Controversy as a Marketing Strategy: Lessons from Brian Bosworth and Johnny Manziel, Echoes in Michigan’s NIL Success

November 29, 2023

In the realm of sports marketing, controversy has often been a double-edged sword, capable of both tarnishing reputations and propelling athletes into the limelight. This phenomenon is not a recent development; it has historical roots with figures like Brian Bosworth and Johnny Manziel, who leveraged controversy to carve out their places in sports history.

Brian Bosworth: Steroid Controversy 

Brian Bosworth, the iconic linebacker known as “The Boz,” made a lasting mark not only on the football field but also through his off-field persona. His autobiography, “The Boz: Confessions of a Modern Anti-Hero,” provided an unfiltered look into his life, specifically addressing his college football career at the University of Oklahoma. The book delved into Bosworth’s experiences with the team’s drug culture, his relationship with coach Barry Switzer, and his deliberate cultivation of a controversial public image. It offered insights into Bosworth’s challenges, successes, and controversies during his time in college football, making it a revealing and candid account of a prominent athlete’s journey.

The climax of Bosworth’s college career was his suspension from the 1987 Orange Bowl. The suspension resulted from a failed drug test, revealing Bosworth’s use of steroids. This revelation shook the college football landscape, as “The Boz” was an influential figure. Despite the controversy, Bosworth’s unapologetic attitude resonated with a segment of fans who admired his authenticity and refusal to conform to traditional expectations. 

Another critical moment in Bosworth’s collegiate career happened after his suspension, with his decision to wear a T-shirt critiquing the NCAA while on the Oklahoma sideline. The shirt featured the word “National Communists Against Athletes,” a provocative statement that stirred significant controversy. His coach, Barry Switzer, threw him off the team. This bold move was Bosworth’s way of expressing his rebellious spirit and challenging the norms of college athletics.

Both the book and the “National Communists Against Athletes” shirt added layers to Bosworth’s persona, transforming him into a cultural figure beyond the football field. While some saw these actions as divisive, they undeniably fueled discussions and made Bosworth a central figure in the ongoing dialogue about the intersection of sports, individuality, and free expression.

Brian Bosworth: Trailblazing the Talk Show Circuit

In the mid-1980s, Brian Bosworth, affectionately known as “The Boz,” wasn’t just a standout linebacker for the University of Oklahoma; he was a pioneer in sports marketing. Bosworth understood the power of visibility and recognition, and he embarked on a trailblazing journey by becoming the first college football player to make appearances on national talk shows.

Bosworth’s media-savvy approach brought him beyond the confines of the sports pages and into the living rooms of millions. His appearances on popular shows like “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Today Show” marked a paradigm shift in how college athletes engaged with the broader public. The Boz was not just an athlete; he was a brand, and his willingness to step into the entertainment spotlight set the stage for future generations of athletes seeking to transcend traditional sports coverage.

Johnny Manziel: Scandalous Social Media Presence Controversy

Johnny Manziel, or “Johnny Football,” brought a new level of celebrity to college football. His unprecedented success as a freshman at Texas A&M, culminating in a Heisman Trophy, was accompanied by a lifestyle that mirrored the excesses of rockstars. Manziel’s time in the spotlight was marked by behavior that often deviated from the expectations of a traditional role model. Manziel’s social media presence showcased a life of parties, extravagant vacations, and encounters with celebrities. His charisma and on-field success made him a polarizing figure, with fans either enamored by his free-spirited approach or critical of his seemingly careless behavior. His off-field antics, legal troubles, and publicized incidents painted a picture of a young athlete struggling to handle the responsibilities and pressures that came with his status as a high-profile football player. From issues related to substance abuse to altercations with law enforcement, Manziel faced multiple challenges that raised concerns about his decision-making and overall conduct. While his on-field talent was undeniable, Manziel’s off-field actions contributed to a perception that he fell short of embodying the qualities typically associated with a positive role model for fans and aspiring athletes.

Off-field controversies, including legal issues and NCAA investigations, added layers to Manziel’s narrative. The line between sports and entertainment blurred as he became a fixture in tabloids and gossip columns. Manziel’s unfiltered journey, marked by highs and lows, showcased the potential pitfalls of fame in the digital age. His ability to leverage controversy for personal branding set a precedent for athletes navigating the complex intersection of sports and public life.

Johnny Manziel: The Digital Age and Self-Branding

However, due to the advent of the digital age, Johnny Manziel took sports marketing to new heights with the advent of social media. “Johnny Football” wasn’t just making headlines on the field; he was crafting a larger-than-life persona off it, sharing glimpses of his life directly with fans through platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

Manziel’s strategic use of social media allowed him to control his narrative and connect with fans on a personal level. From documenting his Heisman Trophy celebrations to showcasing his training routines, Manziel gave fans unprecedented access to his life. This direct engagement fueled his brand, turning him into a cultural phenomenon. Endorsement deals and partnerships followed suit, as brands sought to align themselves with the enigmatic and captivating figure that was Johnny Manziel.

University of Michigan: Sign Stealing Scandal

The University of Michigan football program finds itself embroiled in controversy as it faces NCAA investigations for allegedly stealing opponents’ signs through prohibited methods. This adds to an already tumultuous season for the Wolverines, marked by an NCAA inquiry into a minor recruiting violation that led to a three-game suspension for head coach Jim Harbaugh. The recent findings by the Big Ten, revealing “pervasive” and “systemic” violations in an “impermissible, in-person scouting operation,” have resulted in Harbaugh’s suspension for the remainder of the regular season. Despite no evidence linking Harbaugh directly to the scheme, the conference’s stringent response underscores the gravity of the violations and their impact on fair play. Michigan’s decision to contest the penalty through legal avenues further amplifies the intensity of the situation, leaving the football program and its supporters grappling with the repercussions of these allegations.

Michigan’s NIL Triumph: Michigan Vs Everybody 

In the contemporary era of NIL, the Michigan Wolverines football team demonstrated a different facet of marketing amid controversy. Facing a sign-stealing scandal that limited their head coach’s ability to attend games, the team embraced their image as the “bad guys”. Rather than shying away from the issue, they turned it into an opportunity for engagement.

Michigan leveraged its online presence and fanbase to create a Michigan vs Everybody mentality. The team’s commitment to their coach resonated with fans, turning a potential crisis into an opportunity to connect with supporters. The decision to channel merchandise proceeds towards NIL showed that the program prioritizes student athlete needs. In just a few days, the merchandise raised over $50,000 for NIL. 

Contemporary Lessons for Athletes

The narratives of Bosworth, Manziel, and the Michigan Wolverines highlight that successful sports marketing requires adapting to the times. Today’s athletes can draw key lessons:

1. Embrace Evolving Media: Bosworth’s foray into national talk shows was groundbreaking in the ’80s. Today, athletes can leverage various platforms, including podcasts, YouTube, and streaming services, to reach a diverse audience.

2. Direct Fan Engagement: Social media remains a potent tool for athletes to directly engage with fans. Personal narratives, behind-the-scenes glimpses, and authentic interactions can build a dedicated following.

3. Navigating Controversy: Michigan’s transparent handling of a scandal illustrates the importance of remaining united as a team. Athletes can learn to navigate controversies by addressing them authentically.

4. Purpose-Driven NIL: Controversy, even in the form of negative publicity, can paradoxically serve as a catalyst for fundraising and NIL opportunities. Heightened attention and public discourse around a program, such as Michigan’s recent controversies, may attract increased interest and support, offering athletes and institutions a platform to leverage for both financial backing and individual branding initiatives in the evolving landscape of collegiate athletics.

In essence, the marketing strategies employed by Bosworth, Manziel, and contemporary athletes underscore the dynamic nature of sports branding. By understanding the evolution of sports media and adapting to the current landscape, athletes can craft compelling narratives that resonate with audiences while effectively leveraging NIL opportunities.