By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) When it comes to America’s criminal justice system, it’s good to be white.
It’s even better to be rich.
And not just rookie-contract, first-big-check rich, either, but the kind that comes from a well-connected family with Texas oil money, one that has maintained generational wealth dating to the rough-and-tumble days of wildcatting and has a long, slick history of avoiding consequences for misbehavior.
Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel’s family has experience already in managing scrapes with the law – both federal and local – dating back to the 1930s and extending into the 2000s. As chronicled in fine detail by Deadspin in 2013, his great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather, great uncle and cousin at one time or another were involved in a variety of illegalities such as real estate fraud, unsanctioned oil production, cockfighting, DWI, bribery, witness-tampering and counterfeiting, just to name some.
Johnny’s great-uncle, Bobby Joe Jr., was once charged with conspiracy to commit murder, but the charge was dropped and the file disappeared. Bobby Joe Jr.’s son, Bobby Joe III, has been arrested 13 times for theft and drugs. And Johnny’s dad, Paul, was himself arrested for criminal mischief in 2002.
If you’re counting up the billable hours for family criminal attorneys, the Manziels are a gusher unto themselves.
That combination of familiarity with navigating trouble and having the resources to do so is what could still can save Johnny Football from becoming an even more closely comparable case to that of Ryan Leaf, the obvious touchstone for Manziel’s current ordeal, one that now sees him under investigation yet again, this time for the possible assault of a woman in Dallas early Saturday.
Leaf is out of prison after a series of burglary, theft and drug charges, currently under parole supervision in Montana.
Manziel’s own litany of wrongdoings is already off to a well-publicized start: a misdemeanor arrest in college, allegations of accepting money for autographs while in school and then an incident with a heckler at a golf tournament last spring. He was stopped by police in October after a drunken fight with his girlfriend in the car, but no charges were filed. Videos have become public of Manziel unabashedly partying, and he has lied to cover them up. A rehab stint a year ago — presumably for his alcohol problem but never confirmed — apparently didn’t work.
It’s a detail in one of those videos that specifically recalls another troubled young athlete, inviting comparison and contrast with someone other than Leaf, the quarterback within easy reach. It’s Four Loko — originally known to be the “blackout in a can” — that Manziel was seen holding last December.
I knew I had seen it somewhere before in a story about some sports figure having spiraled down into substance abuse, squalor and crime, and I tracked it down in the tale of Robert Swift.
Swift was the first-round pick of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2004, skipping college to be selected 12th overall. He played sparingly in two seasons before tearing his ACL the next presesason and then the lateral meniscus in the same knee later that year, and that was it. He was released by the team upon its relocation to Oklahoma City, had stints in the D-League and Japan and failed to return to the NBA.
In 2013, reports surfaced of Swift living illegally in his foreclosed-upon mansion outside Seattle, amid piles of garbage and animal waste, multiple guns strewn around the residence and bullet holes in the walls, with all those empty cans of Four Loko. There may not be a causal relationship between the product and an athlete’s life out of control, but the correlative link between Swift and Manziel was memorable enough.
Swift was later charged with unlawful gun possession, then arrested for armed home invasion in January 2015. He hasn’t been as lucky as Manziel, lacking the money and support system to keep him from falling further. His father is an air conditioning mechanic who twice declared personal bankruptcy, his mother required several surgeries to treat cancer and both were reportedly positioning their son as a personal cash cow as early as his AAU years.
Now Swift’s whereabouts are mostly unknown, though he’s said to be living with friends somewhere around Seattle after his release from King County jail last March. Saturday saw a police helicopter deployed in a search for Manziel around Dallas, and one wonders when it will happen again for a guy who has already caught more than his share of breaks.
His dad may have foreshadowed an ugly future when he spoke with ESPN Magazine about his son’s increasing problems controlling his temper and his drinking, and this was back in August 2013.
“It could come unraveled,” Paul Manziel said. “And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. Real bad.”