On Sunday morning, every single vein in Peyton Manning's head bulged and throbbed and threatened to explode. Seconds later, Mike Ditka basically chewed a lit cigar and declared war on ISIS right there on live television. Ari Fleischer was once again in the news, and affecting the news, for reasons that will always baffle me. The Al Jazeera report on Manning made everybody lose their minds before we even had time to do one last check of our fantasy lineups.
But did anyone actually watch the documentary that people were losing their minds about? It appeared that the entire NFL establishment -- players, league officials, media, Mike Ditka -- shifted into damage control mode without any of the rest of us knowing what, exactly, the damage was that they were trying to control.
Well, Al Jazeera went ahead and put the whole report on YouTube, not that that made any difference to anybody: The video has a shockingly few number of views considering how much it has driven the last 24 hours of everyone's lives.
So you should watch it, like I did, and judge for yourself. It's shorter than an episode of "Fargo."
Here are some takeaways from the report.
- It was never intended to be about Peyton Manning. The premise of the documentary, titled "The Dark Side" -- timely branding, there! -- is that the filmmakers find a British former hurdler named Liam Collins to use as, essentially, a mule inside the secret world of sports doping. Collins pretends he's trying to get back into Olympic shape and is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. So, with a hidden camera stashed away, he meets a bunch of pharmaceutical peddlers and hangers-on in the sports world, many of whom promise they will give him whatever drugs he wants, rules of the sports be damned. More convenient for Collins and the filmmakers, these people are often willing to say the names of some of their alleged clients in order to impress Collins. Some of those names dropped are Clay Matthews, Ryan Zimmerman, Dustin Keller, Ryan Howard, Mike Tyson and, yes, Manning. All of those athletes (with the exception of Tyson, who has not publicly commented yet) have issued some sort of denial about what was alleged in the report.
- The filmmakers made a decision, once they heard the name "Peyton Manning," to make the whole second half about him. You've heard a lot of negative business about the documentary -- again, from people who haven't seen it -- but the strongest case to be made against it is that the filmmakers got way too excited when they heard Manning's name. Charlie Sly, the now-backtracking pseudo-medical person who claims he shipped HGH to Manning and his wife, Ashley, mentions Manning, and then BOOM the whole thing is about him. This was supposed to be a documentary about the seedy underbelly of sports doping, but once the filmmakers heard a big name, they dropped most of that and began selling Manning hard. Defenders of Manning have claimed that the filmmakers were out to get him from the get-go, and that's false. But he's hardly just some by-product of a larger investigation either.
- You should ignore everything Sly says now that he has been outed. One of the first, and loudest, pushbacks against the film came from Sly himself, who recanted everything he stated in the movie. But that's not really a reason to discount everything that was in the report. It's not like Sly was some whistleblower; he was unknowingly taped and thus had no reason to lie other than to potentially impress a new client. (Sly's argument that he was trying to "pull one over" on Collins is … dubious.) Sly "recanting" now doesn't mean he's telling the truth now and was lying then. The opposite is more likely.
- The case against Manning (and everybody else, but especially him) is still pretty shaky. Even if you believe Sly's claim that he shipped HGH to the Manning household -- of which there is no actual evidence of, at this point -- there's no proof that Peyton took it. There's not even any proof his wife did. And if she did, there also might well be a legitimate medical reason: She had just given birth to twins.Even if some proof is uncovered the Mannings accepted HGH, we will never know who took it, or why. And the Mannings do seem to have a legitimate defense, if they decided to use one.
@RapSheet HGH commonly prescribed to women undergoing IVF fertility treatments. Mannings had twins (common in IVF) same yr. Use cld b legit— Michelle Vaeth (@mjvaeth) December 27, 2015
- Manning should probably just forget this and move on. Manning is obviously furious and is talking about suing. But I bet this goes away soon. Enough people have enough questions about the documentary and its sourcing, and Manning has enough friends in the league and the media, that this can be easily dismissed. Suing will just keep the story alive. There isn't one-eighth as much evidence against Manning as there has been against other players accused of using PEDs -- some of whom have even failed tests! -- and the vast majority of them move along with their lives and careers just fine. If you think this is something you can use as a cudgel with which to bludgeon Manning, you were probably looking for something (anything) in the first place. Maybe Manning is lying, and maybe he isn't, but it ultimately doesn't matter: At this point, it's all about his team's skills at crisis management: There will not be any more "news" here, at least not from this documentary. There is no smoking gun.
- There's still plenty of interesting stuff in the doc. If the filmmakers had decided not to go looking for scalps and instead stick to the original intention of using hidden cameras to show how pervasive drugs are in sports, they might have had something. The best parts of the film show various pharmaceutical traffickers constantly boasting how they are able to easily stay ahead of the testers in various sports. Sly talks about how he helped his old college pal Keller, who had an infamously dominant NFL combine, by getting him testosterone but shutting him off two weeks before the combine. It has long been a secret axiom of sports that people fail drug tests not because they are the only ones using but because they're the only ones stupid enough to get caught, and here Sly confirms this, explicitly. We've always assumed the tests are easy to beat. Turns out, they are.
- Hidden cameras are pretty handy! Seriously, it's sort of amazing, in this day and age, that this hasn't completely taken over sports. It's (mostly) legal, it's easy to hide tiny cameras and, apparently, people will just say anything if you are vouched for, like Collins was. (Also: All the people who were filmed have something to sell Collins: They want to move their products into the European market.) At one point, Sly offers him a half-full syringe of Delta 2 straight from his fridge, just an hour or so after meeting him. That kind of footage is gold.
- Al Jazeera is a legitimate news outlet. Sort of sad in 2015 -- the network turns 20 next year -- that we have to keep saying this, but we do.
- This is not one of their more excellent programs. If there's one thing Manning and the filmmakers could agree on, it's the public, and quite simplistic, demonization of PEDs. The filmmakers seem legitimately shocked to discover cheating in sports: Their film is called "The Dark Side," for crying out loud. A much better film to watch, if you're looking for some next-level analysis on this (rather than easy moralizing from the sidelines, which this documentary has in spades) is "Bigger Stronger Faster," which is eight years old and still has so much more to say about doping in sports than basically any single discussion of PEDs since. You can also watch it on YouTube, right here. If it weren't for the hidden camera, the Al Jazeera documentary wouldn't feel out of place in 2004. It is brand new and still feels outdated. There's a deeper discussion to have about this stuff than "Peyton Manning might be a cheater!" or "Drugs are buttons you push to become a superhuman superstar!" The Al Jazeera doc doesn't touch on that. "Bigger Stronger Faster" does.
- No matter what, Peyton has to regret not retiring after that Colts game. This entire season has been an injury-riddled mess, he may have lost his job to Brock freaking Oswiler and now there's this headache. It's one thing to stay one year too long. It's another to have to live through this nightmare. Sheesh.
- You'll want to watch "Monday Night Football" on mute. Yeah, they're not gonna be talking much Bengals on Monday night. You will see more sideline shots of Peyton than in all of Eli's Super Bowls combined. There isn't much more to say about the story. This will not stop ESPN from trying.