Johnny Manziel in 2022. Dec 3, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; SEC Network announcer Johnny Manziel looks on prior to the SEC Championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the LSU Tigers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Like its polarizing protagonist, the latest installment of Netflix’s Untold series chronicling the rise and fall of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel debuted to mixed reviews with responses ranging from vaguely positive to bitter disappointment. Though it did depict certain aspects of Manziel’s downward spiral, descending into drug and alcohol dependence as his career and life unraveled, it only showed us the broader strokes including trivializing key details about his domestic violence arrest in 2016.

“It felt like they turned it in and whoever the big boss is was like, ‘So you’re not even going to touch on it?’” said ESPN’s Domonique Foxworth, expressing his bewilderment at how little screen time was devoted to Manziel’s indictment on misdemeanor assault charges, resulting in ex-girlfriend Colleen Crowley seeking a temporary restraining order against him. Meanwhile, Manziel’s bipolar diagnosis was barely addressed, glossed over along with his failed suicide attempt, which the documentary mentioned only in passing.

During a recent appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, Manziel insisted he never submitted a teammate’s urine sample to pass a drug test, a claim adamantly refuted by his agent Erik Burkhardt. Among other narrative inconsistencies, the documentary adopted a decidedly anti-NCAA slant, casting Manziel as a victim, even as he pocketed thousands from autograph signings (making little effort to hide his extravagant lifestyle, the star quarterback would later frame himself as a product of privilege, attributing his sudden wealth to his family’s success in the oil industry). Manziel articulated his fame as something of a double-edged sword, coming at a significant cost to his privacy and overall sanity, prompting him to enroll in online classes to avoid the inevitable scrum of adoring fans pestering him on campus.

More than anything, critics viewed the documentary as vanilla and formulaic, lamenting its clumsy portrayal of a complex figure battling real demons. Though filmmakers Maclain and Chapman Way maintain Manziel wasn’t granted final approval or creative control over the project, his cooperation and subsequent promotion of the film on shows like Le Batard would suggest otherwise. Viewed through that lens, Netflix would seem complicit in a plot to rehab Manziel’s public image, a redemption arc that began with his recent induction into Texas A&M’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

That sentiment may come off as overly cynical and dismissive of the vulnerability Manziel showed in owning up to his failures as one of the biggest draft flops in recent memory (he appeared in all of 14 NFL games), though it’s hard to see Johnny Football as anything other than a missed opportunity, a flimsy, surface-level treatise on a subject rife for exploration. Manziel described the documentary as “closure,” a needed self-examination reflecting on one of the great college football phenomena of our lifetime. To others, it felt self-serving, cleverly employing nostalgia to shape his narrative, presenting Manziel as a changed man, made stronger and wiser by the fortune he squandered, lost in a sea of excess.

Birthed by ESPN’s 30 for 30 franchise (still the gold-standard for long-form storytelling), the sports documentary boom began with pure intentions but was soon exposed as a PR tool for the rich and powerful, with vacuous puff pieces and athlete propaganda substituting for introspection and self-inventory. Think of Derek Jeter’s rudderless The Captain miniseries, a seven-hour infomercial masquerading as content. Steph Curry’s Apple documentary was a similar misfire, misrepresenting Curry as a self-made prodigy when in reality his father was one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history (it doesn’t help that Curry, like Jeter, is a relatively dull interview). Even The Last Dance had an agenda, perceived by many as a smear campaign mythologizing Michael Jordan at Scottie Pippen’s expense.

Athletes have increasingly gravitated toward storytelling in their post-playing careers, not because they’re any good at it but because of the power it grants them to uphold their image, presenting a sanitized version of events under the guise of “entertainment.” It’s misleading and worst of all boring, trading authenticity for carefully choreographed navel-gazing.

The trend toward athletes infiltrating Hollywood is only just beginning. Peyton Manning (Omaha Productions), LeBron James (SpringHill Company) and Tom Brady (Religion of Sports) might see themselves as entrepreneurs, but really, they’re spin doctors, investing in production companies that double as protective armor. That may sound paranoid, but if you were an economy like Brady with endless resources, why wouldn’t you build a content arm as an added layer of protection?

It’s harder than ever to discern between fact and fiction, putting the onus on us as consumers to determine what passes the sniff test. Think of how the Orioles made an example out of Kevin Brown, silencing their beloved broadcaster for alluding to Baltimore’s past struggles in Tampa Bay. Brown would resurface days later, only acknowledging the spat in a brief Twitter thread that read like a hostage letter. The Orioles, like so many of the athletes discussed earlier, are fiercely protective of their brand, even if conveying a certain message requires them to mask the truth.

In the age of spin, truth is relative, malleable as wet clay, molded into whatever narrative we choose to believe. Conflicts of interest are all around us with information filtered through anonymous leaks and beat writers reporting directly to the teams they cover. It’s last call and journalism’s tab is already closed. Hell, even our insiders are bought and paid for, so why would the documentary space be any different?

“Why are you doing this?” Pablo Torre asked of Manziel after watching his documentary. “Why are you participating in a story that might make you look anything less than what you want to look like?” It’s a valid question and something all of us should consider when watching a documentary, examining the motivations of those involved.

That’s not to say all sports docs are destined to fail or that athletes aren’t interested in making quality content. Quarterback was plenty compelling, artfully navigating the separate character arcs of three NFL veterans (Patrick Mahomes, Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota) operating under vastly different circumstances. Netflix’s Drive to Survive was similarly riveting, elevating what was once a niche sport (F1) to mainstream popularity.

What made HBO’s two-part documentary on Tiger Woods so impactful was that its namesake wasn’t involved, allowing director Matthew Heineman the freedom of a blank canvas, crafting an impartial portrait of a tortured artist who, like Manziel, fell prey to his worst impulses.

Producing a work that truly resonates requires a keen understanding of the audience it’s trying to reach, which, of course, is easier said than done. Clearly access, or at least the illusion of access, is important to us. Otherwise, why would we have “Wired for Sound” and other mic’d up segments showing athletes in their natural habitat?

Do we want our pound of flesh, seeking growth and accountability from fallen heroes like Woods? Or would we rather be entertained, retreating to an alternate reality where cheap thrills are the only currency? The challenge, in a genre overrun with hollow vanity projects, is capturing the right tone, honoring the source material without devolving into hero worship or emotionally manipulative melodrama.

It’s debatable whether Johnny Football accomplishes that, too often mistaking spectacle for substance without reaching any firm conclusions, spinning its wheels as aimlessly as a car on cinderblocks. Johnny Football’s biggest crime, apart from the troubled star it immortalizes (Manziel ends the documentary with a beer in hand, an odd choice given his past substance issues), is its lack of anything resembling real stakes, playing it safe instead of taking narrative risks that could have elevated it to something greater.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.