America at Large: Peyton Manning drug story being ignored

Denver Broncos quarterback accused of using Human Growth Hormone

 Peyton Manning, whose clean-cut image is in danger of unravelling. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Peyton Manning, whose clean-cut image is in danger of unravelling. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

 

During the endless hours of NFL pre-game shows across various American channels last Sunday morning, not a single word was uttered by any pundit about Peyton Manning being implicated in a Human Growth Hormone (HGH) scandal. One of the most iconic figures of the past 15 years is linked with a performance-enhancing substance in a documentary, yet none of the television programmes dedicated to forensically covering the league saw fit to even mention it.

On New York radio the same day, CBS commentator Jim Nantz, arguably the voice of the sport these days, was asked if he’d be addressing the issue while working Manning’s game for the Denver Broncos later that afternoon. As if.

“No, why would we?” asked Nantz. “If we talk about it, we would only continue to breathe life into a story that on all levels is a non-story. Why add another layer to it?”

Around about the same time Nantz delivered that stunning abdication of journalistic responsibility, Deborah Davies, a reporter involved in Al-Jazeera’s controversial production The Dark Side, was on CNN. There, she claimed to have a second source backing up the initial allegation that several shipments of HGH were sent to Manning’s wife Ashley by Indianapolis’s Guyer Institute in 2011.

Neck surgery

Nobody knows if Manning is guilty of anything other than being extremely unlucky. Imagine how unfortunate and coincidental that his wife was receiving this particular drug in the mail, the kind of substance that might help a quarterback recovering from career-threatening neck surgery, desperate to get back on the field. Just at a time when he fit that exact profile.

And from the very same doctor he was visiting himself for nutrient, oxygen and something called enhanced external counterpulsation (which helps push blood through the body) therapies. Not to mention that American sport has recent, bitter experience with spouses who’ve enabled and/or been patsies for accused husbands – the New York Daily News dubbing them “the steroid wives club”.

If the vehemence of Manning’s denial – “Damn straight, I’d never do anything outside the rules” – matched some of Lance Armstrong’s tours de force, his subsequent decision to hire the unctuous Ari Fleischer, George W Bush’s former flack, as his spokesman didn’t do much to convince doubters. Not that there were too many of them.

A lot of the media here have dismissed the story altogether because, just like with Armstrong back in the day, the alternative is perhaps too gruesome to even contemplate. America’s clean-cut, aw-shucks quarterback, the one who’s so funny on TV ads and yuks it up on Saturday Night Live, taking something he shoudn’t? Never.

There are reports of outlets digging deeper. Indeed, we’ve already learned that Dr Leonard Guyer, Manning’s holistic therapist, was involved in buying HGH that had been illegally imported in China in 2007, and that his clinic also specialises in a bizarre weight- loss routine known as “fat-freezing”. Ultimately, it may take Manning making good on his threat to sue before the whole truth outs. And if he doesn’t, well, that wouldn’t be the most positive sign, would it?

In the meantime, for all the criticisms of its reportage and methodology, Al-Jazeera (all but dismissed as a dodgy Arab station by former Chicago Bears’ coach Mike Ditka) may have done the sport a genuine service, forcing a long-overdue conversation about HGH’s place in the NFL.

Recently retired players reckon at least 30 to 40 per cent of every team are using it. Others simply describe locker-room abuse of the drug as rampant and necessary, being the only possible way injured stars can continue to suit up through the bruising 17-game regular season.

It’s impossible to hazard a guess at how prevalent HGH really is. After the players’ union and the NFL agreed in principle to testing for it in 2011, they then took three years to implement a system so risible that it is a complete joke. Of the almost 800 players selected for scrutiny last season, not a single one tested positive for HGH. The procedure they employ is so basic it will only catch somebody who has used in the hours prior to giving a blood sample. An ailing linebacker who has injected the day before will not be caught.

Rudimentary

Independent observers believe that deploying this rudimentary isoform testing was designed to allow the NFL to claim to be cracking down, keeping politicians off its back, while really enabling individuals to continue using with impunity. Which is problematic. Aside from the damage long-term use may be doing to their own bodies, there is, just like in contact sports closer to home, the issue of players getting bigger, faster and stronger, and inflicting more serious damage on each other during games.

Amid talk of prospects using HGH to tack on 15lbs of muscle between finishing college and starting in the NFL, the league has promised to introduce a more comprehensive test next season and to investigate the claims made by Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, at least one in three of those taking the field for the playoffs this weekend will have got there with the assistance of the substance preferred by the Denver Broncos’ quarterback’s wife.

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