Peyton Manning: The NFL’s Great White Hope

By Andrew McGregor

This is one of two new posts today exploring race in the NFL. This piece looks at Whiteness, considering Peyton Manning as a Great White Hopes. Kate Aguilar’s post The Man in the Mirror: Black Culture, White Privilege, and Supermen in the Age of Cam Newton offers a contrasting view. Read in tandem, we hope they offer context that helps frame the narratives surrounding this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers.

Peyton Manning is ubiquitous. He is the face of the NFL. It’s impossible to watch football on a Sunday afternoon without seeing him as the spokesperson in a handful of commercials. He’s loved and celebrated by millions of football fans everywhere, not just in Denver or Indianapolis.

Manning in a 2013 Buick Verno commercial. Image from YouTube.

Manning in a 2013 Buick Verno commercial. Image from YouTube.

The construction and protection of this image is what makes Peyton Manning the ultimate symbol of white privilege and the NFL’s Great White Hope this Sunday. He represents the football establishment, having been groomed, coddled, and protected by its kingmakers. He appeals to corporate America and the Bible Belt with his aw-shucks, Southern familyman personality. The intensity of Manning’s fans and the league’s sponsors and supporters has only increased this week with the Super Bowl. Whispers that retirement is on the horizon remind them that Manning represents a fleeting era. Win or lose on Sunday, a new era is emerging in the NFL. It’s a new era where pocket passing quarterbacks are dwindling, where the football establishment has less control of its athletes, and the face of the league may no longer be a privileged white man.

But why? And, more importantly, what does his ubiquitous nature tell us about race and American culture? In this post I try to answer these questions by showing how Peyton Manning is a symbol of white privilege in modern America. He embodies many of the qualities that Americans hold dear (such as leadership, family values, and hard work) allowing him to serve as a foil to the unseemly problems within professional sports. What’s more, when juxtaposed to figures like Cam Newton or even Tom Brady, Manning is cast as a knight in shining armor, a Great White Hope riding in to save America from an unsavory champion.

The Symbolism of White Hopes

This image of Manning, harkens back to the turn of the twentieth-century, where whiteness was defined not just by skin color, but respectability. Notions of respectability championed by middle and upper class Progressives, such as teamwork, self-restraint, leadership, fair play, and hard work, were taught to immigrants, colonized and enslaved peoples, and working-class whites through sport. In this way, sport became an instructional tool to instill proper behavior and a form of character education that developed “class.” Violators of these codes were ostracized and shunned. Today, sports are still used in this way and athletes judged along these grounds.

Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, Reno, NV. Image from wikicommons.

The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, Reno, NV. Image from Wiki Commons.

At the same time, race was an important issue to this discussion. In addition to serving as a pedagogical tool on respectability, sports also represented masculinity and manliness. Social Darwinist and scientifically racist views of the day held that white men were superior, and their success on the playing field and in the boxing ring helped reinforce this belief (which  is ironic since sports were segregated). The color line was constructed to prevent challenges to this racial hierarchy. When Jack Johnson broke the color line and stole the title: world heavyweight champion, he threatened this system, challenging how race, class, masculinity and superiority were framed through sport. As boxing historian Randy Roberts has explained, Johnson became the “Emperor of Masculinity.” But what was more unsavory to whites, was his violation of the decorum and expectations of respectability. Johnson refused to be a second class citizen, famously declaring, “I am not a slave,” and reveled in his fame and fortune. He wore lavish suits, drove fast cars, and dated white women, not just violating the social norms of the day but seemingly flaunting in their faces. His Blackness was viewed as an extreme threat to the American way of life that required a Great White Hope to restore order and sanity.

Building on this history and these legacies, Manning embodies a particular brand of whiteness — known today as “classiness” — that involves his skin color and his social position, but is framed in a way where whiteness is seen as not a race but the default. This allows colorblind terms like classiness to replace whiteness. His white privilege, then, allows fans to adore him because of his behavior, not his race, even though race is a critical factor in this privilege. The subtlety, inherent in the scales of whiteness, allows for colorblind understandings of difference, and imbues terms like classiness with a double meaning. That is, behavioral critiques of white players (their classiness) rely on competing notions of class, masculinity, and respectability, while the same behavioral critiques of non-white athletes (also their classiness) rely on race. This is because race was present at the construction of these stereotypes, and thus cannot be removed from them. Manning is a complicated figure, because he represents the ultimate version of whiteness and all of its privileges in contrast to both white and non-white athletes.

White privilege is a taboo topic for many Americans today — just look at the responses to Macklemore’s new hit song. After all in a supposedly post-racial America, we’re all equal with the same chance at success (forgetting class differences, of course). For many, the continual existence of systemic inequality is a conspiracy theory. “All lives should matter,” they say, not just Black lives; of course if all lives mattered you would never have a Black Lives Matter movement, so there is a redundancy in that claim. Indeed, racial discrimination is viewed as a historic relic of the past. This is particularly true in the world of sports, where Jackie Robinson is heralded as the great emancipator. Robinson’s impact is undeniable, certainly, but his achievement often overshadows the post desegregation struggle of black athletes. What’s more, white privilege is viewed as odd in professional sports because a large portion of Americans erroneously believe, typified by the words of Jimmy The Greek, that African Americans are superior athletically.

In the NFL, however, where its players have been over 70% black for decades, there remains many subtle and not so subtle hints of inequality (including coaching, ownership, scouting and draft evaluations, and more.). Routine citations of the NFL’s Rooney Rule points to both the league’s desire for progress and its investment in whiteness by refusing to change. They have little incentive, Jimmy The Greek observes, because if African Americans “take over coaching jobs like everybody wants them to there’s not going to be anything left for the white people.”

Those of us looking to expose issues of racial discrimination and prejudice often focus on minority players, however, it is also important to explore the narratives surrounding leading white athletes. Figures who are immensely popular among fans, advertisers, and league leaders reflect a produced culture inscribed with specific values. These values highlight the acceptable form and behavior of class and masculinity, largely attached to the whiteness of team owners, brand marketers, and mass media members. Thus, leading white athletes who become icons are key symbols of culturally produced whiteness that downplays racial difference. In the current sports world, Peyton Manning fits that bill. He has ascended to this level and crafted his image in remarkable ways, on and off the field.

Football’s First Family

Manning’s life and football career has been well documented. His upbringing and family history are important parts of his image as well as key indicators of his privileged position. Exploring this background serves as a reminder of the resources he had access to and the culture he represents. This background frames the later construction of his image.

Peyton Manning is the son of Archie Manning III, a former NFL quarterback himself and an Ole Miss legend. According to the documentary, Book of Manning, Archie grew up in the rural, agricultural town of Drew, Mississippi. His father worked at a farm equipment store and earned only $6,000 per year. Archie was a sports-obsessed youth, excelling at football and baseball. He enrolled at Ole Miss six years after the uproar over Civil Rights Movement and the enrollment of James Meredith, and his teams became the Pride of Mississippi, helping the state heal. Archie was also selected in the MLB draft four times.

At Ole Miss, Archie Manning was a hero. He was the SEC player of the year in 1969, and finished fourth and third in Heisman voting in ‘69 and ‘70, respectively. Archie married the homecoming queen and the campus changed its speed limits to 18 in order to honor his legacy. Following his college career, he was the second overall pick of the 1971 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints and enjoyed a 13-year pro career. Manning spent the majority of his career with the Saints, and, despite never playing on a playoff team (and only had one .500 record during his time there), he became a beloved figure in New Orleans.

Manning family home in New Orleans' Garden District. Image from Flickr user Chris Waits.

Manning family home in New Orleans’ Garden District. Image from Flickr user Chris Waits.

Archie and Olivia Manning have three sons: Cooper, Peyton, and Eli. They grew up enmeshed in the football life, often hanging out in the Saints’s locker room and attending Saturday practices with their father. All three excelled at the sport and displayed their talent at Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans — an elite private school (recent reports list its tuition in the $20,000+ range). Cooper, the oldest Manning, played wide receiver, with Peyton throwing him passes at quarterback.

Cooper followed in Archie’s footsteps, attending Ole Miss, but was forced to give up football because of spinal stenosis. Eli also attend Ole Miss, where he also played quarterback. He was drafted first overall in 2004 by the San Diego Chargers, but traded to the New York Giants after he (with the support of his father) said he would not play for the Chargers.

Together, Archie and his sons founded the Manning Passing Academy, a summer camp for high school aged football players in 1996. The four-day camp utilizes well-known college and professional coaches and athletes to teach offensive skills, particularly to quarterbacks and wide-receivers. It has become recognized as one of the elite summer camps and an incubator for top-tier quarterbacks. The camp’s list of alumni, now reads like a who’s who of star college football and NFL players.

While Peyton and Eli are busy in the NFL, Cooper and Archie remain involved in other ways beyond the camp. Archie was selected as a member of the first College Football Playoff Committee in 2013 (though he resigned a year later). He also frequently appears as a guest analyst on football pregame and halftime shows. Cooper has also gotten into the TV game, with a series of humorous interviews for Fox’s NFL Sunday pregame show.

Making Peyton Manning

Unlike Archie, Cooper, and Eli, Peyton played college football at Tennessee. Many speculate that Peyton chose Tennessee because his father was aware of impending NCAA sanctions on Ole Miss, which would cripple its ability to field competitive teams. At Tennessee, Manning continued to thrive after taking over the starting job following injuries to the 2 quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. He kept the job and set records for passing yards, touchdowns, and career wins over the next three years. With Manning at the helm, the Volunteers were perennial threats to win the SEC and challenge for the national title. They won the SEC in 1997, his senior season. Manning also won numerous individual awards, but like his father failed to win the Heisman Trophy, which many fans considered a serious snub.

While a junior at Tennessee, Manning was accused of sexually assaulting an athletic trainer. Though he disputes the facts of the incident, it was confirmed by other eyewitnesses. Controversy surrounding his actions have been largely swept under the rug through repeated settlements and gag-orders. This is unsurprising, because misconduct by privileged white men often goes unpunished (think Wall Street or fraternity incidents).

Manning was drafted first overall the following spring by the Indianapolis Colts. He immediately became the team’s starting quarterback. He led the Colts through a series of rebuilding years and emerged as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. His teams regularly compete for division, conference, and league championships, winning 7 division titles, 2 AFC championships, and 1 Super Bowl.

Following his Super Bowl victory in 2007, Manning hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live. His humor and ability to make fun of himself endeared him to millions of new fans. The appearance is considered by some the funniest SNL ever hosted by an athlete.

Manning sat out the 2011 season with serious neck injuries. The injuries led to a series of neck surgeries and some highly publicized experimental and controversial treatments, including traveling to Europe to harvest stem-cells that could later be injected into his neck. At the time, many were unsure of whether or not he would ever be able to play at an elite level, but Manning was committed to returning the field.  

Unwilling to risk their future on the unknown, the Colts cut him (and drafted Andrew Luck). This allowed him to sign as a free-agent elsewhere. After a highly publicized courtship, Manning chose to continue his career with the Denver Broncos. Returning to near the same level of play as before the injury, he led Denver to four consecutive AFC West titles, and 2 AFC Championships.

This season, Al Jazeera America called into question Manning’s recovery, suggesting he used HGH and other performance enhancing substances to help him return to football. An NFL (as well as separate joint MLB and USADA) investigation into the reports is underway, but Manning adamantly denies any wrongdoing. Some of the report’s details have been recanted by one of its sources, though there have been rumblings that Al Jazeera has a second link.

Most mainstream media outlets, such as CBS, Fox, and ESPN, have taken Manning at his word, refusing to pursue the story further. In fact, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star went as far as to encourage Manning to sue Al Jazeera. CBS analyst Jim Nantz, who shares the same agent with Manning, has called the allegations a “non-story.”  Similarly, Mike Ditka tried to discredit the report by laughably saying, “Al Jazeera is not a credible news organization.”  This defense is out of respect and deference to Manning and his family, acknowledging their privilege and central place within the football establishment. For his part, Manning has routinely dismissed the allegations, using words such as fabricated, garbage, and junk to describe them.

Manning receiving a USO-Metro Merit Awards, March 2015. Image from wikicommons.

Manning receiving a USO-Metro Merit Awards, March 2015. Image from Wiki Commons.

Over the course of his NFL career, Manning has set several NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns. He has also been a 5-time MVP and 14-time Pro Bowl selection. He is revered as the classic cerebral pocket passer and an obsessive preparer. Manning is also often described as the type of player who makes everyone around him better, the quintessential team leader with high expectations for his teammates, and ultra-competitive but not overly emotional or demonstrative.

Manning has further contributed to his legacy as a media figure and philanthropist through his Peyback Foundation. As a New Orleans native, he and his family worked diligently to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also donated an undisclosed amount to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis, which resulted in the hospital renaming it’s children’s division “The Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.”

Dissecting Peyton Manning

Based on this brief overview of Peyton Manning’s family background and career history, a few things immediately stick out. First, he is a second-generation NFL quarterback, groomed for the position from an early age and provided with an elite education. He benefited from a wealthy, privileged background. Like many elite Americans, his family’s knowledge helped in negotiating the college recruiting system. His father used inside knowledge that prevented him from attending a NCAA-sanctioned Ole Miss. He was also well-prepared for his future career in the family business, receiving advice and training that few other NFL prospects and players have access to. The Manning family represents the football establishment. From their NFL careers, media personalities, to their elite camps and role as college football kingmakers, they exude a unique influence over the game.

Manning, however, has faced enough setback to obscure this privilege and offer plausible deniability to his anointed status. Narratives explain his return to play football at a high level after severe neck injuries as a credit to his hard work and determination (not the controversial neck surgeries or largely dismissed HGH allegations). Similarly, he’s experienced repeated failure — not winning the Heisman or a college national championship, repeated playoff losses to Tom Brady, and others. These failures have served to make his privilege palatable and relatable turning him into an Everyman who drinks Bud Light and eats Papa John’s.

Second, this portrayal of Manning, has shielded him from controversy. Few fans know of the sexual assault incident at Tennessee. And then narratives surrounding the current HGH investigation are night-and-day different from the deflated football controversy that surrounded Tom Brady. Indeed, Brady has been branded as a cheater and a villain while, according to a Seton Hall Sports Poll, 76% of people said the reports had “no effect” on their view of Manning. Three-percent said it improved their view of him!


Manning yelling Omaha at the line. Image from YouTube.

Much of Manning’s appeal comes from his personality as shown on Saturday Night Live and in his commercials, on the field of play where he piles up impressive statistics for fantasy owners, and his ability to connect to middle-America. He has expanded on his family’s Southern heritage in New Orleans, at Ole Miss, and Tennessee, capitalizing on the mediated SEC myth. He’s built on his father’s image as a Southern Gentleman and transformed it into a national brand. Indianapolis quickly gulped it up, but the popularity of the Broncos — who appeal to a much larger geographic region — helped nationalize it. Add in his now famous “Omaha, Omaha” play calls, and Manning’s appeal stretches seamlessly across the Bible Belt from Mississippi to Utah.

He has become a cultural icon. His image means something to Americans, as they celebrate his success and mourn his failures. Market research backs this up. Bloomberg Business reports:

No NFL player has more mainstream appeal than Manning, who is the most trustworthy athlete in the U.S., according to Repucom, a global sports market research agency. He’s also the most influential athlete, ahead of five-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Michael Jordan, and the most well-liked in America, Repucom says.

Additionally, Nate Dunlevy, an author who frequently writes about the Colts, told The Big Lead,

He engenders fierce loyalty from fans who usually talk about ‘what he stands for.’ Peyton represents something to people. He’s the Platonic Ideal of football players. Some of it is obviously about winning, but a lot of it is about him. When, with tears in his eyes, he thanked fans for letting him be their quarterback, it hit home to a lot of people. People identify with and care about Peyton Manning.

These feelings resonate with all football fans, not just Colts or Broncos fans. The Big Lead further explains that, Manning “has a bigger following than at least ten different NFL franchises” on Facebook and his jersey is routinely among the top sold each year.

Manning’s connection with middle-America, and views of him as trustworthy, caring, and the ideal, underscore his embodiment of whiteness. Any article about Peyton Manning is sure to make use of the essential “white guy code words.” The way fans describe his behavior and his actions appeal to his Everyman status, and act as a “positive” contrast to other players whose behavior they do not approve. These narratives cast Manning as the ultra competitive, studious team-leader, and a Southern Gentleman, when compared with the cheater Tom Brady. The comparisons get even more stark when juxtaposed to Cam Newton or Richard Sherman. Fans like “what he stands for” because it is a white privilege that they all too often feel is being threatened by outspoken minority players.

The appeal to whiteness by the media, marketing firms, and the NFL brass is intentional. Manning’s image has been crafted to extol certain values that obscure and downplay many of the serious issues facing the NFL. During a season where domestic violence arrests and concussions were the main story, the league’s week-to-week storylines largely focused Manning’s health (without questioning the ethics or choices of his recovery). Indeed, Manning’s ability to comeback from injury, and serve as backup to Brock Osweiler, further solidified his status as a “team player” instead of highlighting the incredible violence of the game. At a time when his neck injuries (which contributed to further injuries and shoulder problems) should be considered another violent and life-altering injury, it was glossed over and cited as a mere stumbling block to greatness. Manning stands in contrast to a legion of voices that criticize the NFL, including current and former players, lending the league his white privilege as an example that football is safe for rich kids too. Manning embodies the image the NFL — and much of corporate America — wants to promote of itself.

The image and ubiquity of Manning, and the celebration of his whiteness serves an integral purpose, and not just to the NFL and its fans, it propagates an ideal, suggesting that a specific culture and specific value set are normative. Much like the “Unwritten Rules” of baseball, the shadow of Manning’s image serves to direct and police proper behavior within the NFL and beyond. Like Progressive ministers at the early-YMCA teaching working class boys, or Pop Warner at Carlisle attempting to civilize Native Americans, he is our instructor and model of class and decorum. Peyton Manning is the archetype, the team captain, the good husband, father and son, the star quarterback, the smart consumer, the funny neighbor, the Greatest of All Time. He embodies a nostalgic and paternalistic view of America, that white Americans fear is slipping away — the Great White Hope.

*I want to thank Kate Aguilar, Wes Bishop, Andy Linden, Malcolm McGregor, Louis Moore, and Earl Smith for helping me thinking through this topic, suggesting sources, sharing ideas, and offering feedback to improve this essay.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85


Further Reading:

On Jack Johnson, boxing, and contested masculinities:

Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, (New York: The Free Press, 1983).

Randy Roberts, “Emperors of Masculinity: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, and Changing Ideas of Manhood and Race in America,” in Sport, Race, and Ethnicity: Narratives of Difference and Diversity edited by Daryl Adair (Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, 2011), p. 41-76.

Jeffery Sammons, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

On whiteness and white privilege:

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940, reprint (New York: Vintage Books, 1999; Pantheon Books, 1998).

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the American Working Class, rev. and exp. ed. (New York: Verso, 2007).

11 thoughts on “Peyton Manning: The NFL’s Great White Hope

  1. Pingback: The Man in the Mirror: Black Culture, White Privilege, and Supermen in the Age of Cam Newton | Sport in American History

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  3. News Flash:
    Tom Brady is white…OMG!!
    The article misses the point completely. The privilege is not race based but family status.
    The Mannings have vested interests in the NFL. Just look at how Peyton is coddled and “comprehensive investigations” are done in secret, while Brady was publicly prosecuted with news leaks and fictitious special reports.


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  6. I disagree with the issue that you have proposed that Peyton Manning is seen as a poster for the NFL because he is white. Many other players in the NFL receive credit for the same reasons that you listed that Peyton Manning gets. There is also many players in the NFL that people look up to and not just Manning. I think that you’re incorrect to limit Peyton manning’s greatness to him just being white because he has achieved many things throughout his football life and just treated them with class. The NFL is a very diverse league and to call out one great athlete and question there fame based off of white privilege is incorrect and a very bigot way to look at it.


  7. I disagree with the issue that you have proposed that Peyton Manning is seen as a poster for the NFL because he is white. Many other players in the NFL receive credit for the same reasons that you listed that Peyton Manning gets. There is also many players in the NFL that people look up to and not just Manning. I think that you’re incorrect to limit Peyton manning’s greatness to him just being white because he has achieved many things throughout his football life and just treated them with class. The NFL is a very diverse league and to call out one great athlete and question there fame based off of white privilege is incorrect and a very bigot way to look at it. Also why did you single out Peyton Manning as the only player in the league that gets attention for leadership traits because he is white?


  8. Dear Andrew McGregor,
    I really enjoyed being able to read your blog post on Peyton Manning. I am personally a New England Patriots fan, but you gave me a new outlook on Manning. I respect him as a player and it is going to be a different game once Manning and Brady are gone. You gave me new insight on white privileged athletes and after reading the blog post on Cam Newton as well it was easy to see the differences in the two of them, but the similarities as well. It’s crazy to think that this past Super Bowl it was the young vs. the old and the Manning era is slowly coming to an end. He will definitely be missed in the NFL, but I am excited to see what the new era of football will have to offer.


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  10. Think if a BLACK player at Tennessee (which refused to interview former QB Tee Martin,an African American,for their then-vacant coaching position) had sexually assaulted a (white) coed,as Manning and Detroit Lions OC Jim Bob Cooter allegedly had,it would be swept under the rug?Methinks not.(Incidentally,Martin,NOT Manning,won the National Championship at Tennessee.)
    The same crackers who’ve blackballed Colin Kaepernick and might do the same to Eric Reed JUST LOVE good ol’ boy Peyton Manning. Esquire James Crow has replaced Jim Crow in the U.S.A.,including sports.


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