In 2015, 80 of the top 100 watched sports shows in the United States were National Football League games, and frankly it’s surprising that the number isn’t higher. Yet despite this immense popularity, most of the players are unknown when the helmets come off. This is because the NFL’s brutally unsentimental marketing strategy has always been to promote teams, not players. You cannot market the individual when any play may be your last.
Amid this faceless warrior class, there is one star whose commercial power rises above all others: Peyton Manning. The 39-year-old quarterback is not only a ubiquitous pitchman, selling life insurance, cars, and an industrial solvent called “Papa John’s Pizza.” He is also ratings gold for the NFL. That’s what happens when you are a second-generation, four-time MVP with 20 years in the national spotlight. When Peyton joined the Denver Broncos in 2012, they not only transformed into instant Super Bowl contenders, they also became America’s Team: the most popular franchise in the country, besting the polarizing (hateable) teams in Dallas, Pittsburgh, and New England.
The financial power of Peyton Manning means that he operates by a different, deeply corrosive set of media rules than any other player. This was seen starkly last weekend. Peyton has been embroiled in a scandal over whether he used human growth hormones to aid his comeback from the four neck surgeries that left him weak as a kitten, unable to even grip a football. The Al Jazeera English news network released a documentary called The Dark Side of Sports that posited that HGH was delivered to Manning’s home from an “anti-aging clinic” called the Guyer Institute in the name of his wife, Ashley Manning. Al Jazeera had an intern from Guyer, the cinematically named Charlie Sly, say this while being surreptitiously recorded. Sly has since recanted, but Al Jazeera claims a second confidential source as well. Two other athletes named in the documentary, baseball players Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman, are now suing Al Jazeera for defamation, so the truth is coming. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about PEDs and sports, it’s that stories change mighty fast when perjury and prison loom.
As for Peyton, he emerged in a red-faced rage, denying everything except that “private” packages were in fact delivered from the Guyer Institute to Ashley Manning. He even hired former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer to mount the PR counterattack against Al Jazeera English. Yes, Ari Fleischer: a man who once was part of an administration that “accidentally” bombed and killed Al Jazeera journalists during the Iraq War and who drafted banal memos about waging literal war on the news network would now be throwing rhetorical bombs at the news network in the court of public opinion.