Peyton Manning has been living a lie. That’s the premise of a lengthy piece written by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King and published in the New York Daily News on Saturday. According to King, Manning should never have been “the ‘swell, golly, gee-whiz’ pitchman for Nationwide Insurance, DirecTV or Papa John’s Pizza,” nor should he be celebrated as the “the arbiter of all things good and decent in the world.” The long-buried truth, King writes, is that Manning was accused of sexually assaulting a University of Tennessee trainer when he was an undergraduate football star in 1996, and that he then launched a smear campaign against his victim when she filed a series of complaints and civil suits against him.
Hold on a minute. If this story about Manning is as bad as King says it is, why am I just hearing about it now?
The allegations against Manning have been reported before. The reports first surfaced in 1996, the same year the incident occurred. They then re-emerged in 2003, the year after the trainer, Jamie Naughright, sued Manning for defamation. They came up in 2005 as well, when she sued Manning for defamation again.
The story laid dormant for almost a decade before resurfacing in 2014, when Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead recalled Manning’s alleged misbehavior and wondered how it would’ve been covered in the age of social media. And earlier this month, the Daily Beast’s Robert Silverman brought the story to light yet again, writing a piece headlined “Peyton Manning’s Forgotten Sex Scandal.”
There are a few reasons why the media is finally paying attention this time. For one thing, Manning is still dealing with accusations that he illegally used human growth hormone, a claim that has led the press to investigate other aspects of Manning’s past. Manning also just started at quarterback for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, and the two-week lead-up to the big game gave writers plenty of time to dig.
How did Shaun King get involved?
The day after the Super Bowl, King wrote a column for the Daily News arguing that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was the victim of a racial double standard. In that piece, King wrote that Newton had been criticized for acting sullen after the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss, while Manning had dodged something far more serious: those sexual assault allegations from the 1990s.
King claims that a source who saw that initial column sent him a batch of never-before-published legal documents: the 74-page “Facts of the Case” filed by Naughright’s lawyer in 2003 as part of her first defamation suit against Manning.
Critics of King have pointed out that the document only gives Naughright’s version of events. While it’s true that the “facts of the case” filing tells a story that’s heavily tilted in Naughright’s favor, many of the details King cites come from depositions that were given under oath.
What did Manning actually do?
In February 1996, Naughright examined Manning in the football team’s locker room for a possible foot injury. During that examination, Manning slid off his pants and presented Naughright with his naked genitals. Manning first denied that any such incident occurred. Then he claimed that his intention had been to “moon” fellow Tennessee athlete Malcolm Saxon, and that Naughright just happened to be there.
As Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated has written, we don’t know for sure whether or not Manning touched Naughright’s face with his genitals. In her initial complaint, filed with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1996, “Naughright refers more generally to Manning ‘not merely mooning’ and that he undertook an additional act ‘of such an egregious nature as to be beyond the pale,’ ” but she does not explicitly mention physical contact. In Naughright’s deposition for the first of her two civil suits against Manning, however, she says the athlete essentially sat on her: “It was the gluteus maximus, the rectum, the testicles, and the area in between the testicles. And all of that was on my face when I pushed him up and off. … [A]nd as I pushed him up to get leverage, I took my head out to push him up and off.”
The “facts of the case” document also mentions a 1994 incident that is completely redacted, but which, according to Naughright, “explains the genesis of Peyton Manning’s dislike” for her. This is a piece of the puzzle that we simply don’t have.
Could Manning be the one who’s telling the truth here?
Anything’s possible, but that seems unlikely based on the evidence. Saxon, the fellow Tennessee student that Manning claimed he’d been trying to moon, wrote Manning a letter in 2002 (republished in full at Deadspin). That letter says, in part:
Peyton, you messed up. I still don’t know why you dropped your drawers. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not. But it was definitely inappropriate. Please take some personal responsibility here and own up to what you did. … Coming clean is the right thing to do!! Bro, you have tons of class, but you have shown no mercy or grace to this lady who was on her knees seeing if you had a stress fracture.
Saxon also wrote that UT trainer Mike Rollo punished him for refusing to go along with the “mooning” narrative by stripping him of his athletic eligibility.
How did Naughright respond to the alleged assault?
She says that she reported Manning but was told by a supervisor that the rectum-in-her-face thing was “merely a prank.” In August 1996, Naughright filed a complaint detailing the systematic discrimination she’d endured as a trainer at UT going back to 1989. The Manning incident was one of 27 she cited, though Manning isn’t mentioned by name in this complaint. Among the examples of harassment she reported: being given the nickname “cunt bumper,” the implication being that she was a lesbian for working with the women’s athletic teams. Male athletes also reportedly joked that her breasts were “midgets.”
The university had no choice but to look into the Manning incident at that point, but it concluded that “[i]n this context, the action was not sexual in nature or directed at Ms. Whited [Naughright’s married name]; and therefore was not sexual harassment.” The university report also notes Manning’s punishment: “removing his privilege to eat at the athletic facilities dining room, and requiring him to run at 6:00 a.m. for two weeks under the supervision of Coach [David] Cutcliffe.” In 1997, Naughright settled with the university. In exchange for agreeing to leave the school, she received $300,000 and a variety of UT championship paraphernalia. She also agreed to keep the events detailed in her complaint confidential.
King’s piece accuses Manning of not just assault, but also a “cover up” and “smear campaign of the victim that was so deep, so widespread and so ugly that it would’ve rocked the American sports world to its core.” Huh?
The attempted “cover up” was the work of Rollo, the UT trainer and Naughright’s direct boss. Several years later, during his deposition for Naughright’s first suit against Manning, he admitted to coming up with the “mooning” narrative to cover for Manning’s alleged actions. “I have been the person who has been prescribed to a number of terms,” he said, “whether it’s mooning or Bumper or different things. And I just have a habit of getting myself into those situations, in terms of being the source of terms.” Naughright also claimed in her deposition that, before she left UT, Rollo and another trainer asked her to blame the incident on a specific black athlete instead of Manning.
Manning, on the other hand, appears to have undertaken the “smear campaign.” He told university investigators: “I have never approved of Jamie’s vulgar language. It has always been my opinion, along with the majority of the team, that Jamie wants to be one of the guys.” In a sworn deposition, the ghostwriter of the Mannings’ joint memoir also said that Peyton had spread innuendo about Naughright—specifically, a claim that the white trainer had a habit of sleeping with black athletes—to his father Archie Manning. When asked in a 2003 deposition to produce evidence of Naughright’s vulgarity, Manning described an incident in which the trainer referred to other students as “motherfuckers.” Every person who Manning claims was present has unequivocally denied this story and pointed out reasons why it can’t have taken place the way he described it.
Oof, that doesn’t sound good. But still, Naughright’s complaint was against UT, not Manning himself. And she settled. How did she get to the point of suing Manning for defamation—not once, but twice?
Manning and his father, football legend Archie Manning, published the previously discussed memoir, Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy, in 2000. In the book, Peyton Manning briefly describes the locker room incident as “[c]rude, maybe, but harmless.” He also describes Naughright as having “a vulgar mouth.”
Naughright was then working at Florida Southern College. In 2001, she received an envelope addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited” (Whited was her married name; she is now divorced) containing the relevant pages from the Mannings’ book. According to her deposition, “it became common knowledge on campus that Dr. Naughright was the athletic trainer referred to by the Defendants in Manning. Thereafter, Dr. Naughright was treated differently by both students and colleagues and her employment situation at Florida Southern College became untenable.” In 2002, she sued both Mannings, along with their ghostwriter John Underwood, and the book’s publisher HarperCollins. That’s where the “facts of the case” document comes from. In 2003, Manning and Naughright settled and mutually agreed not to talk about the case going forward.
In January 2005, Naughright filed a second lawsuit claiming a breach of that original settlement agreement: ESPN had mentioned the incident in a segment of its show SportsCentury. According to Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz, “This case stayed in federal court, where it eventually was closed, possibly via a settlement.”
Well, it’s crazy that it took decades for most people to notice this story—but at least that would never happen now, right?
Hard to say. As Moskovitz wrote Tuesday at Deadspin, “It’s easy to blame the technology back then, the way these stories were covered then, the time that’s gone by. It’s harder to think that forgetting is part of what makes watching something like the Super Bowl so much easier, and rooting for a favorite team or player more enjoyable.”
Also, consider that a group of women just filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Tennessee, arguing that the school violated Title IX by protecting athletes who commit sexual assault—and they cite the Manning case as an example.
Looking at that lawsuit, it’s hard to feel confident that much has changed. The plaintiffs allege that key people at the university—including Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and football coach Butch Jones—were personally aware that certain football players had previously committed rape, and yet they often pursued a policy of “[delaying] the investigation process until the athlete perpetrators transferred to another school or graduated without sanction or discipline.” It remains to be seen whether any of the players named in the suit will achieve anything resembling Manning’s success—and, if they do, whether the public will take a hard look at the allegations from their college days or choose to look the other way.