By Jason Keidel
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When Mike Piazza was being considered for the Baseball Hall of Fame, we all knew he qualified. But there was a lingering fog of uncertainty regarding possible performance-enhancing drug use.
There were rumors of bacne and Herculean power from a man picked deep in the bowels of the first-year player draft. Although we all liked Mike, there clearly was a dark, angry side, just as much Hulk as Bruce Banner.
But that’s not the case with Eli Manning. While most sports icons have that Piazza duality, Manning is among the most lovable, huggable athletes of our time. If Piazza is a comic book emblem, then Manning is an amalgam of holiday mascots — equal parts Santa Claus and Easter Bunny.
Manning is so disarmingly affable and humble, swathed in Southern charm, you half expect to see overalls under his shoulder pads, his “aw, shucks” refrain too authentic to be a facade.
So the news that came down Thursday, while not seismic, is certainly jarring.
Piazza, himself, got embroiled in a memorabilia scandal, with jerseys and such from 9/11 being auctioned off for profit. If optics reign supreme in this age of social media, it was as ugly a look as possible without it being criminal. And while we didn’t expect that of Piazza, it didn’t shock us.
But this new scandal involving Manning is another matter. Any malfeasance simply scrambles our sensibilities. So why would someone of Eli’s salary and status do something so trivially dumb as to have a hand in selling helmets and jerseys as authentically used in an NFL game when he knew they were not?
We can parse the particulars, the difference between jerseys and helmets Eli wore at practice, the difference between game-issued and game-worn items. But no matter how it shakes out, Manning may have done irrefutable harm to his pristine reputation, and to that of the Mannings altogether, widely regarded as the First Family of Football.
While we know that there are epic cracks in the whole “Camelot” mythology of the Kennedy era, and MetLife Stadium is clearly not the White House, Eli reportedly lied about equipment he used, selling it as game-used items when it appears he and his people knew darn well it wasn’t.
And, even more than his guilt or innocence, it raises the only real question.
Why would someone who not only has so much to lose over something so trivial, but who also already made so much money, do this?
Manning was drafted by the Giants in 2004. But if we simply consider his salary since 2010, his reported actions defy all logic. From 2010 to 2015, Manning made $97.5 million (according to Spotrac.com). That’s his football pay only, sans endorsements. Then he signed a four-year, $84 million deal with Big Blue that runs through 2019. So in this decade alone, Manning will make $181.5 million in salary. Again, that’s not including money from commercials, appearances or any other tangential cash.
The Mannings were more than a gaggle of quarterbacks, a most holy trinity of signal-callers led by Archie, a college star at Ole Miss who then had a hard-luck career in New Orleans, the best player on an awful club. But despite his sprawling gridiron deeds, Archie is even more hailed now as a dad than a QB who sired three fine sons, two of whom will likely find their way into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame. Older brother Peyton is so well-known and beloved, there’s talk that he could almost moonwalk into the U.S. Senate from two states (Indiana or Tennessee).
And while Eli doesn’t quite have Peyton’s prodigious numbers, he does have two Super Bowl rings, and was MVP of both games, both times shattering the facade of invincibility held by the New England Patriots, led by twin legends Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
And now Manning could end up being labeled in a different way. If not a legal miscreant, then a moral crook. Eli allegedly duped fans into thinking they spent four figures — a lot of money for the blue-collar stiffs who stuff MetLife Stadium on autumn Sundays — on game-worn material.
This breaches a level of stupidity that borders on surreality. There is no logic, no fact or extrapolation of fact that would leave us to make sense of this. This isn’t Riddick Bowe, bankrupt and bereft of all his senses, pawning off signed Everlast gloves at the back of Giants Stadium a few years ago, as sad a sight as you will ever see in sports.
Eli Manning is in his relative prime, at the peak of his star and salary power, the face of the NFL equivalent of an Original Six franchise. You could not find a man more quoted, adored or visible than him.
Maybe he’s on the back nine of his gridiron prime, but close enough to leave us scratching more than our heads. And he may not get — or deserve — a mulligan for this one.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel