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The athlete’s dance with the devil

 Peyton Manning in 2012. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

Peyton Manning in 2012. Photograph by Jeffrey Beall.

The latest performance-enhancing drug scandal involves a star so big, so golden that to utter his name in the same breath as performance enhancement is to breathe sacrilege.

And yet here we are: The NFL and Major League Baseball are investigating an Al Jazeera report that implicates several of their players in the illegal use of human growth hormone, according to secretly taped – and couldn’t-be-more-appropriately-named-if-he-were-christened-by-Central Casting – pharmacy student Charlie Sly, who promptly recanted his claims.

There is really only one name anyone is interested in here – Peyton Manning, as in the superstar quarterback of the Denver Broncos, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts; Sports Illustrated’s 2013 Sportsman of the Year; scion of the Mannings of New Orleans, “football royalty,” as the press is want to note; and pitchman par excellence. Manning – an inspiration for Tam Tarquin, the golden-boy quarterback in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding,” part of my series “The Games Men Play” – didn’t get to be Peyton Manning by taking anything lying down. He has gone on the offensive, denying that he took HGH when he was rehabbing his neck at The Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indianapolis – where Sly interned – and defending wife Ashley, who, according to the Al Jazeera investigation, received regular packages of HGH from the Institute. It was the way he defended her, however, that seems odd:

“Any medical treatments that my wife received, that’s her business,” Manning said. “That has nothing to do with me. Nothing that's been sent to her or [that] my wife has used have I ever taken. Absolutely not. I have my treatments that I do, she may have hers and that is her business. There's no connection between the two.”

How many men – particularly seemingly traditional men like Manning – would say that what a wife does is her business? Men have always been about power – largely because until recently they’ve held a monopoly on it – and the chief attribute of power is the maintenance of it, which necessitates controlling everything, including women’s bodies. (Isn’t that what the endless Supreme Court cases on abortion and reproductive rights are all about?)

But perhaps putting a kinder spin on it, what loving husband isn’t concerned with his wife’s medical well-being? Manning’s remarks here suggest an almost callous lack of curiosity that arouses suspicion. Was Mrs. Manning taking HGH to increase her chances of bearing children – the Mannings have twins, a boy and a girl – as some posters have suggested? Or is she an enabling steroids wife, like Debbie (Mrs. Roger) Clemens and Kristin (the former Mrs. Lance) Armstrong, as some journalists have suggested?

Is it anyone’s business? The answer to the last is, unfortunately, yes. Peyton Manning is a public figure who has earned millions, along with considerable perks that he has no doubt also shared with his family. If he used HGH to prolong the spotlight illegally, the public that elevated him has a right to know, just as it has a right to know if he has been wrongly accused.

The circumstances in which Manning finds himself underscore the vulnerability of athletes. No matter the greatness, there is one opponent they cannot defeat – time. It’s telling that the 39-year-old QB, who isn’t playing for the Broncos at the moment, has been defended by Tom Brady, the 38-year-old quarterback of the New England Patriots. It’s a brotherhood, this band of 32 elite athletes who hold the most glamorous, masculine position in American culture. It’s understandable that they’d be reluctant to cede it.

For that matter, who among us would want to lose a job that provides not only a good income and benefits but a certain status and identity as well?

It’s an issue my players wrestle with in “The Penalty for Holding,” which is a story of the workplace. But one thing they don’t wrestle with is drug use. Why? I find drugs of any kind to be a bore. I know there are instances in which we need them and that they have improved and even saved lives. But fountain-of-youth drugs hold no interest for me, only wariness. Aging is a natural process. Add a drug unnecessarily, and it upsets that process.

The current scandal reminds me of what former New York Met-turned-broadcaster Keith Hernandez once said about taking illicit drugs, a subject with which he was all too familiar: “It’s a dance with the devil.”

One in which you never get to call the tune.