In the time it takes to write this sentence, a well-known athlete is loading his or her body with performance-enhancing drugs. The Steroids Era never ended as much as the general public began to burn out on the subject after years of credible, breakthrough reporting, including full-on attacks of the Burlingame hellhole known as BALCO. You’d have to be an ignoramus to think sports has bathed away the juice; the users, of which there are many, are just more sophisticated and surreptitious about it.
So any legitimate investigation into the ongoing rat game — the labs and cheats still steps ahead of leagues that are too busy counting mega-profits to care more than vaguely — is welcome. Biogenesis, the scandal AFTER Major League Baseball supposedly had cleaned up its chemical pigpen, reminded us that no amount of scrutiny is enough.
Unless, of course, the investigation isn’t legitimate.
Here we have Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based media company funded and run in part by the ruling family of a rich country that tortures migrant workers and has an abysmal human rights record, trying to grab buzz in America by tackling the PED issue. Al Jazeera has earned respect for some of its work, but in the case of Peyton Manning, the network didn’t assign a force of seasoned reporters, say, in the journalistic spirit of the current big-screen offering, “Spotlight,” a true story about a 2001 Boston Globe probe into child molestation and cover-ups in the Catholic Church.
Rather, the producers of a one-hour documentary asked Liam Collins, a leading British hurdler in the early 2000s who went broke in a real-estate collapse and became a street performer, to go undercover with hidden cameras. His mission: Travel across North America and show via secret recordings how easy it is — duh — for an athlete to find PEDs if he wishes to make a serious career comeback. If the premise was amateurish and deceitful, the execution looks reckless, hokey and damning to whatever potentially valid information that Collins was able to lay bare.
In a report that provides little in the way of corroboration and uses only one source — who appears dubious at that — Al Jazeera went forward with a story that identifies a fading but still revered Manning as having obtained and used PEDs. That was the desired big headline, grouping Manning with several alleged high-profile dopers in the NFL and MLB. Again, we’re so worn down by the scandals that a generation of cynics, myself included, sometimes assumes every athlete is using some sort of banned substance. From Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez and the legions who’ve confessed to those who haven’t — how’s Miami, Barry? — the cheaters have created a permanent residual fallout. And it isn’t lost on me that Manning may have had reasons to use PEDs in 2011: At 35, driven to win more Super Bowls and break more records and stay relevant enough to sell more pizzas, he was returning from spinal fusion surgery and previous neck procedures that had reduced his throwing arm to a wet noodle.
But Al Jazeera, like Rolling Stone last year and too many other news organizations, may have sabotaged itself by not vetting its source and not attempting to locate multiple sources about Manning — as Globe editor Marty Baron urged his reporters in their probe, as Ben Bradlee urged Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate, and as any good professor urges in Reporting 101. The Manning report is wrapped around the since-recanted claims of Charlie Sly, described in the documentary as a “pharmacist” at the Guyer Institute in Indianapolis, where Manning and his wife, Ashley, allegedly received after-hours intravenous treatments of human growth hormone.
Problem No. 1: Sly never was licensed in Indiana as a pharmacist, only as an unpaid intern, and didn’t even work at the Guyer Institute until 2013, according to the clinic’s founder, Dr. Dale Guyer.
Problem No. 2: Sly appears to lack credibility as a stable source, telling Al Jazeera in a letter that his secretly videotaped comments to Collins “are absolutely false and incorrect” and that he made up the claims to gauge if Collins was credible. Sly said he was “in no state of mind to be making any coherent statements” after his girlfriend’s suicide and that Collins “was taking advantage of my grief.”
Problem No. 3: There was no apparent attempt to corroborate Sly’s original accusations, which means Collins could have been privately recording conversations with any number of charlatans and wannabes trying to overstate their involvement with big-name athletes — the phony egotism that fuels the PED industry.
“Complete garbage,” Manning said. “It never happened. Never. I really can’t believe somebody would put something like this on the air.”
He came out stronger in an ESPN interview, saying he is furious and disgusted and pondering a defamation suit against Al Jazeera while vehemently denying he has used HGH. “Absolutely not, absolutely not,” Manning said. “What hurts me the most about this, whoever this guy is [Sly], this slapstick trying to insinuate that in 2011, when more or less I had a broken neck — I had four neck surgeries. … It stings me whoever this guy is to insinuate that I cut corners, that I broke NFL rules in order to get healthy. It’s a joke. It’s a freaking joke.”
Said Guyer, backing up Manning’s story: “I have no reason to believe these allegations are based in fact or have any truth. In fact, I can say with absolute certainty they are not. … I think it is obvious that Mr. Sly has fabricated this whole thing for reasons I cannot fathom.”
I realize we’ve seen parasites lie for dopers, only to be exposed as co-conspirators. But until Al Jazeera reporter Deborah Davies does more than stand by her story, this one feels flimsy. Manning, who said he visited the clinic to use a hyperbaric chamber and receive non-PED treatment, also was observant about the shoddy state of journalism. Why, he wanted to know, did this explode as a major development just because one outlet chose to air information that very well may turn out false? Who does The New York Times run with it? ESPN? The Associated Press?
Answer: Manning, like Clay Matthews and Ryan Zimmerman and others named in the report, might be indirect victims of the Steroids Era. Because so many of their forerunners were juicers and numerous probes the last 15 years have turned up mountains of dirt, the assumption is that everyone is guilty by sports association. Even the most respected news outlets have to follow up what might be a bogus report, lest they be accused of burying their heads.
Sickeningly, this also has given license to the media industry’s many scumbags. The steroids sins of the past enable untrained losers at trashy websites to make up stories, with no professional attempt to confirm and validate their so-called information. The Internet created this feeding frenzy, yet legitimate media, too, have hired violators — such as the bozo at Sports on Earth, an MLB-owned site in partnership with USA Today, who once wrote he had it on “70 percent” authority that baseball star Albert Pujols used steroids. Seventy percent? Does MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the editor-in-chief of USA Today realize they have someone in house who libels people without proof? They can find his name. I’m not giving the unwashed any undue attention here.
The NFL will investigate Manning and the rest — as it should, with MLB following suit — because leagues should eagerly want to know who’s cheating, particularly the greats. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell probes Tom Brady for deflating footballs, he certainly should go after Manning, even if the league didn’t test for HGH in 2011.
But if nothing is found, I urge Manning to sue Al Jazeera. He has found holes in leaky defenses his entire career, and certainly, there are many in this scheme.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.