I hate Peyton Manning, even though I’ve never met him and harbor no animosity towards him on any real personal level. I hate him in that fake and safe way that we hate famous people who we won’t ever really know. I hate him because it brings me joy, even if that joy makes me hate myself a little, too.
Too often sports are presented in terms of moral dichotomies, of Good and Bad and little to nothing in between. Players are either winners or losers. They work hard, or they’re lazy. They are selfless or selfish. They play the game the “right way” or the “wrong way.” They are innocents, or they are cheaters. Peyton Manning, we’ve been told for the past two decades, is Good. He’s a sport-changing talent. He’s a brilliant thinker. He works hard. He comes from a great family. He’s nice! He’s funny!
I hate the Good/Bad dichotomy even more than I hate Peyton Manning. It’s a dumb and archaic way of thinking about sports, moralism at its laziest. But in the case of Manning, I find myself drawn to it. My hate for Peyton turns me into a dumb sports radio caller. He is overrated. He’s not clutch. He is a loser who loses, and his legacy will be tallied in stat-grabbing individual accomplishments rather than all-important team success. Peyton Manning is not Good. He is Bad.
Before going further, an important disclosure: I was born and raised in Massachusetts and am a lifelong New England Patriots fan. (Pauses as most readers close this article.) While the Broncos got the better of the Pats two weekends ago—let me clarify: the Broncos’ defense got the better of the Pats two weekends ago—the rivalry has been rather one-sided. Manning has gone head to head with Tom Brady 17 times and has won only six. In January 2004, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts lost to Brady and the Pats in a game in which Manning threw four interceptions—an embarrassing performance for a player who had just been named the NFL’s MVP. I did not quite hate Peyton Manning in January 2004. I pitied him.
A few months later, my pity turned to disdain. Prior to the 2004 regular season, the Colts successfully lobbied the NFL to change the league’s rules on pass defense, to provide more of a cushion for the mentally fragile Manning’s physically fragile wide receivers. That season Manning won the MVP award (again) before falling to the Patriots in the playoffs (again). For New Englanders, there was something deeply irritating about the world’s collective insistence that Manning was the NFL’s greatest quarterback, when our own had won three Super Bowls by the age of 27. The following season the Colts raced to a 13–3 record before losing at home in the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Let’s just say we had some protection problems,” Manning said after the game, blaming the loss on his offensive line, a group that had allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL. Not to drift into jargon, but this is what scholars of American culture such as myself refer to as a dick move.
Manning won his lone Super Bowl the following season, beating a Chicago Bears team that’s now remembered for being forgettable. He’s never won another and has repeatedly shown his flair for the inopportune interception. And yet Manning has taken three more MVP awards and been relentlessly celebrated for his mastery of his position. Even in 2016, one can barely make it through a few minutes of a Broncos playoff game without hearing about how the aging Manning, his once-formidable arm strength vastly diminished, wills his team to victory through wits and guile. This is an improbable narrative to apply to a quarterback who threw nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns this season.
I hate Peyton Manning because he is his sport’s leading recipient of the benefit of the doubt. No matter what he does, there is a knee-jerk presumption of righteous wholesomeness. For all the conscious positioning of Manning as an affable everyman—“That’s a first-rate queso dip”—he’s really been the beneficiary of a particular strand of jock-worshipping culture. Manning is not an intimidating athlete. He’s not overwhelmingly strong, and he’s definitely not fast. More than other players in the NFL, he’s someone who fans—particularly white, middle-aged fans—can identify with.
The fact that people see themselves in Peyton Manning means they refuse to see the star QB as anything but a paragon of virtue. Consider the ugly sexual harassment claim brought against Manning by a female trainer during his time at the University of Tennessee, an allegation resuscitated this week by the Daily Beast. Although the trainer—who accused the then–college-aged Manning of exposing himself—settled with the university for $300,000 on account of that incident and others, the football star nonetheless brushed off the allegations in a book co-written with his father. He called the trainer a “vulgar woman,” adding that “women in the men’s locker room is one of the most misbegotten concessions to equal rights ever made.” No matter how you feel about these specific allegations, there can be no arguing the fact that they’ve been swept aside, both by Manning himself and by a compliant media. It’s a wonder this guy’s ever had the gall to complain about his protection.
That same curtain of protection came down just over a month ago, thanks to an Al-Jazeera report that the quarterback used human growth hormone to recover from injuries in 2011. Manning hater though I am, I don’t care at all if he used HGH. But it’s been infuriating to watch the sycophants reflexively circle their wagons in his defense, as they’ve always done. There were columns like this, in which a writer for the Indianapolis Star cites Manning’s charity work in refusing to believe Manning used performance-enhancing drugs, logic that’s about as loopy as a Livestrong bracelet. And then there was CBS’ Jim Nantz, a sycophant among sycophants, who refused to even acknowledge the Al-Jazeera report during the first weekend of January, because he’d determined it was a “nonstory.” Nantz forgot to mention that he and Manning share an agent, but maybe we shouldn’t blame him—after all, he was giving Peyton the benefit of the doubt, and these days that’s not the easiest work.
Race is an awfully big elephant in this men’s-only locker room, and it’s hard to imagine a nonwhite player getting this sort of treatment. If you don’t believe me, look to the other sideline on Super Bowl Sunday. Carolina’s Cam Newton, who like Manning was drafted first overall, was frequently criticized in the early part of his career for being selfish and aloof, despite putting up some gaudy numbers of his own. Newton’s own alleged college misbehavior followed him into the league like a harbinger, and his first trip to the Super Bowl has been condescendingly applauded as a leap into maturity. By contrast, when Manning finally made the big game in 2007, it was celebrated as his birthright, a man fulfilling his destiny.
All I want is for Manning to be judged by the same standards as everyone else. Those standards are often dumb—I’ll admit that it’s irrational to argue that Manning isn’t clutch—but they’re standards for a reason. Sports are supposed to be a meritocracy. We cheer the guys who win and boo the guys who lose. That’s not how it is with Peyton Manning. When he plays well, we celebrate him. When he stinks, we make excuses for him. When he stars in a commercial, we laugh with him. And when he’s accused of cheating, we rally around him.
I’ve had enough of that benefit of the doubt and the quarterback who it benefits. It’s widely believed that Manning will retire after this season, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s exhausting hating an athlete beloved by so many. You start coming off as paranoid, like Jimmy Stewart watching football through his Rear Window binoculars, or Richard Dreyfuss carving the Patriots logo into his plate of mashed potatoes. But don’t worry about me—I’ll have the strength to bear that hatred for a few more days. Go Panthers.