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Future hall of fame quarterback Peyton Manning is vehemently denying that he has ever taken human growth hormone (HGH) or other performance enhancing drugs, as suggested in a recent Al Jazeera investigative report. The Denver Broncos quarterback claims he's so "angry" about the claims that he's considering legal action,
But despite the fact that the main source in the Al Jazeera story has recanted his claims, several legal experts believe that Manning may not have a case.
"By putting out a story primarily based on a single source who has later recanted, is Al Jazeera acting in a potentially risky fashion?" renowned First Amendment Floyd Abrams told CNBC.com. "Yes, but the law is very protective (of journalists in this area)."
Al Jazeera caused ripples in the sports world on Sunday when it aired, "The Dark Side: The Secret of Sports Dopers." In the report, former Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine intern Charlie Sly was filmed by an undercover reporter saying the clinic shipped HGH to Ashley Manning, Peyton Manning's wife, and suggested the star quarterback took the illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Manning was a patient at Guyer in 2011, when he was recovering from a neck surgery. He returned to the NFL in 2012, when he won the AP National Football League Comeback Player of the Year Award and was named to the 2013 Pro Bowl. He has denied taking any drugs prescribed to him or anyone else.
"The allegation that I would do something like that is complete garbage and is totally made up," Manning said in a televised interview. "It never happened. Never. I really can't believe somebody would put something like this on the air. Whoever said this is making stuff up."
Sly also alleged that several other players — including Green Bay Packers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison, Miami Dolphin Dustin Keller, Philadelphia Phillie Ryan Howard, and Washington National Ryan Zimmerman — of taking banned hormone Delta-2 and other illegal performance enhancing drugs.
However, even before the report aired, Sly denied his claims in a YouTube video. He said that the recordings were made without his knowledge and were false. Sly later told ESPN that he made the false statements because he was trying to persuade the undercover reporter, a former athlete, to let him into the performance-enhancing drugs business among the reporter's athlete friends.
Constitutional lawyer Abrams said that because Manning is a public figure, what he would have to do to prove libel is show that Al Jazeera purposefully knew Sly was lying and went forward with the story, not that they did sloppy reporting.
A simple denial from Sly wouldn't be strong enough evidence.
"They have to show something which is called 'clear and convincing evidence' that what they were putting on air was false," Abrams explained.
Abrams added that if Manning was to sue for defamation, there would have to be other proof like emails or other correspondence within the media company.
Al Jazeera firmly believes its story is true. Reporter Deborah Davies, who helped lead the report, said the media outlet believes Sly is just changing his tune now.
She said they were led to Sly by several sources who referred to the pharmacy intern as a "doping genius." Then, through six days and more than 20 hours of careful undercover interviews, they were able to get Sly to open up and start dropping his clients' names.
"In the undercover videos, Charlie is being very truthful," Davies said. "He never said a single false statement. He's never bragging. He's never lying. If he doesn't supply a particular athlete, he's very clear. … If he was really someone who just wanted to brag and thought he was just being set up, and Liam (the undercover interviewer) is just a sucker, he could have just said here is a list of all the big stars I work with."
Davies added that Al Jazeera checked the employment dates of Sly at Guyer, and confirmed he was employed in 2011 when Manning was receiving treatment. Dr. Dale Guyer has since said that Sly was an intern for three months in 2013. She said footage of the call will be aired on Monday on the network.
In addition, the publication attempted to contact Sly on Dec. 4 via email and certified letter for additional comments. It also tried to call him before the imposed Dec. 14 deadline. He did not respond until 48 hours before the broadcast of the piece via email and with the YouTube video, she said.
Davies noted that Manning has not refuted that his wife received HGH shipments. What she and Al Jazeera want to know is if she received them and, without prying into her medical history, whether she does not have one of the three conditions that HGH can legally be prescribed for. If she does not, Guyer may have broken the law if they did indeed send her the drugs.
"These are questions that need to be answered," she said.
Stuart Karle, general counsel at North Base Media, added that reporters are not obligated to keep reporting until they find a source to disagree. What Manning would have to do to prove libel is not that Al Jazeera was negligent in their reporting, but that they purposefully disregarded the fact that their source was lying.
Who may be more at risk is Sly, who despite recanting is not in the clear. Karle said that though he made a huge point of going public with his denial, he's still responsible for the story, which was picked up widely throughout all major media outlets.
The question is will Peyton want to go forward with the claims, Karle pointed out. Trials take a while, and the news cycle is quick.
"The story will fall away," Karle said. "Why would Peyton Manning want to file a defamation claim where all the burdens are on him? He would have to prove it's false, and then he would have to prove malice."
Ari Fleischer, whom Manning hired to handle media relations the recent allegations, believes the Al Jazeera report is already fading. The former press secretary for President George W. Bush, who now represents several sports organizations, said the suit remains possible, and Manning's lawyers are reviewing it. However, he noted nothing will probably happen before the end of the season.
"Judging from most of the commentary, it looks like the story is collapsing on its own weight," he said via email. "The allegation against Peyton wasn't credible to begin with, and the story is falling apart."