Unimpeachable, irrefutable proof.
That's really all the NCAA should need to suspend Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for a minimum of four college football games this season.
If the judge, jury and executioner of college athletics can prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Manziel received thousands of dollars for signing his name more than 4,000 times to items ranging from shirts to photographs to all sizes of football helmets, Johnny Football should receive no less than a four-game vacation from competition.
Or do you think Manziel's offense is any less egregious than that of former Georgia receiver A.J. Green, who was suspended four games at the start of the 2010 season for selling his 2009 Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 to someone loosely perceived to be an agent?
We repeat: four games ... for selling one jersey. And Manziel should receive less for reportedly pocketing thousands for more than 4,000 autographs?
Again, however much circumstantial evidence may be out there, the NCAA needs cold, hard proof that money changed hands to sway the vast majority of public opinion to its side.
And if Johnny Football-Paycheck-Autograph-Freefall-Cash (a personal favorite)-Foolsball is even the tiniest bit smarter than he's acted since winning the Heisman Trophy last December, he's always insisted on cash, which almost always is difficult to trace, especially when you have the family money that the Money Badger (another favorite) apparently has.
So maybe the NCAA can prove this and maybe it can't. And even if it can, maybe it will have the guts to suspend Manziel for four games -- including its showdown with two-time defending national champ Alabma in Week 3 -- and maybe it won't.
But the notion that the NCAA, ESPN, CBS (which already has slotted Alabama at A&M for its Sept. 14, 3:30 time slot) don't wish to suspend Johnny Football-Paycheck-Autograph-Freefall-Cash-Foolsball due to lessened TV ratings may have another problem: race.
However much no one wishes to discuss it at this time, the NCAA must at least consider how it will look if the well-to-do, white Southern quarterback Manziel is allowed to skate while blacks such as Green, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and Southern Cal great Reggie Bush have suffered harsh penalties in recent years.
The NCAA certainly could point to former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton as an example that it doesn't see fire every time it smells smoke -- and at least for now, the NCAA apparently is having as much trouble proving Manziel took money as it did proving the Newton family did -- but there's certainly a segment of America that will see a troubling double standard if Manziel suffers no penalty while Green and others were suspended or worse.
This doesn't mean the NCAA should attempt to suspend No. 2 without concrete proof, especially given the high-powered attorneys the Manziel family has no doubt retained to fight the charges. But at a time when perception is becoming everything, the NCAA is under pressure on multiple and opposite fronts to make a decision and make it fairly quickly, which has never been the organization's strong suit.
But regardless of which way the NCAA leans -- or if it merely drags its feet as it somewhat did with both Newton and the Tattoogate of Pryor and The Ohio State University -- there also are beginning to be some rather pointed questions aimed at Texas A&M, including why the school seemed to know so little for so long of Manziel's off-field activities.
In an excellent roundtable discussion that ESPN aired Tuesday afternoon, former Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg proclaimed, "Texas A&M did a horrific job of monitoring Johnny Manziel."
Added former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell: "I guarantee you that [Alabama coach] Nick Saban -- if [quarterback] AJ McCarron had something to do -- they'd have someone there with him."
Greenberg even suggested that all high-profile athletic departments should hire a director of security -- which is commonplace in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball -- to watch over its star players.
And it does make you wonder how A&M -- possessing one of the nation's top 10 endowments -- could have been caught so off guard. Especially when the school has estimated it received at least $37 million worth of free media exposure due to Manziel's Heisman run and the Aggies' 11-2 season last autumn.
But at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, ESPN NFL analyst Herman Edwards also made a pretty good point.
"When is somebody -- whether it's the president or the football coach -- going to call this kid in and ask, 'Did you sign autographs for money?'" Edwards said. "That's how you get to the bottom of this. Put it on the kid."
To which Aggies Nation might do wise to hope that Manziel borrows a line from the 18th century Anglo-Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith, who once wrote: "Ask me no questions, and I'll tell you no lies."
Otherwise, Johnny Football-Paycheck-Autograph-Foolsball-Cash might no longer be A&M's $37 million cash cow.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.