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Schlock Jock: The Selling of a Quarterback

From the first time I saw him at Tennessee, I had a sinking feeling that this bright star, Peyton Manning, would soon be selling me stuff I had no use for.

In time, I've come to hate Peyton Manning. It's not a disposition I'm particularly proud of; it's simply the result of a slow, inexorable process that I can neither control nor escape. The origins of my condition are hard to pin down. I remember being irked by Manning's tenure as the star quarterback for the University of Tennessee. He had sprung, immaculately to hear the sports media tell it, from the pedigreed loins of Archie Manning, a former college standout and NFL great whose talent was confounded by the inferior teams he was forced to captain. Peyton, then, was the heir to Archie's throne, a genetically-engineered second chance, designed to improve upon both his father's talents and fortunes.

And improve he did. At Tennessee, the Manning legacy was celebrated with gusto. He led the team to three bowl victories. He led former Tennessee quarterbacks in all-time passing yards. On more than one occasion, he even led the band in its rendition of the school song, "Rocky Top". Along the way, Manning graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in speech communication, had his number retired by the team, and had a street near the stadium renamed in his honor: "Peyton Manning Pass". My budding irritation grew.

His stellar collegiate career was punctuated by his being selected first overall in 1998 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, where he immediately started and set five rookie records his first year. Fortunately, however, some semblance of imperfect reality set in and kept my pettiness from overwhelming me: the Colts won only three games during his rookie season. In fact, though Manning proceeded to steadily earn accolades and admiration for his play, the team continued to struggle -- particularly so in the playoffs. Year after year, Manning's team improved under his leadership, but never quite made it to the Super Bowl. His frustrations, conversely, tempered my own. Perhaps this quintessential golden boy was not the superhuman avatar of success that he had once appeared to be. Perhaps he, like the rest of us, wasn't perfect.

Not that I begrudge perfection, per se. On the contrary, I feel it's something we should all strive to attain in our respective endeavors. It's just that nobody has quite embodied perfection in the way the Peyton Manning has. Heir to family legacy and fortune, star pupil, star athlete, and, perhaps most maddening of all, possessor of a humble, self-effacing presence that leads him to call all of his interviewers by their first name with a kind of modest, Southern gentility -- Peyton Manning was so flawless as to be, well, boring. More than boring. Like that Christmas letter exalting a year's worth of various triumphs achieved by some distant cousin, Manning's perfection was a grating, glowing example of all that could be accomplished in life, held up for the rest of us to marvel at, and pale before. The one chink in his armor, his fallibility in the post-season, was the sole compelling facet of his character to me. And now, that too, has been perfected.

After winning this past Super Bowl and being named the game's Most Valuable Player, Manning had variously "gotten the monkey off his back", "overcome his postseason curse", and "cemented his legacy as the best human being the planet Earth has ever had the honor to showcase". Perhaps that last isn't a direct quote, but it sums up the general sentiment about the man and his abilities. In the wake of the avalanche of praise and good feeling (Chicago Bears fans, whose team Manning beat in the Super Bowl, notwithstanding), I was forced, yet again, to confront my own equally vehement and decidedly antinomian resentment at seeing someone, gifted since birth and showered by accolades at every turn, ascend even higher in the celebrated pantheon of "all that is right with sports".

Was this jealousy? Undoubtedly -- but only partially. There's something else to this, something ingrained in every critic that causes one to pause, perhaps even scowl a bit, when the rest of the world breaks into wild applause. If everyone starts rushing headlong toward the next best band, or film, or athlete, it's in our nature to run the other way -- or at least step back and consider what all the fuss is about. I thought this as, turning off my TV amid the postgame celebration, I looked forward to a long offseason where I might be able to come to terms with my unseemly and eccentric opinions about the star quarterback.

Unfortunately, my rest was short. No sooner had he won the big game than Manning was hosting Saturday Night Live. And selling Gatorade. And selling Sprint. And Mastercard. And Direct TV. Where I might before be confronted with perfection once a week on Sundays, now Manning was all over my television, on my Internet, even on YouTube. And nearly every time I saw him, he was encouraging me to buy something.

As the many-headed hydra of Manning the salesman assailed me with increasing ferocity in the months leading back up to this NFL season's recent kickoff, I began to put my finger on what really, truly was so bothersome about the quarterback. Of course his perfection was irritating, but I didn't actually believe that he was as flawless as his on-the-field existence (which, even then, had its share of ups and downs until he won the Super Bowl). The problem, however, was that everyone else did.

Manning's ubiquity is a direct result of his (to borrow an increasingly popular political term) "narrative": humble kid conquers the world and makes his dad proud. To what extent this is actually the case is, as always, irrelevant. Fans and media members are left to contend with image, not reality. And with a respectable haircut, an affable manner, and a record of success, Manning's image has been polished to such a sheen that, today, he's one of the most visible and popular pitchmen the NFL has ever known. For good reason. Amid the uncertainties of professional athletes' conduct, Manning seems as safe a bet as any. Consequently, there are no less than 12 links to major companies on his website.

It might be fair to say, then, that Manning's status and narrative have transformed him from a quarterback into an icon of wholesome, trustworthy, blue-collar, successful America. But it's more accurate to say that this is a role he was literally born to play. From conception, as Archie Manning's kid, Peyton's life story was written for him; he just had to play good football. Not that that is as easy as it sounds, but Manning, as a notable athlete, was already predisposed to perform a symbolic social function. When the public learned of this involvement in dogfighting, for example, Michael Vick fulfilled the role of evil villain. Manning, on the other hand -- polite, a good son, and a winner -- plays our hero. As a result, the companies come running.

This is because Sprint and the rest know that Manning's homegrown heroism is a well-told tale, one they themselves can duplicate with little effort in order to sell phone service, or credit card debt, or cheese products. They also know that Manning is one torn ACL or drunk driving episode away from losing his hero-status, and so they take every opportunity to convert his cultural currency into actual currency. The consequence to all this is that his "aw shucks" grin and self-effacing face are plastered on every screen across the country, assuming at last the social space he's been propelled toward for so many years.

The truth is that Peyton Manning is no longer just a quarterback. By schilling for these corporations, he's takes his place as the latest in a long line of athletes-turned-celebrities-turned endorsers. In this world of cross-marketing and corporate synergy, Manning represents a perfect storm of on-field success with a popular, accessible background. Some might ask, is he wrong to get paid? To which scant others might counter, millions? Over and above the millions he's already made as a player? It would be overstating the case, though, to say this is a debate that rages. It's a question, actually, that's rarely raised.

For his part, Manning has said that he's turned down countless offers from companies. (We can presume, then, that he must have stopped at 12 sponsorship links on his website for the numerical significance.) It's not clear, really, why he needs to mention his impeccable selectivity as a corporate hack at all. Few, if any, have ever come out against an athlete's right to sponsorship deals. Today, more than ever, corporations -- not teams -- can be responsible for the majority of a star athlete's income. This is thanks in large part to the legacy of Michael Jordon, whose relentless pitchmanship has inspired countless other athletes to translate their abilities and public image into cash. Indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that, for some, their true market value is measured not by how they perform on the field, but by whose logo they sport while performing.

It's a phenomenon that's unabashed and unchecked. Recently, Lebron James declared his intention to be the first billionaire pro athlete, though he can hope to earn a mere fraction of that sum from his team salary. Even Charles Barkley, who once infamously rejected the proposition that pro athletes were role models, can now be seen regularly hawking T-mobile with current NBA all star, Dwayne Wade.

And so Peyton greets me at every turn, seemingly more perfect, less human with each corporate iteration. The biggest product he sells, however, is Peyton Manning -- a substance engineered at the confluence of biology and capital interests, designed to coax a lovestruck public into pending money. And this, at long last, is what has troubled me all along about him. It's not that he's had success, or that he's come from a famous family, not even that he got to lead his school band when, clearly, he had no idea what he was doing. No, my nagging irritation was a kind of prescience, a worry about the looming possibility that this golden boy would someday, somehow, turn into one giant corporate logo. With a story like his, with an arm like his, how could he not?

And, ultimately, it's the inescapability of the whole process that's most confounding. From the first time I saw him at Tennessee, I had a sinking feeling that this bright star would soon be selling me stuff I had no use for. Perhaps, though, such thinking is merely a bad combination of pessimism and Puritanism. Does indie cred have any place in the world of pro sports? All evidence is to the contrary. Even as I type this, Manning yells at me from another room to buy the NFL Sunday Ticket from Direct TV. Worse still, he's also encouraging me to watch another quarterback, one who plays for the New York Giants. It's Eli, his younger brother.

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