By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Curious.
Very, very curious.
That is the initial reaction here in DeflateGateLand (Population: More Than We Care To Admit) upon seeing the NFL on Monday announce that Peyton Manning has been cleared of ever obtaining or using performance-enhancing drugs during his playing days.
It's curious for a number of reasons, the main one being that the NFL never appeared to be pursuing the claims of HGH use by the face of the sport with quite the same vigor as it sought to bring Tom Brady to justice over very minor PSI discrepancies in a football game that was decided by 38 points.
Remember, the reason that Roger Goodell and the NFL treated Brady's alleged offense with the utmost degree of gravity was because, according to Goodell, knowing about a ball boy taking minuscule amounts of air out of footballs was the equivalent of injecting performance-enhancing drugs into one's body before playing. And doing either of those things is a great affront to the integrity of the sport. Ergo, a four-game suspension is needed -- and that's when the commissioner is feeling benevolent. Goodell still believes he could have gone even harder.
Of course, with Manning now retired, a four-game suspension is impossible. But even when Manning was playing, at the end of the regular season and throughout the postseason en route to winning the Super Bowl, the league remained nearly silent in regard to its pursuit of the truth. There were no announcements of the hiring of independent investigators, and certainly, there were no leaks of misinformation to help shape the public perception and turn the country's football fans against the star quarterback.
While all of that was plain to see, it's important to note that we all must be careful before proceeding further. If we are to take Peyton Manning at his word, that the shipments from the Guyer Institute to his home were indeed intended for his wife, then whatever those drugs were do indeed become none of our business. They go beyond none of our business, actually, as being married to a superstar athlete does not mean a person must relinquish her rights to privacy.
But ... well ... let's just say that if Manning was lying in his frothing-at-the-mouth, rip-roaring-mad interview with Lisa Salters in December, he wouldn't be the first person accused of PED use to bend the truth a bit. Manning and his hand-picked crisis manager Ari Fleischer confirmed that the Guyer Institute did indeed send medication to Manning's home, so the video of Charlie Sly recanting that was often pointed to by Manning supporters immediately lost any and all reliability.
Really, there was a lot to that Al Jazeera report that made some sense. But now we're being told to forget it. Completely.
First, the news broke via some very interesting language from Adam Schefter. The league's No. 1 most prominent reporter, stated: "NFL has determined that Peyton Manning did not use HGH nor any other PED, sources told ESPN."
Read that carefully: "NFL has determined that Peyton Manning did not use HGH nor any other PED."
The NFL was unable to prove that an event in Gillette Stadium actually did happen in January 2015, yet issued unprecedented punishments to the team and involved player regardless. Now, the NFL is capable of proving negatives, of proving that certain things never happened, all without the help of an investigator who costs millions of dollars to execute his work.
This was not a careless use of words, either. Schefter soon after tweeted his story, with the headline: "NFL concludes Peyton Manning didn't use HGH, any other PEDs."
You must understand, the NFL cannot conclude such a thing. The NFL can merely conclude that it could not prove that Manning did take HGH during his playing days or when he was recovering from several neck surgeries in 2011, because proving that he did take drugs years ago is a very hard endeavor. Yet proving the negative, proving that he never took certain substances, that is damn near impossible.
But Schefter's story is quite direct. Schefter opened with the statement that the NFL "concluded" that Manning didn't use HGH or any other PED. Schefter then said the NFL "'found no credible evidence' of allegations in an Al-Jazeera America report that Manning's wife received deliveries of HGH in 2011," leaving out the part where Fleischer confirmed that element of the story months ago. Schefter then trumpeted Manning and his wife being "fully cooperative with the investigation."
The NFL is not in the business of exonerating men and clearing their names. Unless, of course ... well ... that brings us to the NFL's official announcement, which came minutes after Schefter's tweet.
The conclusion of a seven-month investigation will typically bring about some details, sometimes in the form of a 200-plus-page document, other times in the form of information and background into the process of the investigation. But in this case, the conclusion of a seven-month investigation resulted only in a 129-word statement.
At the very top of this statement: "NFL FINDS NO CREDIBLE EVIDENCE PEYTON MANNING WAS PROVIDED WITH OR USED HGH OR PROHIBITED SUBSTANCES."
The sub-headline was also no accident: "Mannings Fully Cooperated with League Investigation into Allegations in Documentary."
The opening paragraph reiterated the headline, and the second paragraph repeated the subhed: "The Mannings were fully cooperative with the investigation and provided both interviews and access to all records sought by the investigators."
The message there is clear: Cooperate fully, and your innocence will shine through. Resist our invasive, targeted means of investigation, and we'll let the world know exactly how guilty you are.
The shortened version: Bow down before the commissioner, kiss the ring, and you shall be spared.
It's all so curious. Very, very curious.
The NFL statement noted that the NFL's security and legal teams led the investigation. No "independent" investigator was needed this time around. Again, a ball-deflation scheme resulted in a four-game suspension to a star quarterback because the charge was considered to be the equivalent of taking PEDs, yet accusations of actually taking PEDs did not warrant the same level of investigation from the league.
There were also zero leaks throughout this process. After the initial report, there was almost no new information to come out. Details of the investigation were guarded as if they were secrets of the state. The New York Times in January found a massive link which lent credibility to Sly and Al Jazeera, and The Washington Post gathered incredible background information on how the Al Jazeera report came to be and the actions by Manning that followed, and then ... nothing. The well of information dried up. The league cared not to disclose private information. Dogged reporters who were on the case eventually backed off and moved on.
Why? At the behest of whom?
And, most curious of all, why are the other players named in the Al Jazeera report still being investigated? Why must they take time out of their training camp schedules to be interrogated by NFL investigators? The league made clear at the end of the exonerating statement on Manning to say that James Harrison, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Co. are not out of the woods just yet.
So, with Manning retired from football, why rush this announcement? Why not wait until the entire investigation is concluded, thus allowing a full picture to be painted? What was the need to climb from the mountaintops and scream to the world that Peyton Manning is innocent, when the possibility still exists that other players named in the same report will eventually face serious discipline?
Ultimately, depending on your perspective, the entire story can come back to the age-old internet question of "Who Cares?" -- which is apt in this scenario. Manning's situation was dire in 2011. It was so dire that his own Indianapolis Colts gave up on him. They were willing to send him out to pasture. And after the quarterback underwent multiple neck surgeries, who could blame them? The guy could not throw anymore.
But then, miraculously, he could. Miraculously, not only could he throw, but he could throw as well as he ever could and as well as anyone else in the league. Miraculously, he could waltz out there at 37 years old, just two years removed from multiple neck surgeries, and shatter the single-season touchdown record.
It was quite the miracle.
At this point, it must be said: Professional athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. Or at least, absent substantial proof, it certainly seems that way. In many different ways, shapes and forms, players do what is necessary to remain on the field. It's not quite as rampant as it was in Major League Baseball in the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa/Barry Bonds days, but in a sport as grueling as professional football, the human body cannot withstand on its own the punishment that occurs from August through January every year.
And if Peyton needed something extra to overcome those surgeries, to find a way back onto the football field after spinal fusion, then ... is that really a bad thing? Didn't just about everybody benefit from Manning's return to the sport? Stars draw interest, and games quarterbacked by Manning absolutely draw more eyeballs than just about anyone else. The league profited, fans got to witness greatness, and while it could be argued by disappointed opponents that Manning shouldn't have been on the field if he could not have gotten there without the aid of drugs, it would be difficult to say that Manning's presence in the NFL from 2012-16 was not a positive for the league and the sport.
Nobody wants to burn Manning at the stake for this. But we also don't want to be fed baloney.
Considering we know what we know about the reliability of the NFL offices, we also know that this whole situation stinks. It's become quite difficult through the years to take those press releases at face value, but in this case, it looks like that's all we'll ever get.
And so, we're left to wonder why.
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