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Keith Strudler: Straw Men, Sports And The Media

If Peyton Manning had known six months ago that he’d be on the bench backing up an unproven fourth year quarterback who had thrown all of thirty passes in his first three years in the league, while he fends off accusations of performance enhancing drug use, he might just have thought twice about coming back for an 18th NFL season. Granted, Manning assumed he had ample life left on his cannon of an arm, if last year was any guide. And his team the Denver Broncos stood to be a favorite to make the Super Bowl, giving him another chance to put a second ring on his finger, at least equaling his brother Eli and making a stronger case for his place in the pantheon of greatest QB’s of all time. And the $15 million he’s paid this year didn’t hurt either.

But a good chunk of that change might go to Manning’s lawyers, if he does in fact follow his impulse to sue Al Jazeera for their documentary that insinuated he used the performance enhancing drug HGH, or human growth hormone, during his recovery from a neck injury in 2011. According to their report, an anti-aging clinic repeatedly shipped the drug to Manning’s wife, always by her name, never his, and the story referred to her husband throughout. So while the narrative never explicitly accused Peyton of taking the drug, they pretty much led us to the water in case we wanted to drink.

For his part, Manning has vehemently denied the allegation, if that’s what they are. He’s threated to take the network to court, not that he needs the money. Now for the record, he’s never denied the shipment to his wife, but rather that he ever actually took the drug. And to be fair, literally no one in American cares one bit what Ashley Manning ingests. For their part, Al Jazeera has “clarified” the story, insisting the report never accused Peyton Manning of taking PED’s, but simply that his wife got them in the mail. And the primary source in the documentary, a former unpaid intern of the clinic, has since recanted all his claims by accusing the network of badgering him to speak. He also mentioned the stress of the death of his fiancée as a reason he lied. I’d say it’s bizarre if we hadn’t seen things much worse in the historical narrative of PED investigations, like when pitcher Roger Clemens said he couldn’t have been taking a needle of drugs in his rear end because that exact needle was being injected into his wife’s posterior at that very moment. So the strange is simply routine in this world. And the wife can certainly be the fall guy.

Not surprisingly, a whole lot of sports folks have stood up for Peyton Manning, most long before the story even aired. Mike Ditka has called Al Jazeera “garbage” and “not credible,” which would probably mean a lot more if Mike Ditka knew anything about journalism. Others have been more tepid their critiques, at the very least accusing the network of sensationalism. It does sound bad when the network’s reporter now firmly states she never accused Peyton Manning of taking drugs, when his jersey was basically used as a tease for the film. Take football and the fact we’re talking about one of the most beloved sports figures in history out of it, and it’s still really questionable journalism, and that’s being generous. Perhaps that’s the story here, which in the age of twitter reporting and citizen journalism, is nothing new.

But outside a statement on the bizarro landscape of journalism today, the sports story here is probably this: we simply believe that everyone is cheating.  When I heard a couple of days ago that Peyton Manning was accused of taking HGH, my initial reaction was simply, of course he did. I’m guessing that’s the same reaction by countless millions of Americans, minus all those that – spoiler alert – believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. The age of suspended disbelief ended somewhere around the time Lance Armstrong went on Oprah, when most of us finally admitted that athletes – lots and lots of athletes – take drugs, and pretty much all of them, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones to Barry Bonds to Alex Rodriguez to the thousands that never got caught – they all deny it. So with all due respect to Peyton Manning, it doesn’t matter one bit what he says, since that’s exactly what everyone says.

And that, in almost 2016, is what stinks about professional sports. Not only that guys dope – and by the way, I completely understand why they would, and maybe should. But that you just don’t know anything anymore. So much that a shoddy piece with a questionable source seems entirely reasonable, believable even. It’s a world of straw men, and one that Peyton Manning probably wishes he wasn’t a part of anymore.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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