Peyton Manning has likely played his final NFL game. Sure, there's a chance he'll try to run it back, but most agree he should send his starting defense some very nice thank-you gifts and call it a career on a high note.
If he's on the fence, he might be getting a gentle push toward retirement from a handful of scandals that seem to be coming to a head all at once: first, the NFL's investigation into allegations of HGH use; second, a renewed interest in a 1997 alleged sexual-assault settlement while he was at the University of Tennessee; and third, his inclusion in a recently filed lawsuit alleging that UT has violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment."
After years as the league's golden boy, why is Manning suddenly under fire? Vols fans (and Colts fans and Broncos fans and lovers of bad pizza) will tell you that it's all a counter-reaction to the Cam Newton contempt. Manning's Broncos upset Newton's favored Panthers in the Super Bowl, Newton was a "spoiled brat" in the postgame presser, and now all the bitter billies are looking for someone at whom to lash out. Trust me, I've seen every version of that narrative over the past few days on Twitter, where simply sharing an article someone else wrote about Manning is enough to get you outed as a "hater."
Thing is, the real reason this Manning stuff is news again 20 years later is because people are just now learning the extent of the allegations -- and just now realizing that for years the story had been treated with kid gloves.
I remember hearing about Manning's so-called college "prank" a year or so ago. It was a footnote in a larger story, an almost throwaway mention of an alleged 1996 "mooning" incident when he was a junior quarterback at UT. I'm never one to shrug off reports of alleged sexual assault, but this seemed like just a joke gone wrong, an immature student-athlete who accidentally mooned a female trainer while attempting to bare his backside to a fellow male athlete. That's how Manning spun the incident, that's how most writers reported at it the time, and that's how most writers have reported it ever since.
Then a few days before the Super Bowl, The Daily Beast released a much more detailed story, one which led to the re-emergence of a USA Today piece from 2003. And on Saturday came a story in the New York Daily News, one that features a 74-page court document submitted to the Polk County court in Florida in 2002 by the lawyers for Dr. Jamie Naughright, the trainer at the heart of the alleged incident. With each new piece of information, it became increasingly clear that Manning's youthful "prank" was far more insidious and drawn-out than the public had been led to believe.
Most initial reports of the alleged incident mirrored Manning's assertion that it was a "mooning" gone wrong. However, Naughright said in a court deposition she was treating Manning's foot when he began asking her personal questions. When she refused to answer, she heard laughter and looked up to find that Manning had dropped his pants and she claims he put "the gluteus maximus, the rectum, the testicles and the area in between the testicles" on her face. The male student that Manning later claimed he had been mooning, track athlete Malcolm Saxon, wrote a letter saying he was not the intended recipient of any mooning and urged Manning to "maintain some dignity and admit to what happened.... Your celebrity doesn't mean you can treat folks this way.... Do the right thing here." The letter was included in the 74-page court filing.
Naughright also wasn't just some kid trainer caught up in a classmate's antics. As is carefully detailed in the New York Daily News story, she held a B.A., a master's and a doctorate and was the director of health and wellness for the entire men's athletic program at Tennessee. And, perhaps most troubling, the incident didn't end when she accepted a $300,000 settlement from Tennessee and agreed to leave the school to which she had devoted her entire career.
In 2002, Naughright took Manning to court on defamation charges, claiming he misrepresented the 1996 incident in his book "Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy," and falsely characterized her, causing her to lose her job at Florida Southern College. They agreed to an out-of-court settlement, part of which was an agreement that neither party would publicly discuss the settlement or each other. But Naughright again took legal action against Manning in 2005, when he spoke about the 1996 incident in an ESPN documentary.
By 2002 Manning was already a three-time Pro Bowler, and by 2005 he'd been named an NFL Most Valuable Player twice. You might try to pin an alleged despicable act of a 19-year-old Manning on immaturity, but defying court orders and continuing to disparage Naughright for years to follow reveals a deeper, darker kind of entitlement. Somewhere beyond the Papa John's pitchman, "Saturday Night Live" standout and Hall of Fame quarterback appears to be a man led by arrogance and vengeance.
The continued shots at Naughright are reminiscent of Lance Armstrong, who stopped at nothing to tarnish those who spoke out against him. Rather than apologize for the incident, recognize it as a low moment and move on, Manning allegedly rewrote the story, invented false claims about Naughright and defied court orders to get the last word on the subject.
If reporters can write about Manning's alleged 1996 sexual assault incident with so much detail 20 years later, why wasn't the same care and attention given to it years ago? And why weren't those more-detailed allegations made clear until now, when he might have already played his final game? Was Manning's incredible football pedigree too intimidating? Was it simply easier to ignore athletes behaving badly before the days of social media? Was the "boys will be boys" mentality of that era so pervasive that women like Naughright were simply expected to keep quiet and take it? Did both fans and reporters create a narrative for Manning they were too scared to disrupt?
The truth is, it's probably a combination of all of those things. Manning was, to fans and media alike, one of the good guys. His football legacy, "aw shucks" attitude, legendary football IQ and fantastic comedic timing made him an easy guy to root for. And once the book has been written on a guy, no one wants to take the time to rewrite it, especially if the edits spoil the happy ending. It's easier to deny, deny, deny than to admit that a player might be great at football, great on TV, great at children's hospitals and charity events, but still be very flawed.
Of course, when it comes to legendary athletes, the defense is even more passionate and irrational.
With musicians and actors, there's a certain distance between the artist and the art. Many feel OK about watching a Woody Allen movie or enjoying an R. Kelly song, believing that the art that's been created is somehow distinctly different from its creator. Athletes, on the other hand, are an extension of our cities and of ourselves. When fans describe a big win they say "we won," not "they won," because the team represents the fan, the city and the community in a way that a song or a movie never could. The fan's connection is almost patriotic, the athlete's contribution decidedly civic.
The conversation we're having about Manning isn't a decades-delayed witch hunt, nor is it a movement designed to incite punishment. Manning won't be stripped of his Super Bowl ring due to a renewed interest in an alleged 20-year-old assault and its aftermath. And if he wants to play next year, it's not like he'll be fined or suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. No, this conversation is important because, 20 years later, schools and reporters alike still have the power to determine whose voices are heard, whose stories are told and whose word matters most.
Twenty years later, a lawsuit has been filed alleging that UT is still favoring prominent male athletes and still ignoring and covering up the stories of the women being harassed on campus. If we don't unpack the reasons why Manning's version of the alleged sexual assault was the only version told the first time around, we're doomed to make the same mistake the next time an athlete with an "aw shucks" attitude and a laser-rocket arm does something that defies his narrative. Deny, deny, deny, all while the Naughrights of the world pay the price.