It’s the rare athlete who can yell “get your head out of your ass! You suck!” at a kid and get a laugh, but back in 2007, Peyton Manning pulled it off.
That mock “United Way” ad remains one of the best “Saturday Night Live” bits ever. Since then, Manning has only burnished his Dad-jokester-who’s-in-on-the-joke persona, from “Cut that meat!” to “Tur-key-leg-you-taste-so-good.”
He hasn’t taken a snap in more than three years, but he’s still more famous than all but, what, five current NFL players? Three? One?
Manning is that most remarkable of unicorns: an athlete who’s legitimately funny. (Pay no attention to the Dave-Chappelle-at-Madison-Square-Garden-level guffaws that Tom Brady or Tiger Woods get during their news conferences; everyone’s just glad they’re attempting some humanity.) Manning plays with his image as a goofy, overly prepared EveryDad, sometimes leaning into it, sometimes breaking away with it. We’re all in on the joke.
That’s why Manning’s current in-retirement gig, host of an ESPN+ NFL history/travelogue called “Peyton’s Places,” is perfect for him. He’s Football Bourdain, traveling the country to dig up stories both known and unknown, like this tale of the Memphis field where Elvis played football with his high school pals:
It’s the sideburns that put it over the top.
As part-time jobs go, this one’s a fun one … but nobody thinks this is where Manning’s story ends.
What’s fascinating about Manning is that he’s been able to sidestep controversy far better than he could elude tacklers. Sexual assault allegations brought by a former Tennessee Volunteers trainer, who alleged Manning exposed himself to her during a rehab session, went away via settlement. Allegations that he was enmeshed in — or at least adjacent to — a PED ring also dissipated. Manning has thrown teammates under the bus; remember the “idiot kicker” line about Mike Vanderjagt from the early 2000s?
And yet, through it all, through incidents that would hang around other players’ necks like character-flaw cinderblocks, Manning’s sterling reputation has remained not just intact, but bulletproof. No other athlete — not LeBron, not Tiger, not Megan Rapinoe, not Serena — enjoys that kind of across-the-board invulnerability.
Here’s the question, though: in a culture that seems hellbent on savaging its icons, how long can it last? America is in full teardown mode right now — nobody gets to skate on “I was young and stupid” or “those are my beliefs, and I stand by them” anymore. Fair or not — and we can all think of cases of reputation-shattering overreach, even if we can’t all agree on exactly which reputations were unfairly shattered — that’s the way the world is now. This isn’t limited to either political party or ideology; both sides want to claim their stars and demonize the other side.
Manning has thrived because he has kept his beliefs tucked close. He is, to coin a phrase, sticking to sports. Still, we can rough out the edges of his ideology: he’s a frequent visitor to, and possible member of, Augusta National, for instance. He’s donated to Republican figures, including the recent presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. More recently, he’s played golf with President Donald Trump and spoken at Republican events. (This is observation, folks, not criticism.)
There’s nothing wrong with Manning, or anyone else, voting the way they wish and associating with whomever they wish, of course. But you don’t have to work hard to see how Manning, like everyone else who believes in something more than kicking back and watching Netflix, could end up in the middle of the us-vs.-them kickball-team picking that America has become. Left and right alike play this game, each saying they’re the correct ones and the other side’s the spawn of Satan. Somebody’s going to claim Manning, somebody’s going to cancel him. And when that happens, half the country’s going to turn its back on him, no-matter-how-fun-he-is. (Sung to the “Nationwide” jingle tune, of course.)
Maybe that, along with a reluctance to critique his brother, is why Manning’s stayed out of the white-light glare of, say, a “Monday Night Football” gig. There’s a difference between seeing Manning in highlights and commercials, and spending three hours a week with him. Tony Romo, Manning’s only real competition if Peyton joins a booth, became more famous commenting on defenses than he ever was facing them.
Returning to the public eye means surrendering control of your image, and Manning guards and nurtures his image as closely as any athlete ever has. If he steps back into the live spotlight, he’ll make sure to do it in a way that keeps everyone happy. Otherwise, he’ll just keep on doing what he has done for the past few years — showing us exactly what he wants us to see, and nothing more.
Cut that meat, America.
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