It feels like forever and a day ago that the last game of this NFL season came to a close, even though it was just a few Sundays ago that Peyton “The Sheriff” Manning rode off into the glorious sunset clutching the Lombardi Trophy. Despite the absence of any meaningful football action in that time, the NFL has managed to keep itself firmly in the news, often for the wrong reasons. To whit:
- Roger Goodell proudly exclaimed right around Super Bowl time that he’d absolutely let his son play football. The tone-deaf nature of the interview in which this gem of a quote was produced was not lost on the masses, nor was the revelation that Goodell earned a cool 34.1 MILLION dollars for doing such a fantastic job as commissioner/human punching bag of the NFL (end sarcasm).
- The folks over at ESPN released another damning Outside the Lines report regarding the NFL’s concussion policy and research funding. I quote, from the article’s preview text: “Behind the NFL’s donations for brain research is a funding apparatus that some researchers believe steers research away from potentially uncomfortable truths.” I’ll just leave that quote there, since there is not much I can add to it, other than the fact that I wish that “Concussion” had been a better movie (but good on you, Will Smith, to resuscitate your flagging acting career).
- Losing quarterback Cam Newton was vilified, excoriated and nearly drawn and quartered by the collective might of the world for walking out of his post-Super-Bowl interview in anger. Fans and pundits alike screeched that he was being a sore loser, that his disrespect had no place in the modern NFL, and that if he could laugh and dance while winning, he should laugh and dance while losing too.
I’m going to pause my running list for a second to whale on this absurd standard for a bit. According to neutral observers, the brilliant minds at NFL HQ thought it would be a wonderful idea to stage Newton’s exit interview literally 20 feet from a gaggle of Broncos players. If that weren’t insulting enough, the Broncos players were being interviewed at the same time, well within earshot of Newton, with a number of them loudly shouting that they saw every play coming, that they just owned the line of scrimmage, that they just dominated. Coming off a loss on the biggest stage in football, you have to accept that Newton might take some of this personally.
More irritating to me is the confirmation bias that sportswriters seem to employ when dealing with their superstars… which brings me to my next point:
- The Peyton Manning saga. For those who missed it, which is likely since somehow every news outlet in America conveniently decided to not even air a mention of the tale, some time ago, Peyton Manning was accused by an Al Jazeera report of taking HGH. The investigative reporters had a star witness who claimed that he had direct evidence of Manning doping, and they released an article that seemed to reconstruct a shady sequence of events. Manning vociferously denied the claims at first, hired some private investigators to shake down the star witness’s family and otherwise expressed his outrage at being maligned in this fashion. The story seemed to lose steam, until the star witness claimed that he had evidence that HGH had been shipped to Manning’s wife. Then, right when things were getting juicy, the entire story suddenly vanished into thin air. An investigation into Manning by the NFL is apparently ongoing. Unlike during DeflateGate last year (don’t worry, I’m not going there again), it seems the NFL has suddenly learned how to conduct an investigation without leaks.
But things got worse for poor Peyton in the aftermath of the Super Bowl. The New York Daily News was sent a file involving an incident nearly 20 years ago, while Manning was the big man on campus at the University of Tennessee.
According to the report, which is clearly just one side of the story, Manning allegedly harbored a deep resentment toward an athletic trainer named Jamie Naughright, which culminated in him (allegedly) shoving his family jewels in her face.
Despite witnesses, the case was swept under the rug by UT officials and Naughright eventually left the university, settling a sexual harassment suit on her way out. Again, the entirety of the report is told from the victim’s perspective, thereby guaranteeing at least some bias. But regardless of how you spin it, things don’t look great for Manning, especially with the details regarding how Archie (his father) and Peyton spun the whole story in his book. Naughright, who was happily teaching in Florida, sued Manning and received a settlement in 2003.
“He-said, she-said” cases like this are rarely black and white, and I am sure there is tons we do not know and may never know. But one thing about this whole situation irks me, and that is the mismatch of crime and punishment in the sporting world. Cam Newton, for all the skeletons in his closet from his time at Auburn, was figuratively burned at the stake for the crime of not talking to the media after probably the most painful football loss in his life. The Cam Newton “problem,” which lies at the awkward intersection of race, privilege, quarterbacking ability and self-confidence, dominated the airwaves for an entire week.
The Peyton Manning saga? ESPN didn’t report any of it until Manning was named in a Title IX suit filed against the University of Tennessee. It felt like every five minutes, my phone would buzz with a new ESPN notification on why Cam Newton did or didn’t deserve our undying hatred, while I have yet to receive a single notification about Peyton Manning.
Cam Newton can come across as abrasive and cocky, in the same way that Peyton Manning exudes an “aw-shucks” aura. Newton wears his heart on his sleeve, and Manning, much like he is on the football field, seems much more reserved and calculating. Newton walked out of a press conference, while Manning might have used HGH and sexually harassed a trainer in college. But Newton is a rising star in the modern NFL, while Manning is as close as you can get to NFL royalty — his entire family has been in the NFL and he might go down in history as the greatest QB of all time.
But talent on the football field should never be conflated with heroism off the field. Sportswriters and fans alike are guilty of equating good football players with good people, no matter how many times that equation fails in practice. Sportswriters, myself included, try to pretend that they see deeper insights in people through the lens of their press conferences and their play on the field. It is a habit we should kick out of our systems.
Cam Newton will be fine — he has a long career ahead of him, and he continues to improve day by day. Manning will also be fine — he is basically the CEO of Papa John’s and Nationwide Insurance at this point. But the message here is to judge them fairly on their actual merits, not their perceived ones. If we operated that way, maybe the Manning stories would get the attention they deserve. And maybe Cam Newton would get a pass for being a little flustered after losing on the biggest stage in sports.
Ask Vignesh Venkataraman what his favorite Will Smith movie is at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.