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Netflix's Untold Lets Alleged Abusers Jake Paul and Johnny Manziel Off the Hook

There's an "untold" story to be found in each of these documentaries, but the directors aren't interested in telling it.
  • Johnny Manziel and Jake Paul in their respective Untold documentaries. (Photos: Netflix)
    Johnny Manziel and Jake Paul in their respective Untold documentaries. (Photos: Netflix)

    Netflix's docuseries Untold may be in need of a title change. The show's third volume, episodes of which are currently dropping weekly, kicks off with two of the most well known, thoroughly reported stories in sports: the journey of YouTuber turned boxer Jake Paul, and the rise and fall of Johnny Manziel, dubbed "Johnny Football" during his historic career at Texas A&M.

    Both Paul and Manziel are considered "bad boys" in the sports world, and their respective Untold installments — Jake Paul the Problem Child, directed by Andrew Renzi, and Ryan Duffy's Johnny Football — dig into that reputation, exploring how it at once boosted and harmed their careers. In Paul's case, that meant releasing hundreds of controversial videos and then parlaying his status as one of the most hated people on the internet into a successful stint as a boxing villain. Manziel's time in the spotlight was briefer. As the quarterback tells it, he was overwhelmed by the fame that came with winning the Heisman Trophy, and when he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2014, he attempted to suppress his mental health problems by abusing drugs and alcohol.

    Renzi and Duffy have no problem highlighting Paul's and Manziel's immature, insensitive, and drunken behavior, and the athletes own up to much of it in revealing interviews. But their misdeeds go beyond prank videos or relentless partying: Both have been credibly accused of assault, and Paul has also claimed his father, Greg Paul, abused him as a child. (The Pauls have denied the allegations, while Manziel reached an agreement to dismiss a 2016 domestic violence charge.) Though the documentaries acknowledge these allegations in some form, Renzi and Duffy brush them off, preventing Untold from achieving its stated mission of going "well beyond the headlines and upend[ing] what we thought we knew" about these stories.

    In Jake Paul the Problem Child, Paul and his brother Logan detail their father's abusive treatment, with Paul recalling that Greg "would slap the sh*t out of" him as a child. (Greg insists he "never laid hands" on his sons, before immediately saying he "did pick [Jake] up and throw [him] on a couch a couple times.") Paul maintains that he doesn't "resent" his father and is "understanding of why" he was violent, but Logan's testimony calls the truthfulness of that statement into question. "Jake is still traumatized to this day about how my dad treated him. And they still don't get along like they should," he says, a fact that isn't surprising, considering Greg casually drops a gay slur while defending his parenting methods.

    Logan, who admits that their childhood was "f*cking torture," then turns around and frames Greg's abuse as a positive thing. "When you survive that kind of sh*t, you become tough as f*ck," he says. He goes on to minimize his brother's experience, suggesting that he should instead be grateful for their father's tough love.

    "F*cking get over it, Jake! I'm sorry! Look what has happened in your life!" says Logan. "I have a hard time understanding why the trauma from Jake's childhood still affects him, knowing the monster that it created and what that monster is doing in his life." As if to illustrate Logan's point, Renzi pairs the impassioned monologue with slow-motion footage of Paul battling back against former UFC champion Anderson Silva and silencing his critics by winning the September 2022 fight by unanimous decision.

    The assault allegations against Paul are similarly belittled. In April 2021, TikTok star Justine Paradise accused Paul of forcing her to perform oral sex on him; a few weeks later, model and actress Railey Lollie alleged that the boxer groped her after filming a video together in 2017. Paul publicly denied the allegations and suggested Paradise was paid to come forward with the claim, telling Graham Bensinger, "Something like that doesn't come out six days out from a massive fight."

    Renzi presents these sexual assault allegations as part of a rapid-fire recap of Paul's many controversies, but doing so creates a false equivalence between Paradise and Lollie's serious claims, which were corroborated by the New York Times, and Paul's dumb pranks, which led to multiple complaints from neighbors. Lumping this "bad behavior" together also gives Paul an opening to do the same: Rather than address any one specific allegation, he whines about the media's treatment of him. "It was easy to rip me apart," he says. "It became a thing to hate Jake Paul." That's the first, and only, time he comes close to recognizing the claims, and the film declines to mention them again.

    Johnny Football is connected to Jake Paul the Problem Child only by Untold's branding, but they share a general disinterest in following up on the more unsavory aspects of their subjects' public personas. Manziel was dogged by questions about his off-field antics throughout the draft process — in 2012, he was arrested for fighting and possessing a fake ID, and the following year he became involved in a for-profit autographs scandal — but after arriving in Cleveland, his behavior escalated. In early 2016, reports surfaced that Manziel threatened to kill himself and his ex-girlfriend, Colleen Crowley, after dragging her into a car by her hair and striking her. At the time, Crowley reportedly told police that Manziel injured her so severely that she couldn't hear out of her left ear for days.

    Initially, Duffy presses Manziel to discuss this allegation, as well as an October 2015 incident in which he and Crowley were pulled over after a domestic dispute. "Throughout that relationship I was unfaithful, and, you know, we get into a heated, heated argument," he says. "She's trying to jump out of the car, and, um..."

    Manziel trails off as he stares into the distance, but he never finishes his sentence. Instead, Duffy lets him off the hook: A newscaster steps in to explain that Crowley obtained a protective order from a Texas judge, and his parents, Michelle and Paul Manziel, take over as narrators. They quickly shift focus away from the alleged assault and back to their son's struggles. "It was so out of control, but he couldn't hear it. His mind was so gone," Michelle says of this period in Manziel's life, as Paul recalls trying to convince him to return to rehab.

    There's no title card explaining that producers reached out to Crowley for comment or any reference to the conditions of the December 2016 agreement that led to the domestic violence charges being dismissed; Johnny Football just moves on to the "$5 million bender" Manziel went on after he was released by the Browns. He offers insight into his behavior at the time, explaining that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide, but ultimately, he chalks up his failure in the NFL to his "frat boy" mentality. Acknowledging one's immaturity is not the same as taking accountability — and by allowing Manziel to stop speaking when he's uncomfortable, Duffy ensures he doesn't have to do so.

    Untold doesn't have the best track record when it comes to encouraging its subjects to confront their wrongdoings, so it's not necessarily a surprise that Jake Paul the Problem Child and Johnny Football continue this trend. Duffy's previous installment, Manti Te'o documentary The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist, brought a human element to the catfishing scandal, but it hardly challenged Te'o's version of events. And though the show's first volume featured three legitimately underreported stories — including that of boxer Christy Martin, who was abused by her husband — the most high-profile of the bunch, Caitlyn Jenner, sidesteps her pro-Trump, conservative politics and her support of a party that's waging war on the transgender community.

    Still, in Manziel's case, Crowley's domestic violence report played a key role in his eventual release from the Browns, making the speed with which it's abandoned all the more baffling. Johnny Football also deliberately blurs the timeline of Manziel's firing: It introduces the assault claim only after he discusses the "weight" that was lifted after his release, when in reality, the 2016 incident took place days before the Browns first indicated their desire to part ways with the embattled quarterback. To suggest that the demise of Manziel's NFL career and the allegations are not directly related is dishonest, not to mention factually inaccurate.

    What's even more frustrating about Jake Paul the Problem Child and Johnny Football is that there is an "untold" story here: that of the women who are abused by wealthy, powerful men in sports and then forgotten or ignored. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is expected to start for the Cleveland Browns this year, even with lawsuits pending related to the two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct levied against him in recent years. (Of the 26 lawsuits against Watson, 23 were resolved with settlements and one was withdrawn by the plaintiff.) Urban Meyer — the subject of a forthcoming Untold installment, Swamp Kings — "retired" from Ohio State in scandal after reports surfaced that he knew about a 2015 domestic violence incident involving ex-assistant Zach Smith and did nothing.

    The story is the same at every level of every sport, yet it's consistently glossed over in favor of documentaries about men overcoming the odds or, as we see with the latest installments of Untold, reckoning with their reputations as antiheroes. As more athletes are credibly accused of misconduct, and as those allegations continue to go unaddressed, the docuseries's puff piece approach proves inadequate, and it reflects a disappointing failure to meet the moment in sports.

    Untold: Jake Paul the Problem Child and Johnny Football are now streaming on Netflix. New installments of Untold Volume 3 drop weekly through August 22. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Untold, Netflix, Andrew Renzi, Jake Paul, Johnny Manziel, Ryan Duffy, Sexual Misconduct, Sports