Does the emperor have no clothes? (update below)

Shaun King, in the Daily News this weekend, penned a damning dissection of Peyton Manning’s conduct and character related to Manning’s alleged sexual harassment of a former University of Tennessee trainer, when Manning was an athlete there in the mid-1990s. The trainer in question is Jamie Naughright – now Dr. Naughright –  who King describes “as a respected scholar, speaker, professor, and trainer of some of the best athletes in the world.”

In February of 1996, as reported by King, court documents, specifically Naughright’s legal complaint, say:

“Naughright, at that point the university’s director of health and wellness, was in a training room, examining what she thought might be a possible stress fracture in Manning’s foot. At 6 feet, 5 inches, his feet dangled off the edge of the table. Manning allegedly then proceeded to scoot down the training table while Naughright examined his foot. At that point, she said, he forcefully maneuvered his naked testicles and rectum directly on her face with his penis on top of her head. Shocked, disgusted, and offended, Naughright pushed Manning away, removing her head out from under him (see pages 14-15). Within hours, she reported the incident to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Knoxville (see page 18).”

Initially, the associate trainer at the time, Mike Rollo, and Naughright’s boss, tried to argue that this was nothing more than a misunderstanding. According to Rollo, based on what Manning told him, the young quarterback (Manning was 19 at the time), was trying to moon a teammate, Malcolm Saxon, who had come into his view.

The problem for that version of events is that Saxon has forcefully denied that was the case. In fact, Saxon wrote a letter to Manning imploring him to admit what he did, to show some remorse and accept responsibility. Saxon says that, for his refusal to play along with the official version of events, UT stripped him of his scholarship.

UT eventually reached a $300,000 settlement with Naughright, after which she agreed to leave the university and stipulating that all parties abide by a confidentiality agreement. The story could have died there.

But the Manning family would not let it. In 2002, the Mannings published book, Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, in which, though she was unnamed Naughright was attacked for her “vulgar mouth” and “inappropriate” conduct. In addition to hurting her standing Florida Southern College, where she was then working, it violated the terms of the non-disclosure agreement that both parties had agreed to. In the book, Manning acknowledged the incident and said it was immature, but insisted on the mooning story. Naughright, going by her married name of Whited, had received a package in 2001 addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited,” containing excerpts from the book, so there was no doubt who was being referred to (that correspondence wasn’t public, so book readers wouldn’t have knowledge of it. But Manning could not deny who he’d been writing about in the book). Naughright sued Manning and the two parties eventually reached an undisclosed settlement.

There was another round of litigation in 2004-05, in which Naughright claimed again that Manning violated the nondisclosure agreement of the 2003 settlement. The parties reached another undisclosed agreement in 2005.

King’s article is based on Naughright’s filings in that 2002-2003 litigation. Manning’s response is not publicly available. Michael McCann, the excellent sports law scholar who writes for Sports Illustrated is far more cautious in drawing conclusions than was King, in part on this basis.

My strong inclination here is to believe the substance of the plaintiffs allegations which detail a pattern of behavior by Manning that showed him to be unrepentant and vindictive. But I don’t know what happened, of course. The only seemingly indisputable facts are that UT and Manning pushed a story of the incident that the star witness (Saxon) has refuted and that someone sent Naughright/Whited a nasty, vindictive note in 2001 with excerpts from an as-yet unpublished book. It’s also noteworthy that while Manning immediately and forcefully denied the Al Jazeera report about his alleged HGH use as soon as that story broke a few weeks back, he has remained silent so far about this damning story (Paul Finebaum, the so-called “mouth of the south,” ESPN and SEC network star and UT alum, while cautioning about jumping to conclusions, expressed a good deal of anger and agitation on Outside the Lines yesterday about Manning’s silence). There may be good legal reasons for him to keep his mouth shut, the merits of the allegations aside, but it certainly makes one wonder.

There are, of course, larger questions under discussion, about the extent of “rape culture” on college campuses, about race – including how a Cam Newton, for example, might be scrutinized under similar circumstances – and more.

Not unrelated is the question of the extent to which a kind of boys’ club comprising media and athletes continues to circle the wagons for favored sons. On First Take yesterday (segment starts about 23:00 minutes in), Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless devoted a significant chunk of time to expressing their dismay and disgust with what they were hearing. Both suggested that they’d been “had” by Manning – that they had fallen for a carefully cultivated persona that might have belied a darker personality. Bayless acknowledged that he’d been “well aware” of the 1996 incident at the time it happened, but said he wasn’t sure how to quickly summarize it (hmm) and that he understood it to be closer to “horseplay gone wrong.” He was at pains to suggest that he just took at face value what he’d heard and then punted on whether he could have dug deeper. But there has been reporting about this case before Mel Antonen wrote about it for USA Today in 2003, as King noted in his Daily News piece. Mike Freeman wrote about it in 2005 for the Florida Times-Union.

Bayless and Smith, who both started their careers as journalists, have long since become showmen. But to the extent that they still take seriously their own roles as purveyors of information relevant to their publics, there is a fundamental lack of curiosity at work here. Access, insider status, wealth and fame matter much more to these folks than pursuing an important story. That’s thankless, often unglamorous work. They can say that’s not part of their job description now, if it ever was. But they can’t both say that and plead innocence about what they didn’t know. They’ve made professional choices – along with many of their compatriots in the media – that some things are more important than others. One outcome of those choices is that they are going to doing more apologizing in the future for potentially important stories involving high profile athletes that they’ll surely miss, or be in denial about until the story becomes too big to ignore.

Update: Howard Bryant has a good discussion of some of the contradictory threads of popular discourse concerning athletes and the C word – character, especially as it pertains to Manning. He notes the scrutiny facing Cam Newton and explains why various groups of fans – be they Blacks, women and Patriots supporters – have their own reasons for thinking Peyton tends to get a pass. Bryant also provides the following useful reminder:

Nor, it must be said, have media outlets showed much courage in confronting other truths: That while the Naughright deposition against Manning was just that, a one-sided document explaining her view of what occurred that day in 1996, media routinely carry full news cycles for weeks on often one-sided documents that explain one viewpoint of what occurred in a given incident, with often devastating consequences for people and their reputations. They are called police reports.

 

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2 comments

  1. Given that the networks are angling to try to sign Manning as a color commentator once he retires, what effect do you think that will have on how these major networks cover the stories? ESPN particularly seems to now cater to the talking heads but still claims to value journalistic integrity. I’m curious to see how much digging they do in this story.

    1. Jamison,

      As usual, ESPN is several things at once. No doubt they have some interest in preserving his good name, perhaps for the reasons you mention. But Outside the Lines has not shied away from the story and others at the network have, if belatedly, been critical. You’re right, though – the ultimate question is whether they’ll dig further, or whether they’ll be content to ride the controversy-of-the-moment wave for a few days and then drop it.

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