The Pathology of Privilege

In a recent interview, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver tried to come to grips with his disappointing team, which, at the time of the interview, had lost nine consecutive games and fired two of its assistant coaches (while retaining head coach Jeff Hornacek). Yet, for Sarver, the problem had less to with basketball X’s and O’s or lack of talent and more to do with what he perceives as a generational weakness:

I’m not sure it’s just the NBA. My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris1 is the perfect example. He had a setback with his brother in the offseason and he can’t seem to recover from it.
I’m not sure if it’s the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I’m not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it’s like Fantasy Land. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations. We’ve had a number of setbacks this year that have taken their toll on us, and we haven’t been resilient. Therefore, it’s up to our entire organization to step up their game.

Sarver’s exasperation might turn into a full-fledged case of the vapors were to he to read about other millennials, such as Ethan Couch and Johnny Manziel. In June of 2013, the then-sixteen-year-old Couch, son of a Fort Worth-area multi-millionaire dollar metal roofing baron, washed some Valium down with a sizable amount of the beer he and his friends had stolen earlier that evening and drove his Ford F-350 at 70 mph into a crowd of people gathered around a stalled car. Couch killed four people, leaving two others severely injured. In the subsequent trial for vehicular manslaughter in which Couch faced 20 years in prison, his lawyer famously argued that he had grown up in such a privileged world, spoiled and enabled by his parents, that he believed whatever crimes he might commit could be made to disappear with money and influence. The juvenile court judge agreed and handed down the lightest of punishments: 10 years probation and a stint in rehab. Thus was born the “affluenza teen.”2

But the punishment was too severe for Couch. In December of 2015, video surfaced of Couch playing beer pong at a party. Faced with 10 years in prison for violating his probation, Couch dyed his hair black, grew a beard, and absconded with his mother to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they were apprehended in a Domino’s pizza sting operation. His mother, Tonya, was extradited to the US, but Couch lawyered up and remains in Mexico, determined to fight the extradition that could land him in prison were he to return to the US.

It would certainly seem fatuous, if not defamatory, to link a known killer with a professional athlete, but they’re not so different, these sons of Texas, Ethan and Johnny. Manziel plays quarterback for the Cleveland Browns (at least for now) after a legendary career at Texas A&M. Like Ethan, Johnny’s had his own run-ins with the law, mostly involving alcohol and a penchant for violence. There was the street fight in College Station, instigated by a racial slur one of Johnny’s close friends uttered. (He spent a night in jail and vowed to change his behavior. Two other charges were dismissed.) There was the fight with his girlfriend in which he shoved her head against the window of his car (she didn’t press charges, and police determined the couple “wasn’t intoxicated enough” to warrant concern). One of the first to diagnose Manziel with affluenza, Tim Baffoe notes how the disease has robbed him of his capacity for shame: although Manziel checked himself into rehab in February of 2015, he can still be found at parties from Austin to Las Vegas, sometimes during the season. When one video surfaced of Johnny partying in Austin during the Cleveland Browns bye week, he lied about the date of the incident and encouraged friends to support that lie.

What emerges from the profiles of these two Texans is a culture of privilege. For all of Couch’s lawyer’s sophistry, Couch’s youth is one of astounding parental enabling. Couch began driving to the posh Anderson Private School at age 13. When school authorities had the audacity to worry about the safety and liability of a student driving to school three full years before legally permitted to do so, Ethan’s dad threatened to buy the school. In Michael J. Mooney’s disturbing profile of the Couch family in D Magazine, Ethan’s father Fred comes off as a menacing bully to everyone but his son, which includes numerous instances of domestic violence against his on-again, off-again wife Tonya, Ethan’s mom, and Ethan’s half-sister (Fred’s daughter from a previous marriage). When Tonya complained that Fred never properly disciplined her son, Fred astutely noted, “I’m not a mom.” Of course, Tonya didn’t behave much like a mom either. According to Fred, Tonya had a pill addiction and provided her son with Vicodin at the age of 9. She also threatened suicide on numerous occasions, referring to Ethan as her “protector,” moving another mattress into her bedroom so that she and her protector could sleep in the same room. Both Fred and Tonya have each had numerous run-ins with the law with minimal consequences. Fred’s been charged variously with impersonating a police officer, criminal mischief, theft by check, and assault. All charges were dismissed. Tonya, for her part, was charged with reckless driving after she attempted to run another car off the road. She received a $500 fine and six months’ probation.

While Johnny’s parents are slightly more law abiding than the Couches, Timothy Burke’s extensive family history of the Manziels in Deadspin reveals a veritable rogues’ gallery of Manziel descendants. While the family fortune is based on oil wildcatting (which Johnny’s dad, Paul, modestly remarks that it isn’t “Garth Brooks’s money, but it’s a lot of money”), Johnny’s colorful ancestors participated in “cockfighting, small-time grifting, match-fixing, and, if you believe the federal indictments, cocaine-trafficking and murder.” As you might imagine, like the Couches, the Manziels seem to be impervious to criminal prosecution, and the amount of time served for these transgressions and felonies is, well, minimal. Although Paul Manziel, Johnny’s father, is considerably more law abiding than Fred Couch, he, too, would not be considered a “mom.” Wright Thompson’s profile (a rather problematic one3) of Johnny at home in Texas before his redshirt-sophomore and final season at Texas A&M depicts a father less concerned with discipline and more concerned with playful nutpunching:

Not long ago, backstage at a country music concert, the two Manziels [father and son] hung out with some of Johnny’s friends. There was Uncle Nate, a high school teammate named Bryan, and Johnny’s buddy Colton from College Station. Everyone stood around, the band warming up. Without so much as a nod, the Crotch Shot Ninjas struck: Paul punched Nate in the nuts, and, simultaneously, Johnny kicked Bryan and hit Colton, both in the balls, both at the same time, and as the three dudes doubled over and the band howled in laughter, Johnny and Paul gave each other a fist bump. Mission accomplished.

Paul and Michelle do seem more concerned with Johnny’s behavior, but such concern often comes across as lip service. The fault lies not with the young adult with a drinking problem but with Texas A&M for consistently harassing and policing its “most famous student,” who actually does need policing. As Thompson goes on to note, “Many people close to Johnny Manziel no longer believe in the integrity of the institutions charged with protecting him.” Johnny’s family has a right to be concerned; he does have a sickness, after all. Victims of affluenza depend on institutions to set aside whatever broader agenda (educational or otherwise) they may have to serve as dedicated bodyguards and doting babysitters for those stricken with a disease that renders them unable to take care of themselves.

Obi Ariguzo (Facebook)

Couch and Manziel offer two versions of Peter Pan syndrome (a by-product of affluenza), drawing the ire of haters of all kinds; some even resort to victim blaming, suggesting that racial inequality might be at the heart of affluenza. As one critic of Couch’s lenient sentence remarked, “What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times … what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?” Such harsh judgments, though, are from “little people” (to borrow a phrase from noted affluenzite Leona Helmsley) who don’t understand the plight of the privileged. Perhaps the lasting image of the suffering affluenzite, more so that even the overwhelming apathy expressed in Couch’s Mexican mug shot, is of a seemingly quarantined Johnny Manziel, floating alone on a white swan, bottle of champagne pursed to his lips, a captured moment of decadence and pathos.

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Affleunza may seem to primarily affect white people, but it isn’t limited to millennials; it afflicts older generations, too. The fifty-something Sarver contracted affluenza but has no idea that he’s sick. The main symptom is a distortion of perception that causes the affluenzite to believe that his or her privilege and entitlement has been gained through hard work. Sarver, for example, claims not to have inherited a dime from his father, but the disease tragically prevents him from realizing that going to work for his father’s lucrative real-estate business at age 16, and having his entire college expenses paid for in full, count as the spoils of privilege. While he laments the millennials’ inability to cope with setbacks, his malady prevents him from recognizing the taxpayer generosity that helped him cope with his own “setback,” as he received a $140 million bailout from the TARP fund after the financial collapse of 2008. Resilience in the face of “setbacks” isn’t a generational trait. It’s just a form—perhaps the dominant form—of capitalist myth-making that the wealthy and privileged tend to valorize without ever actually having to encounter such setbacks. The sickness knows no bounds.

In his discussion of Couch and “affluenza,” Chris Lehman quotes from The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s condemnation of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, able to “[retreat] back into their money” and let others clean up the mess. But the old-money people are the only ones capable of such escapes in the novel. New money people, like Gatsby, are still vulnerable to the recklessness of the bluebloods. One hundred years later, such distinctions don’t matter. The disease has spread to the nouveau riche. Real estate tycoons, scions of sheet-metal magnates, and heirs to oil wildcatters might as well be Vanderbilts or Astors for the way they are able to bend the justice system to obey their interests. The Ethan Couches and the Johnny Manziels of the world aren’t symptomatic of some generational decline; they’re merely the latest to be infected with a disease that’s plagued American plutocrats for hundreds of years.

Perhaps the most prominent symptom of affluenza—one that affects the sports franchise owner, the fugitive killer, and the NFL quarterback alike—is a clear understanding of American history, how wealth and privilege provide exemptions from things like consequences and responsibility for criminal actions. The rest of us healthy citizens (even the most clear-headed cynics among us) continue to believe in things like justice and meritocracy. “Affluenza,” it turns out, isn’t such a joke after all—just fundamentally misunderstood. Sarver, Manziel, and Couch are sick, but, paradoxically, that sickness grants them immunity. It’s the rest of us who suffer.

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1 The player Sarver references as unable to overcome a “setback” might have reason to be disgruntled. Markieff and his brother Marcus negotiated a contract that was extremely team- and owner-friendly so that the brothers could continue playing on the same team. But a year later, Sarver shipped Marcus and his undervalued contract off to Detroit in a salary dump, receiving only a second-round pick in exchange. Already unable to recover from setbacks, these millennials can’t even tolerate being double-crossed.
2 The lawyer in question, Scott Brown, pointed out that he never actually used the term “affluenza”; the psychologist he called as expert testimony used the term, which has been around since the 1950s but gained contemporary traction after a 1997 PBS documentary, Escape from Affluenza.
3 Thompson’s portrayal seems just as enabling as the person and persona he’s supposedly critiquing, as Tim Marchman asserts.

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