be called is a bust. When high draft picks or big name free agents don’t pan out, teams lose, staff are fired, and angry fan bases inevitably deposit the entire situation on your head before calling for it to be chopped off, planted on a stake, and paraded around town as a warning to future players.

There’s a terrifying simplicity to the “bust” label. It erases nuance and detail. It overshadows past accomplishments and untapped potential. It humbles you, classifies you as an abject failure, and sets you up for a brief period of time as the punchline to a late night TV monologue joke before you fade into obscurity to all but those with a deep knowledge of your former sport’s history.

And that’s if you’re lucky. JaMarcus Russell is still waiting on the obscurity fade.

That simplicity is the worst thing about being labeled a bust. The concept of the bust is so simple that it’s inherently uniform. It doesn’t distinguish between “lazy” bust, “blew out his knee and never recovered” bust, “came out of high school when he should have gone to college” bust, “took the huge contract he was offered that everyone and their fucking grandma would have taken but never lived up to it” bust, or “scouts were wrong and this dude just can’t play” bust. In short, it doesn’t tell your story, which can be especially damning for players young enough that they still have chapters left to write.

- Advertisement - 

It’s especially damning for players like Johnny Manziel.

If you watch football, you’ve heard of the man they literally call Johnny Football. Manziel dominated the college game as few had ever done on his way to becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and obliterating the SEC total offense record previously held by Cam Newton. His unstoppable combinations of elusive running and sandlot improvisation made him one of the most electrifying players in the history of Division One football. In 2014, he was drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns and touted by many as the dreadful franchise’s savior.

Given that it was the Browns, we all suspected that this wouldn’t turn out well. We were sadly proven right. Johnny’s excessive drinking and partying saw him get cut by the Browns after two up and down seasons. Other off-field issues have dissuaded other teams from even considering signing him.

Johnny hasn’t thrown a pass since 2015, and he’s been widely labelled, you guessed it, a bust.

In the sports zeitgeist, we have a tendency to stop asking questions about people once they leave our TV screens and accept what the media has told us about them as the complete story. Some called him an addict, others an entitled screw-up, but we all agreed that Johnny threw away whatever NFL career he could have had because he was more concerned about living the life of a rock star than he was the life of a football player.

As usual, that was not the whole story. Not that anyone actually went looking for it until Johnny opened up about it himself.

On Good Morning America, Manziel laid bare his struggles for the world to see. He talked openly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and how he was using alcohol and partying to self-medicate his depression. He was on top of the college football world, a literal god on the Texas A&M campus, and yet the defining moments in his life led to him waking up the next morning, staring at the ceiling without the will to get out of bed and enjoy what he had accomplished.

In some ways, it’s interesting that the cultural conversation surrounding mental illness hasn’t emerged more prominently in the sports world. Putting a collection of diverse personalities on a field of play to do battle for the honour of entire cities, all while trying to live up to the weight of multi-million dollar contracts, has to wear on a lot of the athletes involved. It’s a pressure cooker of the highest order, where literally any play could make or break a career.

At the same time, it’s not surprising. Given the long-standing expectations that players play through grueling injuries and physical pain, it’ll be a pretty brisk day in Hell before sports culture begins to validate the injuries that we can’t even see. It’s depressingly ironic given how often mental illness is even more debilitating than tangible wounds.

What it does do, however, is make us want to revisit the bust pile and think about how many of these stories we left incomplete because we didn’t think about what other factors might be involved.

Shawn Kemp comes to mind. While very successful in his early career, the high-flying Supersonics star’s career was cut short by alcohol, cocaine, and weight problems. Roy Tarpley went from being an NBA All-Rookie in 1986 to out of the league due to drug violations in 1991, and again in 1994. Vince Young authored the single greatest performance in NCAA Football history, had a 30–17 record as an NFL starting quarterback but saw his career fizzle out due to off-field issues. And don’t even get me started on Manziel’s former teammate Josh Gordon, who somehow still looks like he can ball after nearly three seasons off-duty. These are all players who were labeled as busts or screw-ups. They’ve been endlessly maligned for throwing their careers away, but no one ever thought to ask what kept dragging these players back into the abyss when they seemingly had everything they’d ever wanted. It would almost be more shocking if they didn’t have some major demons or mental health issues.

It goes past mental health and personal issues as well — things on the field can also drive people to their breaking point. How many quarterbacks, like Johnny, got drafted high to terrible teams with bad coaches, absolutely no talent around them, and proceeded to get killed in the court of public opinion because they couldn’t succeed? Blaine Gabbert and Colt McCoy actually looked serviceable in later stops in their careers after getting their hearts ripped out and stomped on in the markets they were drafted in. It has to wear on you having an entire city think that you’re literally not worth the paper they wrote your name on to hand to Goodell at the draft.. Sometimes, it’s enough to push you to things that are harmful in the long-term.

And look, while I know Kwame Brown fits squarely in the “fire the scouts, this dude literally can’t play” bust category, you’d have to think that he’d have been a little better if he was drafted by anyone other than the Michael Jordan Wizards. It’s not like MJ was setting the gym on fire with his work ethic either.

Fundamentally, we have to be more critical when we start labeling people “busts” and assuming that they just threw their career away. They deal with many of the same demons that we do every single day, except that every detail of their work and personal lives are laid out for the world to scrutinize, more so now than ever. Johnny is really one of the lucky ones. He’s identified his bipolar disorder, taken medication to manage it, and is now completely sober. While the NFL is certainly a long ways away, he’s only 25 years old, and he officially started his journey back to the big dance by signing with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. There are certainly many chapters still to be written in the story of Johnny Football. I just hope we look past the “bust” label long enough to read it.

Riley Evans
Riley Evans
Riley Evans is the Multimedia Editor for Grandstand Central, where he writes about athlete mental health, identity politics and how they interact with the world of sports.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


The Latest

cupping therapy

What is “cupping therapy” and does it actually work?

Cupping therapy came into the public eye when Olympian Michael Phelps was seen with circular bruise-type marks on his scapula (shoulder blade), neck, and shoulder. 

U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis has the most successful coaching career in all soccer history and after two consecutive World Cups, she's saying goodbye.
wendy hilliard gymnastics

Wendy Hilliard On Making Gymnastics Accessible

Plus, the meaning of life after sports.

The Rise of Major League Eating, America’s New Favorite Pastime

Major League Eating made competitive eating a successful, nation-wide sport and it all trails back to a hot dog eating contest from way back when.
Art Shamsky Amazin' Mets

Art Shamsky on Aging and the Amazin’ Mets

Plus, his thoughts on the Hall and missing out on the Big Red Machine.
The Saints Entertainment All-Stars

The Circus Surrounding Baseball in St. Paul

Don't be surprised if the Saints' Entertainment All-Stars steal the show at the 2019 American Association All-Star Game at CHS Field in St. Paul.

get the latest stories about the intersection of sports with the mind and mental health.