The Problem With Placing Celebrities On Pedestals

I’ve made a few points about the latest “controversy” surrounding Peyton Manning but wanted to expand on some of them, not because I’m interested in tearing anybody down, but because we need to give ourselves some perspective about what happens when we put celebrities on a pedestal for whatever the reason may be.

As we know, the “hot topic” following Super Bowl 50 seemed to be mostly about the way Cam Newton conducted himself at the post-game presser. Newton, of course, has been the subject of multiple discussions for his bravado on the field, quotes about how he has approached his career and, in some cases, his off-field conduct. There are people who don’t like his celebrations, others who don’t want to hear him talk about the challenges a black quarterback may face, and still others don’t believe you should have a child out of wedlock as he does.

And then there’s the other QB who started in the Super Bowl: Peyton Manning. Ever since he arrived in the NFL, he’s been promoted by a lot of people as being this All-American good old boy who represents everything that’s right with this country and a role model for all to follow. This image wasn’t crafted by Manning or his family; it was largely created by sports media and fans who put him on a pedestal.

So take a quarterback who seems to be fodder for hot takes every time you turn around, and a quarterback who gets deified more than he gets criticized, and it’s no surprise that, when the two are on opposite sides of a Super Bowl matchup, they get compared to one another.

Which brings me to the recent article Shaun King wrote about a lawsuit Peyton Manning faced back in 2003, stemming from a book Peyton and Archie Manning wrote, in which athletic trainer Jamie Naughright claimed defamation from remarks written in the book, as they pertained to an incident that took place in 1996 when Peyton played for the University of Tennessee and Naughright was a trainer for the university.

I imagine most of you are familiar with the details, but I imagine some of you wondering why a lawsuit that was filed 13 years ago became news again. First, it’s important to note that there is a lawsuit filed by six unnamed plantiffs against the University of Tennessee claiming Tilte IX violations, which references the alleged 1996 incident involving Peyton (though Peyton is not named as a defendant in the suit). Because that lawsuit was filed, the talk about Peyton was going to emerge anyway, whether or not King wrote anything.

So why would King write this? I am familiar enough with his writing that he takes a strong interest in increasing awareness about racism and issues facing blacks. Add to this the fact that, when a letter writer to the Charlotte News Observer criticized Newton for having a child out of wedlock, people who responded to it pointed out that Tom Brady had a child out of wedlock, too. Thus, it’s not hard to figure that, when Newton gets criticized for something that happened at the Super Bowl, that someone might believe the opposing quarterback should be criticized for something as well.

And when you consider that opposing quarterback gets worshipped by many, it only adds to the urge to tear that quarterback down.

This is not to say that Peyton Manning should be given a free pass for whatever happened in that 1996 incident, any more than Cam Newton should be given a free pass for walking out of his Super Bowl presser. But it’s important to put everything into context and, most of all, to remind ourselves that things like this are the reason we must be careful about putting popular athletes on a pedestal.

Touching upon Newton, the setup for postgame pressers put both teams in the same area, to the point that Panthers players might hear what Broncos players were saying and vice versa. Broncos players, of course, would be exuberant while Panthers players might be subdued. That’s exactly what happened with Newton in the latter instance and with Chris Harris in the former, and Harris happened to be in a booth right behind where Newton was.

So take a player on the losing Super Bowl team, a player feeling disappointment, and he can hear an excited player on the winning team talking about things that, while not with the intent to put the losing team down, and some which might be considered true, aren’t things the disappointed player wants to hear at the moment. It should be no surprise the losing player will want to remove himself from the environment.

Those who say that Newton needs to learn to tune it out need to understand that, after athletes lose a championship game, their frame of mind at the moment is wondering what might have been and they’d rather not be reminded constantly about mistakes they made. Thus, it’s best not to have them in the same area as athletes on the winning team, even if the things the winners are saying are the truth. More importantly, it’s far easier to tune those things out when they are published in written or other form elsewhere, than they are to tune them out when a spoken conversation is within earshot. Just ask yourself if you like to hear people talk about you behind your back when you’re in earshot, even if what is being said is the truth.

In other words, the Newton stuff is getting blown out of proportion, all to feed a narrative about Newton, and a narrative that is designed to draw eyeballs and clicks. You are free to say he shouldn’t have walked out without at least saying, “Sorry, I need to leave,” but there’s no need to rake him over the coals, either, as those who want to feed the narrative may do.

As for Peyton Manning, the context that needs to be realized is this: Those who are involved with college football programs are very protective of them, to the point that they want any form of potential controversy to be swept under the rug. So any sort of accusation thrown at one of their star athletes is one those with the program will want to keep as quiet as possible. Thus, you already have a situation in which a matter like Peyton is accused of isn’t going to be handled the best way.

At the same time, we have to remember that, while what Peyton was accused of doing was juvenile and demeaning, that doesn’t mean he had worse intentions on his mind. When we hear the words “sexual assault,” we think of a worst-case scenario while forgetting there are degrees of seriousness. A person who confesses to shoving his or her crotch into somebody else’s face isn’t going to get a lengthy prison term, like a person who confesses to having unwanted sexual intercourse with another person would. Both incidents are wrong, but one carries more serious consequences than the other because we considered it to be far more damaging.

We also must remember that the documents King discussed are the plaintiff’s side of the lawsuit and the defendant will always file a response. The two filings don’t paint the entire picture by themselves, though. Most lawsuits are complex in nature and the entirety gets revealed through the course of the judicial process. Not everything comes out through the initial filings by both parties. And if they settle out of court, you might never get the entire picture.

In other words, Peyton Manning was accused of something that, if he did it, he shouldn’t have done it, but it’s not as serious as it has been made out to be, and what’s been discussed publicly at first only told a portion of the story, and what else has been discussed since tells more of the story, but not necessarily everything.

Briefly touching upon Shaun King: While I understand there are those who believe he doesn’t have credibility, attacking him isn’t going to solve anything. You are better off attacking his message, in that he seems to be so caught up with trying to disprove the narrative surrounding Newton, that he believes he has to bring Peyton down in order for that to happen. King can certainly discuss the many issues that come into play regarding the Newton narrative and add to context to everything about Newton without even having to bring up Peyton.

Back to my main point, though: In the big picture, we really don’t know everything there is to know about Peyton Manning, Cam Newton or any other athlete or celebrity. Famous people only let us know what they want us to know, and some will let us know more than others. Newton wears his emotions on his sleeve and doesn’t appear shy about saying what’s on his mind. Peyton is more controlled about this, to the point he never wants to talk about a charitable work he did (just about all of them get reported because the recipient of his kindness or somebody who knew about it spread the word).

And while we may like to think of one, the other or even both as a “model citizen,” unless we have a personal connection to them, we really don’t know who they are. Just think about any celebrity in recent times who had a “squeaky clean” image that’s been called into question as certain revelations came to the surface. Or think about those who had, for example, a “prima donna” image, but when you further examined facts about the person (or perhaps met the person and got to know him better), you found out that person wasn’t so bad after all.

Whatever images get presented about any famous athlete are ones that were sometimes crafted by the athlete or those close, but are more often crafted by those who cover them and decide who they like or don’t like. Or they are decided based on whatever carries importance to those who cover them. And the fans of those athletes only add to the positive perceptions that are set forward, while the critics just add to the negative ones, often without any context.

While it’s fine to have certain football players you like more than others, and the same can be true for any other celebrity, we must be careful about placing them on a pedestal, whether it’s to portray them as “the perfect citizen” or somebody to just throw eggs at. Cam Newton and Peyton Manning are human beings and, as such, they are flawed – and I’m not talking about how many fumbles or interceptions they are responsible for. I refer more to whatever stuff happens when the cameras aren’t on them – and they don’t have to be illegal or of a serious matter. They can be a simple character flaw that you could identify about anybody in your everyday life.

We would all be better served if we stopped trying to find “the perfect citizen” and start focusing on recognizing that we all have flaws, and that we work to correct them, difficult as it may be. At the same time, we need to remember that there’s more to the story about who the likes of Newton and Peyton are than as presented in the narrative, no matter how much we may like or dislike either one of them.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.