We thought we knew Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
We’d all seen the television commercials, we all know that Nationwide is on your side, that Peyton might be making our Papa John’s pizza and that, despite his football excellence and his March retirement after winning his second Super Bowl, Manning was everything we have come to expect from our football heroes.
Then the story changed.
It started with a long-form journalism piece by New York Post Sportswriter Shaun King, detailing a Peyton Manning no one knew. This Manning exposed himself to a female trainer, an event that eventually led to a civil suit, a settlement and Dr. Jamie Naughright’s departure from the University of Tennessee. The story continued when Naughright was working at Florida Southern University when Manning’s memoir titled The Manning’s was published, portraying Manning’s side of the argument.
Naughright sued. A settlement was reached but Naughright ended up losing her job. King’s story earned more than its share of blowback. It was a decidedly one-sided story that told Naughright’s version of the story with no mention of Manning’s version, which basically boils down to a he-said she-said story typical of this kind of incident.
The most powerful reaction to the Manning story came from sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who attacked King for writing a smear piece on Manning to protect black NFL quarterback Cam Newton, who struggled in the Super Bowl after discussing issues about being a black quarterback.
The argument between King and Whitlock gained traction when the two began discussing their level of blackness (birth-certificate records indicate King is white) and the focus of the story eventually centered on the two people arguing on Twitter.
That’s where the narrative of the story took a wrong turn since the actual focus should be on Peyton Manning. Not because of what he might have done to Naughright and not because his inability to let the incident go caused the story to be raised again years later after The Manning’s came out. No, the focus of this story should be about how sports media collaborate to construct an image of specific athletes that is not an accurate representation of who they truly are.
Sports media too often find themselves in the business of making heroes. They take an athlete’s on-field exploits and hope the athlete is just as wonderful off it. Sometimes, they even look the other way when signs of pampering, arrogance or just pure jerkiness show up. Instead, they build a brand, a human being so good, so perfect that fans start to believe this is who the person really are. Sports media did it to Lance Armstrong, protecting him from years of speculation of illegal doping. Tiger Woods was portrayed as being squeaky clean until his wife took a nine-iron to his car, opening up a can of worms that still haunts Woods to this day.
Too, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire “saved” baseball in 1998 with a home run chase that will never be forgotten. Also not forgotten is the sports media’s failure to question how much steroids abuse really drove the race. And now we have Manning. At the end of his career, allegations of performance enhancing drugs and sexual abuse are brought up and force the media to reconsider his legacy.
But should they? Peyton Manning was a great football player, definitely one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. But is that enough?
After all, sports media made him something more. They made him a television star, a shill for multiple brands on television and portrayed him as an all around great guy.
We’re now finding he wasn’t the guy we saw on television, and what he did to Jamie Naughright was wrong, even if his account is the truth. Fans shouldn’t expect more of their athletes than what they see on the field. That expectation encourages sports media to turn a blind eye to the truth – that these guys aren’t all the press portrays them to be.
Fans should stop expecting more. But more to the point, the media should stop constructing more.