Ahead of the Super Bowl this weekend, rumors are circulating that Peyton Manning, the star quarterback for the Denver Broncos, used human growth hormone (HGH), a doping drug that is forbidden in professional sports.
The accusations surfaced in an Al Jazeera America documentary titled The Dark Side, which cited one of Manning’s former pharmacists who claimed he had provided Manning the performance-enhancing drug by mailing it to Manning's wife.
Manning and other high-profile athletes mentioned in the report strongly denied using HGH, and a Washington Post story published this week revealed that Manning had even hired private investigators to look into the key witness. That witness, a man named Charlie Sly, then recanted his story — all before the documentary even aired.
The NFL has opened an investigation to figure out whether Manning actually used the forbidden drugs. But as of right now, the back and forth between Manning and Al Jazeera, and between Al Jazeera and its main source, makes it pretty hard to understand what’s going on – and who’s really telling the truth. Here’s everything we know so far.
Did Peyton Manning use HGH?
The allegations against Manning specifically charge that the star football player used the performance-enhancing drug while recovering from neck surgery during the 2011 football season.
HGH is a synthetic hormone that supposedly helps people build muscle and quick metabolic function – though the science is dubious at best. It was banned by the NFL in 1991, but the league didn’t start testing players for its use until 2014. That will make it tougher for the NFL to reach a definitive conclusion.
The accusations came from Sly, who at the time was an employee at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indianapolis. He told an Al Jazeera reporter that while working there, he had shipped performance-enhancing drugs to a whole host of star players.
Specifically, he said he had mailed HGH to Manning’s wife, Ashley. That part of the story, at least, has some basis in truth.
Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary whom Manning has hired as a crisis consultant, confirmed to the Post that Ashley had indeed been mailed medication from the Guyer Institute. Citing her right to privacy, though, Fleischer declined to specify what sort of medication had been shipped.
Since recanting his story, Sly has said that he hadn’t begun working at the Guyer Institute at the time Manning was being treated at the clinic. But Al Jazeera says it confirmed that he was an employee at the time.
There are a few other scenes in the movie that strengthen the case that there was some truth in Sly’s original story. In another scene in the documentary, Taylor Teagarden, a former baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, enters Sly’s apartment and talks about taking Delta 2, another banned substance. Two other men from Vancouver praise Sly on camera as a doping "genius."
But all this should be taken with a grain of salt. Sly did recant his story, after all, and Al Jazeera doesn’t have additional sources to back him up on his core claims.
Al Jazeera used questionable means to produce this documentary
Al Jazeera produced its entire documentary essentially around the testimony of one source, Sly. But Sly didn’t know he was a source until Al Jazeera contacted him a couple of weeks before the documentary was set to air.
They’d gotten Sly to talk by sending an Al Jazeera reporter under cover, posing as a former British hurdler trying to revive his running career, to solicit information about Sly’s past involvement in helping athletes dope.
Sly’s lawyer told the Post that Sly had bragged about all the athletes he had helped dope in order to boost his credibility with a new client, that client being the Al Jazeera reporter. "It was pure puffery," the lawyer, Travis Cohron, told the Post. "He was manufacturing a story to bolster his own appearance."
There are important ethical considerations involved in producing journalism that results primarily from undercover investigation, namely that it is used sparingly and accompanied by a lot of solid traditional reporting.
That’s not to say Al Jazeera hasn’t met those high standards: It did attempt to check out every aspect of Sly’s story, including contacting every named person in the documentary. But the fact that the news organization decided to run with the story days after its main source recanted his story should give people pause.
Manning hired private investigators, whose role in this saga is also confusing
Then it emerged through the Washington Post article this week that before the documentary aired, Manning hired private investigators to find the source of the allegations and look into him. Those investigators knocked on Sly’s parents’ door on December 22. The following morning, Sly released a statement recanting all his claims.
They questioned Sly the next day, December 23, in the presence of a lawyer. "Our thinking was it would be very helpful to find whoever it was who was making up lies about Peyton, and figure out why someone would fabricate information like this," Fleischer told the Post.
By the next morning, Sly had posted a short YouTube video, shot on an iPhone camera, recanting his statement in full.
Fleischer told the Washington Post that the investigators in no way coerced Sly into giving his recanting statement.
There is no solid evidence pointing to the fact that Manning’s team was at all involved in Sly’s decision to recant. But Deborah Davies, one of the Al Jazeera reporters on the story, raised questions about the timing of Sly’s statement in an interview:
We contacted Charlie Sly at the beginning of December to put all the allegations to him by email, by letter and then with a phone message, and we didn’t hear anything from him until 48 hours ago. If you think one of the justifications for undercover filming is that you are filming someone where you have evidence of them wrongdoing, and they’re not going to talk to you openly, you have to say, Is he lying now? Was he lying during day upon day upon day of undercover filming? Because obviously the two don’t square.
What happens next?
The controversy had already started to fade when the Washington Post article revealing Manning’s private investigation landed. Despite increased interest with Manning’s team, the Broncos, competing in the Super Bowl, Manning has been asked startlingly few questions about the controversy.
But so far, no lawsuit has been filed on his behalf.
Correction: The original version of this article said human growth hormone (HGH) was banned by the NFL in 2011. It was actually banned in 1991.