The Mannings: America’s First Football Family

The Book of Manning (2013) follows the football story and legacy of Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning. [1] This movie could be described as a reflexive documentary due to the incorporation of its subjects and sole focus on them. Although the film is framed subjectively, numbers do not lie. Archie, Peyton, and Eli Manning hold some of the most successful college football careers in history. Both Peyton and Eli were first overall NFL draft picks and Peyton is widely considered as one of the greatest NFL Quarterbacks of all time. Thanks to this, The Book of Manning serves as a testament to what it means to be a premier American sports family.

The movie begins with Archie’s rise to fame in his small Mississippi town. Most heartbreaking is the reveal that Archie’s dad committed suicide while Archie was in college. They use this emotional shift to segway into Archie’s view on being a father to his sons and how his involvement helped shape his sons’ success. The next chapter covers the community backlash from Peyton’s commitment to Tennessee; direct rival of Ole Miss and Archie’s alma mater. Peyton dominated at Tennessee setting multiple records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completions. The final chapter comes full circle with Eli making a name for himself at Ole Miss. At Ole Miss, Eli set and tied 45 records; many of which belonged to his dad. The movie ends with a literal closing of the “Book of Manning” with hints of a new chapter on the horizon. 

Sports documentaries have not always had the academic merit they have now. [2] Travis Vogan,  author and journalism professor at the University of Iowa, states that despite ESPN’s profitability and reach, “it’s steeped in sports television’s low cultural status.” Since then, ESPN made the strategic decision to rebrand itself to garner more prestige. Marketing their documentaries to be associated with cinema was one way in which they did this. In 2009,  ESPN launched the 30 for 30 series. A series comprised of thirty documentaries made by thirty established filmmakers that celebrated the past thirty years of ESPN. 30 for 30 set the precedence for sports documentaries’ changed perception. 

The Book of Manning is an ESPN film. It’s important to investigate the ways in which ESPN conveys the Manning story. For starters, depicting the family’s name in the best light possible was clearly prioritized. The film relies on gameplay footage, personal interviews, and childhood home videos to evoke sympathy and awe from the audience. The viewer is easily able to align themselves with the Mannings thanks to the film’s emotionally driven narrative. 

Peyton’s sexual assault settlement during his college years was conveniently left out of the narrative. Archie’s dad’s suicide was also glossed over. Instead, the tragic event is used to highlight Archie’s amazing parenting as a more involved father. It’s bad journalism to celebrate the accolades and ignore the controversies. Instead of feeling like a true well-rounded biopic; the documentary felt more like propaganda to promote an idealized image of what it means to be an American athlete. 

This is ironic when thinking back at ESPN’s vision to make their sports documentaries more credible in the public sphere. Yet, The Book of Manning is filmed and framed no differently than their coverage of any Friday night football game. [3] Commentators, advertisements, and instant-replay all manipulate what the viewer perceives during a televised sports game. Although the format is different here, the result feels the same. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love football and I watch ESPN. The Mannings’ influence and accomplishments in college football and the NFL are undeniable. From a seller’s perspective, I understand why the documentary took the apotheosized and patriotic angle that it did. The Book of Manning succeeds in promoting the quintessential American family and I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave feeling inspired. That being said, the film had the opportunity to make a far greater impact by addressing certain issues instead of sidestepping them. Knowing how sports impact and shape our lives outside of the sport is something worth telling the next generation of athletes.

[1] Aldredge, The 6 Types of Documentary Films (May 2016). [2] Malinky, Knowing Sports: The Logic of the Contemporary Sports Documentary (2014). [3] Williams, The Structure of Televised Football (1977).