A month after Al Jazeera aired its sports doping documentary “The Dark Side,” its blizzard of allegations have yet to be cleared up. Among those named in the documentary, in which former British sprinter Liam Collins went undercover in an attempt to expose performance enhancing drug use by athletes, were Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Packers defensive stalwarts Clay Matthews, Mike Neal and Julius Peppers, former tight end Dustin Keller and, most notably, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. All have vehemently denied the allegations from the report. MLB players Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman, also named in the program, have subsequently sued Al Jazeera for libel.
The source for the most explosive allegations is Charlie Sly, a 31-year-old supplement salesman with pharmaceutical training whose conversations with Collins, some 27 hours’ worth according to Al Jazeera, were recording without Sly’s knowledge. During his discussions with Collins—the contents of which he later completely disavowed—Sly spoke at length about supplying PEDs to various NFL players, and about meeting and working with Peyton Manning at the Guyer Institute, an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis, while Manning was recovering from neck surgery in 2011. Sly also claimed the Guyer Institute sent growth hormone to Manning’s wife, Ashley. Manning denied the allegations to Peter King of The MMQB and Chris Mortensen of ESPN, and a Manning spokesman told Al Jazeera the allegations were false, that Ashley’s medical history was a private matter and that “any medication shipped to her was prescribed by her doctor and taken solely by her.” Defending the Al Jazeera story afterward, reporter Deborah Davies said a second “very reliable” source confirmed to Al Jazeera that HGH shipments were sent to the Mannings’ home. On Wednesday of this week, Manning spokesman Ari Fleischer told The MMQB, “I believe the piece is irresponsible journalism that sought to smear Peyton Manning, as well as invade the privacy of Ashley Manning.”
The allegation that perhaps the NFL’s biggest and most respected star was involved with HGH, a substance that is banned by the NFL (but which the league didn’t test for before 2014), naturally set off a firestorm. That allegation for now hinges entirely on Sly, and at the end of the Al Jazeera documentary he himself backtracks, claiming any secretly recorded statements about athletes were “false and incorrect.” In addition, shortly before the show aired on Dec. 26, Sly filmed a YouTube clip in which he recanted everything he said in “The Dark Side.”
“Charlie regrets that he created this storm,” Sly’s Indiana-based lawyer, Travis Cohron, told The MMQB earlier this month. “The documentary portrays him as a peddler of steroids, where it couldn’t be further [from] the truth. Also, he has never had any contact with any of the athletes as suggested. Charlie Sly has never met Peyton Manning. He has never worked with him. He has never worked with Ashley Manning. Maybe he has been in the same building as her, but he has no knowledge of what treatments she may or may not have had.”
Sly’s disavowal notwithstanding, the NFL says it has undertaken an “ongoing and comprehensive” investigation into the Al Jazeera story. The nature and extent of that probe remains unclear, however, and the NFL’s silence on the details has prompted criticism in light of the resources the league has expended on Deflategate, a controversy involving the only NFL star on a par with Manning.
Yet the cases are inherently different. The NFL faces significant hurdles in an investigation of Manning and the other players named by Al Jazeera. At the moment there appears to be no tangible evidence—documentation, legal proceedings, failed tests, etc.—of a policy violation. Moreover, the NFL has no power to compel key figures from the report such as Al Jazeera reporters, Guyer Institute workers or Sly to cooperate, and those figures may have little motivation to speak to the NFL. In Deflategate, important figures included Patriots employees who were contractually obligated to participate in the investigation.
The situation is similar to the one MLB faced in its handling of Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis scandal in 2013. MLB overcame the evidence hurdle in that case by suing Biogenesis for interfering with player contracts, a path that for now the NFL appears unlikely to pursue.
The league also lacks access to Sly’s personal records or those of the Guyer Institute, and it likely won’t get such access unless other authorities intervene. For example, when former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended by NFL for using HGH in 2007, it was after he was caught during a nationwide crackdown on internet drug sales. In that probe, the Albany County (N.Y) District Attorney’s office discovered Harrison’s name on an illegal prescription from a Florida clinic for HGH, which Harrison had purchased online. Whatever the NFL’s investigation involves, the likeliest scenario for uncovering evidence against players named by Al Jazeera is if the Drug Enforcement Agency, Food and Drug Administration or other authority were to investigate the Guyer Institute or Charlie Sly. Spokesmen for the FDA and DEA would not comment on whether such investigations were being pursued.
* * *
Absent that evidence, and given that Sly has recanted, the question is, how credible are the allegations he made before he was aware that he was being recorded? The program thrust Collins into the underbelly of sports doping as mole, portraying him as an aging British hurdler seeking one last shot at glory. According to Sly’s lawyer, Collins approached Sly with business opportunities abroad, and Sly was under the assumption that Collins could help grow his supplement business, rather than looking to buy steroids. Could Sly simply have been bragging, falsely, about knowing those players, to impress a potential client or investor? And yet for six days, including a series of road trips to Houston and Dallas, Sly spoke with apparent authority of specific athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.
Sly, meanwhile, has gone undercover himself. According to his lawyer, Al Jazeera has not been in contact with him since the piece aired on Dec. 26, and he has not spoken publicly since his YouTube video. That leaves Cohron to represent the man at the center of perhaps the biggest, and strangest, doping allegation the NFL has seen. “The last thing I’ll say,” says Cohron, “is that Charlie feels terrible about all of this. Never did little Charlie Sly ever imagine something he said in the back of a car would force Peyton Manning, of all people, to respond.”