The most hallowed knickknack in American sport was awarded Saturday.

For the first time ever, the Heisman Trophy was bestowed on a freshman, quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M.

ESPN televised the ceremony, Nissan sponsored it and Nevada sports books took bets on it.

Minutes after Manziel accepted the bronze bauble, Texas A&M commenced to hawking three different commemorative t-shirts.

God bless America and the NCAA.

Thanks to our nation’s illogical fealty to an obsolete cult – amateurism – damn near everyone is making money this fall off of Johnny Manziel.

Except, of course, Johnny Manziel.

This is nothing new.

But it’s freshly relevant for two reasons:

• Manziel is more than a football player: He’s a Southern-fried folk hero with a nickname straight from central casting. In a commercialized world where branding über alles, Johnny Football is a brand worth millions … to everyone but Johnny himself.

• Another fine quarterback more familiar to these precincts also had his amateurism monetized last week.

Teddy Bridgewater is the main reason why his coach, Charlie Strong, will soon sign a $24 million contract (give or take a mil) with the University of Louisville.

The argument is simple: No Bridgewater, no Sugar Bowl.

No Bridgewater, no 10-2 record, no national ranking and no real reason for Tennessee to offer Strong $3.5 million per year, as it reportedly did last week.

No mega-offer from a mega-program like Tennessee and no way Strong owns sufficient leverage to score a new eight-year deal from U of L.

Let’s be clear: Strong is a top-notch football coach who is entitled to whatever the market will pay. In his first season at U of L, he turned chicken feathers into Chicken à la King, leading a ragtag crew that went 4-8 the previous year to Louisville’s first bowl game in four years.

Despite a 2-and-4 start in his second season, Strong already was attracting interest from bigger programs sniffing around for The Next Big Thing. U of L athletics director Tom Jurich made a preemptive strike and bumped Strong’s annual salary from $1.6 million to $2.3 million.

There’s always a market for competent coaches like Strong. But the big boys crave some sizzle with their steak. The top of the food chain drips with drool when they see somebody vault a program from nowhere to New Orleans in three short years.

Strong did sparkling work with a young team this season, but without Bridgewater’s mystic skills, the Cardinals might have struggled to make any bowl, let alone the Sugar Bowl.

I won’t bore you with Bridgewater’s stats; they are excellent. The most telling numbers are on the win-loss ledger anyway. Six of the Cardinals’ 10 wins were by a touchdown or less, and each was attributable to the sophomore’s preternatural moxie in the clutch.

The ultimate example occurred two weeks ago at Rutgers, with the Sugar Bowl bid at stake. Bridgewater rallied U of L from an 11-point deficit by throwing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes – despite a sprained right ankle and a broken left wrist.

Does Tennessee come a-courtin’ if U of L loses that game and goes to the Meineke Car Care Bowl instead? Don’t bet on it.

And don’t bet against Bridgewater winning the Heisman next year, even if Manziel puts up another record-breaking season. But neither guy is a sure thing. Nope, the only sure thing is that neither will make a penny from playing football in 2013.

The NCAA forbids cash compensation. The NFL forbids players to enter the league until three years after graduating high school. The result: a farm system that shamelessly milks its cash cows.

Football is a brutal, fickle sport. There is no guarantee that Manziel or Bridgewater will ever earn a dime from it. Yes, yes, yes: They get room, board, books, tuition and a host of other nice perks. But you don’t see coaches, ADs and TV executives working for barter, do you?

I’m not saying they should. But the suits keep getting richer and the players don’t. The disparity is increasingly difficult to rationalize. The profligate spending is too.

The University of Kentucky just blew $40,000 on a press conference to introduce its new football coach. Amenities included “a concert quality audio system, a fog machine, a giant helmet and moving lights,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Athletes, meanwhile, can’t even accept a free tattoo. Or $200 for attending a charity event. Last year Ohio State suspended six football players for accepting “extra benefits” amounting to $367.50 each.

Charlie Strong got a $291,667 bonus for making the Sugar Bowl. If Bridgewater got caught taking an extra $50, he’d have to watch the game on TV.

Behold the parallel economies of College Sports Inc.: unbridled capitalism for the grownups, indentured servitude for the young entertainers that the public pays to see.

U of L turned a $37.8 million profit on football and men’s basketball in the 2010-11 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data published in the Memphis Business Journal. UK’s profit was $25.8 million.

Texas A&M: $33.3 million.

The ever-growing disconnect between management and labor is distasteful under any circumstances but particularly when one player so obviously impacts the bottom line.

Without Bridgewater, U of L would have done well to earn a return trip to the Belk Bowl. The difference in payout between the Sugar Bowl and Belk Bowl is a staggering $16 million. Yet Bridgewater’s compensation won’t change a lick.

Major college athletes don’t lack for much, but what 20-year-old can’t use a little folding money?

A thousand bucks makes Larry Letterman feel like Donald Trump, but it represents a mere .006 percent of U of L’s $17 million Sugar Bowl fee (most of which, it should be noted, goes to the Big East Conference).

Paying players opens a can of worms the size of a Nebraska grain silo. But it’s simply unjust for rainmakers like Bridgewater and Manziel to get nothing at all.

A straight pay-for-play arrangement is illegal under Title IX, but there might be a way to reward superstars without flouting the law or spiking their teammates’ envy.

Schools, retailers and apparel makers all profit from the sale of replica jerseys. Not surprisingly, the best-selling jerseys are those that bear a star player’s number.

Manziel wears No. 2 for Texas A&M. His jersey sells for $64.95 at secstore.com. Some 2,500 of them were sold this fall at A&M bookstores alone, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell.

Yet the powers-that-be refuse to admit that the system directly profits from individual players.

“It’s not that it’s a No. 2 (jersey),” NCAA president Mark Emmert told Rovell. “It’s a Texas A&M No. 2. I can’t parse out the value.”

Sure you can. Just compare the sales of No. 2 jerseys to those bearing other numbers.

Former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow – No. 15 in your program, No. 1 in your heart – won the Heisman in 2007. Florida made nearly $80,000 selling No. 15 jerseys the following year, according to The Gainesville Sun.

Tebow was entitled to a cut. So is Manziel.

I’m no lawyer but I can’t see how such an arrangement violates Title IX. Not in spirit, anyway. It’s not unfair to women to deal fairly with Johnny Manziel.

Good luck finding a fellow athlete, male or female, who would object to Manziel getting his fair share. It won’t happen, though.

The system loves Johnny Football, but it won’t tolerate Johnny Ca$h.

 

Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.


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