Sports Nut

Peyton Manning, You’re Our Only Hope

How the NFL’s model citizen could end the NFL’s dumb war on drugs.

Payton Manning.
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos speaks to the media in Santa Clara, California, Feb. 3, 2016.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Years from now, in a country that is less out of its mind about drugs, we’ll look back at the first interview Peyton Manning gave regarding the Al-Jazeera documentary “linking” him to human growth hormone, and we’ll laugh. The Broncos quarterback was speaking with ESPN’s Lisa Salters on Dec. 27, before the documentary had even aired, and the two seemed almost to relish the theater of the moment, Manning mustering up a butchy air of wounded virtue—“disgusted,” “sickened”—and Salters assuming a gravity appropriate for the Serious Allegations at hand. “What do you want to say,” she intoned at one point, “to the little kid waking up and hearing this about Peyton Manning?”

It was all such utter balls, but Manning and Salters were only playing the parts assigned to them in the hack dramaturgy of sports-world drug scandals. The script by now is so familiar that much of the subsequent coverage of the HGH insinuations, particularly after the arrival on the scene of Ari Fleischer, the former Bushie now smarming on behalf of sports figures in crisis, amounted to theater criticism. Manning’s guilt or innocence was beside the point; all that mattered was whether he nailed his lines. “Peyton Manning called the perfect play and made his HGH scandal disappear (for now),” read one recent headline above a story that averred, “Fleischer is doing a fine job for Manning.” I’ll say.

I haven’t mentioned the funny part, though. The funny part came when Peyton Manning explained what he was actually doing in 2011 at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indianapolis, the anti-aging clinic from which Manning (or maybe his wife) allegedly scored some HGH.

No, Manning said, he had never used HGH or any other so-called performance-enhancing drug. Rather, he had gone to the clinic for a battery of alternative treatments as he recovered from multiple surgeries on a badly injured neck. He’d used the clinic’s hyperbaric chamber, he explained to Salters. And what else? “Something called ECCP”—he meant EECP, enhanced external counterpulsation—“which is supposed to create blood flow in your muscles. You’ve gotta do 35 consecutive days of treatments. I did all 35 days, for an hour of treatment. … Had some nutrient IV therapies that I did, that I thought may have helped me as well.”

And right there, the whole wobbly intellectual edifice of the war on PEDs should’ve fallen in a heap at Manning’s gimpy foot.  

No one, it turns out, is a better advocate for drug liberalization in sports than the NFL’s model citizen. (The effect is a bit like finding Opie Taylor wandering through a Cheech & Chong movie.) Without intending to, he revealed in just a few words the basic futility and incoherence of the prohibition regime in his sport and in others.

Consider the licit means by which Manning, now 39, has been kept in shoulder pads. The treatments he’s discussed openly involve some combination of alternative chemistry and injected fat cells. There are also various exotic procedures, the names of which he can’t even recall, not to mention all the reiki crystals and sitar music being inflicted upon the patients of the Guyer Institute. And, yes, there are steroids, too, but only the kind the league has no desire to demagogue onto a banned list. Moral arguments aside, can anyone really say that adding human growth hormone to an already-baroque regimen of cortisone shots and stem-cell therapy would represent some unnatural degree of physical self-improvement?

Let’s not forget that the jury is still out on the virtues of HGH. And lest anyone be tempted to argue the prohibitionist line on the grounds that drug bans protect the health of the athletes, let’s not forget, either, what NFL teams do with the legal stuff. In 2014, a group of retired players sued the league, alleging that team medical staffs pumped them full of painkillers and pills and whatever else it took to get them through four quarters, never warning them of the medical risks. None of this would seem terribly revelatory to any football fan with a dog-eared copy of North Dallas Forty. But the suit came along just as the NFL was knuckling the players’ association into accepting an apparently useless blood test for HGH, and the juxtaposition told a story all on its own: The league’s drug policy isn’t about morality; it’s about worker control. The complaint was eventually tossed. Don’t do football, kids.

Manning’s example confounds the usual moral paradigm: He’s accused of taking an officially designated drug of enhancement for the purposes of recovery. The distinction between enhancement and recovery has never made much sense, least of all in the context of football, where players spend their brief careers just trying to enhance themselves out of bed in the morning. Even our language reveals how much we’ve accepted the unexamined premises of the prohibitionists. Performance-enhancing drug is a cheap term of art that we use lazily to cover not just a sprawling variety of drugs but also the masking/ameliorative agents for those drugs and soon enough, surely, the masking/ameliorative agents for those masking/ameliorative agents and on and on.

But these phony distinctions have mattered nonetheless—all too much. So much of the moral energy of the anti-doping argument gets expended on the vanishingly thin line between enhancement and maintenance. That line is where crusaders like Dick Pound and Jeff Novitzky made a name and perhaps a little money for themselves, and that line is where the Fourth Amendment died a little. When Peyton Manning’s legal team sent a couple goons to the home of Al-Jazeera’s main source—they were conducting what Ari Fleischer called a “pre-emptive investigation”— it was, in an indirect way, out of deference to that line.

Who knows, though, where maintenance ends and enhancement begins? This is a metaphysical question, not a biochemical one, and the folly only deepens when the drug warriors use the maintenance/enhancement binary to determine which substances are permitted and which ones are banned. The result is another arbitrary distinction, subject to fits of for-profit hysteria (is this one of those even-numbered years that the World Anti-Doping Agency starts talking about banning caffeine again?), policed by the servants of po-faced authoritarians always looking for ways to consolidate power in their office. As Charlie Pierce is fond of pointing out, Kirk Gibson took a steroid, hit a home run, and became a hero; Ben Johnson took a steroid, won a race, and became a pariah. There is certainly a chemical distinction between cortisone and stanozolol, but the idea that one is moral and one is not is based entirely on the illusory distinction between maintenance and enhancement. Without that phantom distinction, the whole argument collapses, WADA and all the other doping opportunists are out of business, and Dick Pound is just a guy with a funny name.

And now here we have Peyton Manning, accused druggie, positioned like no player ever has been to bring down the destructive myth at the heart of a sputtering but ongoing war on PEDs. Who outside the Commonwealth would begrudge the finest quarterback of his time wanting to do everything he can to bend the aging curve in his favor? Does anyone feel cheated that Manning might’ve bought a few good seasons on the wrong side of a line that was arbitrary to begin with?

All great quarterbacks become propaganda eventually, whether they want to or not. They’re the vessels through which the NFL tells the story it wants the rest of us to hear. You could see this at work in the establishment response to the HGH allegations, in the way that Jim Nantz immediately did a half gainer into the tank for Manning. And you could see it, too, in some of the shattered responses to the Al-Jazeera report. “Has another athletic idol fallen, or at least begun to take a fall? If this is true, it’s very sad, and very damaging for Peyton Manning,” wrote longtime Indianapolis sports columnist Bob Kravitz (who, incredibly, once took HGH at the direction of the Guyer Institute).

I see it differently. If the allegations are true and Manning is forced to confess and do the doper’s via dolorosa, it’d be the best thing to happen to the NFL in years. In that scenario, Manning could do something great quarterbacks are never allowed to do: Embody the truth about his sport and force everyone to grow up a little.