We have reached the slowest two weeks on the sports calendar, in which all the sports world can find to talk about is baseball’s molasses trade deadline and NFL players showing up to training camp so they can stretch. (There was, at one point Monday, a breathless report that Chicago Bears kickers were, in fact, successfully kicking.) ESPN, a natural state of sports that abhors any news vacuum, has responded to this sleepy period by launching the highest-profile show yet on their new ESPN-plus streaming service, heretofore only subscribed to by MMA and MLS obsessives, Katie Nolan fans, and those prone to watching Canadian football highlights in the middle of the day. (So: Me.)
The show is called “Peyton’s Places,” and it is original, “reality-based” programming in which, for 30 (!) episodes, former superstar NFL quarterback and perpetual pitchman Peyton Manning “[celebrates] the NFL’s 100th season by reliving the greatest moments in the league’s history.” This may be true — and the NFL 100 logo that’s part of the title certainly implies that this will be the Roger Goodell-approved Protect The Shield Pravda we have grown accustomed to — but judging by the first four episodes released to great fanfare on Monday, the show is just the NFL’s Happy Yokel hanging out with his celebrity friends. The first episode features Jay Leno and Joe Namath — two men whose average age exceeds our President’s — and subsequent guests include Joe Montana, Mel Kiper Jr., Ray Lewis and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. The show looks like the result of a pitch meeting between ESPN and NFL executives in which someone proposed “Parts Unknown, but kicked in the head by a mule and about football instead of food,” and by the time Leno and Manning were doing a two-minute “improv” commercial for Nationwide Insurance in the middle of the first episode, I’ll confess that I bailed. There was a replay of a Rugby friendly just two clicks away, after all.
But my brief encounter with the current state of streaming sports television did make me reflect on Manning himself. Peyton Manning has been retired from the NFL for three seasons now, but an argument could be made he’s still the league’s most marketable export. As when he was active, it is impossible to avoid him in advertisements — there are actual Internet rankings of his commercials from best to worst, as good an argument for Web censorship as I’ve ever read — and Forbes estimates he still makes $12 million a year from his sponsorship deals, from Nike to Papa John’s to Nationwide to DirectTV. He’s the unofficial avatar for the league itself, from his prominence with this NFL-produced show itself to being the centerpiece of the entire NFL 100 campaign. He is without question, along with Tom Brady, the most recognizable figure in the NFL. This has been the dynamic in the league for a decade-plus now, even with Manning retired: Brady is the bad guy in the black hat, Peyton Manning is the affable, dorky yokel you can’t help but love. He is what the league wants to sell itself as: Marketable, self-effacing-yet-dominant, all things to all people and, most of all, squeaky-clean. When Roger Goodell talks about player discipline and reigning in “player misconduct,” rest assured, he’s not talking about Peyton Manning.
But it is an odd world indeed, and one indicative of just how well-honed a public relations apparatus that Manning and the NFL have set up, that Manning, of all people, would be considered the squeaky-clean one. It is difficult, in this day and age of constant scrutiny of athletes’ lives and reputations, for any player’s public persona to survive a PED scandal, or an accusation of sexual harassment, or, perhaps worse, an open political association with the President of the United States. Barry Bonds is the best baseball player since Babe Ruth, but he’ll have the steroid stain on him until the day he dies; Ben Roethlisberger skated twice on sexual assault charges but no one ever forgets it, even if Cowboys owner Jerry Jones somehow escapes it; Brady had a MAGA hat in his locker once and is considered by some to be the Charles Lindbergh of this era, even though he (unlike most of his white Patriots teammates) still hasn’t visited the White House under Trump (or, for that matter, Obama).
But Manning? Manning has all three of these scandals.
In December 2015, Manning was named in a high-profile, explosive report on Al-Jazeera America that he and his wife had regular HGH shipments to their home while he was recovering from an injury in 2011. The primary source in the (mostly mediocre) documentary ended up recanting what he said in the film, but only after Manning’s lawyers descended upon him and Manning went all over television the day the report aired lambasting him to friendly media. (It’s worth remembering the source was captured on hidden camera talking about Manning — which actually makes it more likely he was telling the truth in the film than when he spoke later. Manning is still suing the now-defunct Al-Jazeera America.) PED scandal: Check. Even more recently, in October 2017, a woman named Jamie Naughright, a trainer who worked with Manning in 1996 at the University of Tennessee, talked to “Inside Edition” about how, when she was treating Manning for a foot injury, he “pulled his shorts down and put his anus and testicles on my face.” “Inside Edition” was not the first time this story had come up; Naughright filed an employment complaint at the time of the incident, which the university settled for $300,000, and then when Manning wrote about the scandal in a 2001 book with his father, Naughright sued him for defamation and received an “undisclosed amount.” MeToo scandal: Check. And Manning has been much more forthright about his political leanings than Brady ever has. He has donated thousands of dollars to GOP politicians, he has spoken at Republican retreats, he has toyed with running for the Tennessee Senate as a Republican, and he has golfed with President Trump since he took office, calling it “a fantastic experience.” He even has some very Big Boy Buddies.
So, Trump Connection: Check.
This is not to say that all of these should be weighed equally, or necessarily even be career-killers for Manning: The PED accusations are sort of flimsy — certainly more so than the assault allegations — and Manning of course has the right to support whatever politician he desires, even if that politician is Donald Trump. But it is strange. It’s strange that Manning remains so blissfully free of controversy, so Teflon in this day and age, so able to dance between the raindrops in a way that Brady, who desperately wants to be as deft at it as Manning, is unable to. Even people who don’t have any particular affinity for Peyton Manning generally don’t dislike him with much intensity. But people hate Tom Brady. Manning is the public face of the NFL’s 100th anniversary campaign, will be on every commercial once football season begins, and is the linchpin of ESPN’s billion-dollar streaming service (which is actually doing quite well). He is as middlebrow and mainstream as any figure in American popular culture, beloved to your grandmother and inoffensive to just about everyone else. Peyton Manning was a fantastic quarterback, an excellent pitchman and a passable-to-middling television host. But as an example of how to bypass scandal and come up looking cleaner and more innocent than ever … he might be better at that than he ever was on the football field. It might be his most impressive achievement of all.