Peyton Manning announced his retirement today, after 18 years as a quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to, because of his work ethic, because he was the best at what he did, and because he seemed like a genuinely good person. Most of the people who regularly read this site know of my fondness for Peyton, though in recent weeks, that’s been a sore spot. A few readers have sent me links to articles about the allegations against him for some fairly unsettling sexual misconduct back in college and his and his father Archie’s attempts to cover it up by essentially ruining a woman’s career.
Of course, I wouldn’t have been a a Peyton Manning fan had it not been for David Letterman. Letterman is a guy who I began watching in sixth grade, and my obsession with Dave was, in part, responsible for the very name of this site. I was so enamored with Letterman that, when it came time to choose an NFL loyalty, I chose the Colts because Dave was from Indiana. That’s how much I respected David Letterman, his work ethic, his midwestern sensibilities, and the general impression I had that he was a good man. Unfortunately, my feelings for Dave took a hit about 10 years ago when he admitted to having affairs with subordinates, including his assistant.
Before Letterman, another idol of mine grew up about 85 miles away from where I was raised. Growing up in Arkansas, there weren’t a lot of people you could look up to, but the man from Hope literally inspired the hope in me that I might one day leave home as he did and break that cycle of poverty that had been tearing through my family for generations. Clinton inspired in me a love of politics, and so I became a political science and journalism major in college, and then I chose to go to law school to escape Arkansas, because that’s exactly what Clinton had done. I admired his work ethic, his determination, and the sense I had that Bill Clinton was a good man.
And then Ginnifer Flowers happened, and then Monica Lewinsky. I can’t tell you how much disappointment I felt. For a few years, it completely put me off of politics and called into question everything I thought I knew about Bill Clinton, just as Letterman’s affair called into question what I felt for the late-night host, and Peyton’s behavior had marred what I had so admired about him.
It’s hard to know what to do with those feelings. Do you cast aside someone you had looked up to for so many years because they had abused their power, their positions as men? Or do you try to look past it, excuse it, or rationalize it, or take the good and reject the bad?
I don’t know, honestly. I know that I got choked up watching Peyton’s press conference announcing his retirement, but what he had done to Dr. Jamie Naughright was never far from my mind. I still love Bill Clinton, but what he did with Monica Lewinsky is embarrassing, and how he (and Hillary, who I also admire) handled it afterward was inexcusable. Likewise, even while I was shedding tears through the Letterman montage during his retirement episode, I could’t help but think of Stephanie Birkitt.
I don’t know how to wrap my head around my feelings for any of those three men. I am not a religious person, but I like to think that I’m a moral one, and the only conclusion I am able to draw from these three experiences is that all men are gross, and that one day, the man you look up to will disappoint you. “We all fall,” as Coach Taylor — a man who never cheated on his wife — said in a fictional television show. Maybe these failings are true of all people, but especially of men who hold powerful positions? Maybe I expected too much from them, or maybe I just suck at choosing heroes. Or maybe I should have just stuck with Coach Taylor, a man who never once let me down.
All I do know is that Peyton Manning was a hell of a quarterback and by most accounts, a terrific person. I just wish he’d been a better man so that I could celebrate his career today without reservation.