Peyton Manning and the Place of Stem Cell Research in Sports

Curator's Note

This submission examines the controversy surrounding the experimental stem cell treatment undergone by the Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback, Peyton Manning. Manning has been sidelined this season with a neck injury and it is an open question as to when he will return, casting the fate of the Colts––for years, a perennial Super Bowl contender––to the unknown. Having undergone several surgeries in the United States to repair the bulging disc, Manning recently flew to Europe to undergo stem cell treatment in the hopes of a quick return to the field of play. Manning’s decision to undergo this highly experimental treatment, which is not FDA approved, has sparked disapproval and debate both among fans and among doctors who question the validity and efficacy of the procedure, as well as Manning’s motives behind the decision. Being called “Peyton’s Hail Mary,” the treatment raises questions about the future of sports medicine, public medical opinion about stem cell research, and how public branding of athletes intersects with individual choice.

While Manning’s choice to use his own stem cells––which originate from the fat cells in his stomach––are less controversial than embryonic stem cell treatments, it threatens to destabilize Manning’s public image as the quintessential American man. It also raises questions about public emulation of the famous patient. While it seems unlikely that this procedure will soon become medical vogue, several doctors have expressed public concern that Manning’s decision may generate a mass appeal for stem cell treatments among individuals with similar conditions. “If it’s good enough for Peyton, what about me?” one medical reporter for ABC News is quoted as saying, implying that Manning’s influence has much wider ramifications beyond his own individual choice and extends to influence that of others.

This treatment also prompts questions about what constitutes doping and the appropriate place of experimental medicine in sports. Unlike EPO, where a patient’s highly oxygenated blood is transfused back into the body, this stem cell treatment has not been banned from professional or high level amateur sports competition. Will stem cell treatments be medically prohibited for creating an unfair advantage? What are the limits of using one’s own bodily substances in sporting contests, and how does this alter our conceptions of what constitutes fair play?


             I agree that NFL star Peyton Manning’s use of a stem cell treatment for a neck injury does raise questions about who should be able to get this type of therapy and to what extent does it compare to performance enhancing drugs.  This type of treatment is not FDA approved and the safety of this procedure has not been completely evaluated yet.  By using television and other media to tell this story, it is able to reach millions of people, and people with similar conditions may push for this type of treatment because their favorite sports star had it done to him.  The connection of fans with their favorite athletes is very strong and the desire to be like them can be seen from people of varying ages.  I believe that due to this connection through watching football on television, Manning has a huge influence on his fans and could ultimately put fans that want this treatment in danger.  As for performance enhancing drugs, I can see how this could be considered as a violation of the rules because this will boost his ability to play football, but this is a tricky situation.  The stem cells are his own cells, and I do not think that he will come back with an increased performance as compared to his earlier years.  With the great debate about performance enhancing drugs in sports, treatments like this need to be evaluated to determine if this puts Manning at a higher competitive advantage than other athletes.

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