Peyton Manning for President?

Peyton Manning at the Podium.jpg

Is the free agency of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, or the trade of the evangelic Tim Tebow to the New York Jets a far more compelling story than anything yet to emerge from the presidential election news?

Compared with Peyton Manning’s dignified handling of his neck injuries and his complicated departure from Indianapolis, Mitt Romney seems about as stately as those hair-rinsed, middle-aged men who show up on halftime advertisements with that Viagra look in their eye. (In Romney’s case he is trying to get a few primary delegations to head upstairs.)

Even those seeking a greater religious presence in public life seem to find the faith of All-American Tim Tebow more engaging than the awkward positions of Rick Santorum, who sounds like he would pass out scarlet letters after his inauguration. And the YouTube Tebowing craze has breathed more fun and light into Christianity than any of Newt Gingrich’s C-SPAN homilies.

Ron Paul, who speaks in complete sentences about Federal Reserve economics and the national surveillance state, must wish he could command the respect of a retired football coach, someone like John Madden, so that people would listen when he is drawing his Xs and Os to explain the gold standard.

Had Peyton Manning tearfully retired from the Colts and announced his intention to campaign for president, I am sure he could have given Romney a run for his money. At least no one would begrudge him his millions. Romney’s two-Cadillac wife, $10,000 friendly bets, and country club bearing have doomed him with large swathes of the electorate. By contrast, Manning was able to spin four neck surgeries, a 36-year-old arm, and bad playoff performances into a Denver contract that could pay him $96 million over five years.

When he signed his deal, you would have thought he had won a Nobel or negotiated a truce in Syria, such was the public acclaim, relief, and satisfaction that he would not have to face the off-season playing fantasy football or that he might be down to his last $200 million.

The reason the electorate cares more about its quarterbacks than its candidates is because those running for office all sound like team owners, promising everyone season tickets to the American dream, while siphoning the revenue from the concessions and the sky boxes. At least NFL quarterbacks have to play the games and get their uniforms dirty.

To be sure, professional football organizations no more want to dilute their market share than Democrats or Republicans want to open up the U.S. electoral system to all the small parties — greens, social democrats, Christian socialists, trade unionists, nationalists, etc. — that you find in European countries.

The reason that the Broncos can afford to gamble $100 million on Peyton Manning’s neck surgeon is because professional football enjoys antitrust exemption, and collectively cashes the dividends of a market rigged more closely than one of Leland Stanford’s freight lines.

With the blessings of Congress, football hires indentured servants (the draft), limits ownership franchises (the protected guild of the NFL), shares cable contracts, and raids public treasuries to build billion dollar stadiums that only benefit the owners (and perhaps a few beer vendors). Think of the NFL as just another political action committee.

No wonder Mitt Romney campaigns for president as if auditioning to become the league commissioner, who serves at the grace of the owners and whose job it is speak sternly on 60 Minutes about “the integrity of the game.” In recent years, the real NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has taken to fining players for violent hits and suspending coaches for tolerating bounties on opposing players.

NFL careers are nasty, brutish and short. Who would pay NFL stars tens of millions if on any given Sunday the game looked like Ultimate Frisbee? As a result of football's violence, ex-NFL players are prone to dementia and other crippling diseases, with little more support from the league than a handshake when their time on the field is up.

Listening the bounty tapes, the NFL has no more claim to “integrity” than a hockey enforcer, but the façade is maintained that the league promotes “sport” and “fairness,” even if the Saints’ locker room was home to the mentality of a hit squad.

Just as Goodell’s job is to preside over a closed chop shop but make it all look and sound like Chariots of Fire, President Obama is the league commissioner of the Fortune 500. That team can only dream of football’s antitrust exemption, even if it got in on some revenue sharing through the stimulus plan and TARP bailouts.

If the president, even in a minor way, were serious about creating jobs, he could deregulate the football industry by ending the antitrust exemption and allow other owners and cities to form their own teams. Why does the US limit the supply of its professional football?

Going long, the president could campaign against state and local subsidies ($20 billion by some accounts) for white-elephant stadiums that benefit only political cronies. He could take on the cable television oligopoly and let anyone with a webcam “broadcast” games that should be considered news events, not pay-per-view entertainments. He could also urge that college players be paid, as they work hard at many things, although school usually isn’t one of them.

The reason that the football establishment has trouble tolerating quarterback Tim Tebow is because he represents the sandlot game as it was played before the sport became a subsidiary of the advertising business -- a colorful if violent spectacle around which to plug Taco Bell or Coors Lite. (Players are best understood as animated billboards.) His passes may flutter like wounded ducks, but he’s a free spirit. Tebow is closer to democratic rule than to the corporate hierarchy of the football industry, no doubt one reason that the Broncos moved him along to the Jets, who at least have credentials in preferring anarchy to victories.

In the presidential election, candidates Romney and Obama will raise and spend more than $1 trillion, and speak endlessly about the “integrity of the country,” even as the CIA posts bounties on the heads of American citizens living abroad. (Maybe disgraced Saints coach Sean Payton should pass his suspended year in Yemen? At least there his talents would not be wasted.)

An election between Manning and Tebow would at least be fun, instructive, engaging, and offer clear choices. Manning would be the voice of protected industry, in which team owners or corporate sponsors are always munificent and wise, and always in the game for yet another government protection racket under the banner of competition. By contrast, Tebow would stand for a grassroots revival, prairie chapels, and the sense that the game has yet to be fixed.

Flickr Photo by Tennessee Journalist: Peyton Manning at the podium, looking presidential.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and recently edited Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.