Manning's silence is golden for owners, not players

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The most advertised and self-promoting NFL player maybe in history is suddenly camera shy. Peyton Manning, who has never met a 60-second ad he didn't like, now doesn't want his close-up.

The man who has sold everything from Gatorade to MasterCard is just about invisible. He's cloaked and doing everything possible to stay that way as the NFL goes through its own rapture. The lockout is over two months old and we've heard nothing from one of the key plaintiffs.

Jim Irsay should shake Peyton Manning's hand for keeping so quiet about the lockout for so long. (Getty Images)  
Jim Irsay should shake Peyton Manning's hand for keeping so quiet about the lockout for so long. (Getty Images)  
Manning's invisibility is downright odd. Case in point: Manning spoke to the Brockton Junior Boxers Pop Warner program in Massachusetts this past week and -- as the Boston Herald reported -- Manning told organizers if they publicized the event, he would skip it. He kicked out the media and banned photographers. Manning selected three players during a question and answer session with the queries pre-screened.

Manning has also been extremely secretive about the Colts' lockout workouts. Why passing drills and calf stretches are suddenly worthy of being classified is a mystery.

Actually, it's not. The true reason for Manning's disappearance could not be clearer. Manning wants no part of talking about, speaking of, or being mentioned in the same sentence with lockout. That can be the only explanation for why the players' MIRV of a publicity weapon has chosen to go Silent Bob in one of the biggest fights in the history of professional sports.

The three biggest names on the NFLPA's suit against the owners are Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Manning. Brees and Brady have publicly defended the players. Manning is the only one who has been eerily silent, and we're now heavy into this court fight.

Manning has starred in more commercials than Marlon Brando, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise combined. He's a walking ATM machine.

And for Manning, that's what his silence is about -- sweet cash. He's willing to take only so much of a stance and jeopardize his standing as America's football good guy and bankable commercial star. Brees doesn't seem to care, and agree or disagree with his position, he's as principled a man as I've ever met. Other players have risked the long-term ire of fans, including Jay Feely, Mike Vrabel, and Osi Umenyiora, among many others, doing so knowing taking a public stance could potentially cost them among a divided fan base.

Manning has more to lose. Understood. Yet his silence on the lockout despite being one of the named litigants is starting to seem odd. More than odd. It's starting to look like Manning either no longer cares or disagrees with the path the former union is taking.

These points aren't raised in support of the players. This is a simple matter of observing and noting that Manning is conspicuously absent as fellow players see blood spilled.

Few of the high-profile players in the league have stayed silent. Even Brady, who measures every word the way a brilliant cellist measures each note, has publicly discussed the legal situation. To Brady, this fight is about helping the next generation, and he understands the historical context.

"[I'm in my position] because of Boomer Esiason, who was the lead plaintiff in 1987, and all the work he fought for current players," Brady said in April. "So it's really a lasting legacy that Boomer's had. So when the opportunity was presented to me and someone like Peyton [Manning] and Drew Brees, who are also very notable players in the league -- you know, we represent the entire group."

It's likely Manning felt a similar twinge of NFL patriotism when first presented with being a named plaintiff then along the way, as this got nastier and nastier and fans got angrier and angrier, he probably had this conversation with himself:

"This is getting ugly. Better quietly back the [expletive deleted] out."

It was always going to get ugly. These things are never pretty.

Manning has long tightly controlled his public image and there will be those who claim his strategic silence isn't unusual. Yet in this fight, appearances matter. It's a battle to gain the trust and backing of fans. Manning speaking would not only help the players, it would possibly tip the balance of power in their favor.

Again, I'm not speaking as a player advocate, but as someone who wonders what is Manning thinking, and what players have said to me privately.

I'll tell you this: the owners are ecstatic that Manning is keeping quiet. Every day that passes without Manning saying a word in support of the NFLPA is Christmas to them.

The owners have no qualms with using their big names. They rolled out their version of Manning this past week. John Mara, as good a human being and owner as there is in all of sports, nevertheless parroted the line about owners losing money and how the economy hurt the sport despite the NFL making a record profit. The Mara and Rooney families are the NFL's version of the Kennedy's (minus the affairs). When a Mara speaks, angels hearken and trumpets play. The owners understand his public-relations value, indeed, many of the key owners, from Jerry Jones to the Rooney's to Mara to Robert Kraft, have spoken repeatedly to try and sway fans. I think it has had a tremendously positive effect for owners. When a Rooney or Mara or Kraft speaks, it carries weight.

Conversely, one of the players' biggest weapons is Manning, and he has retreated into radio silence. If I were a player, I would wonder why.

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