Peyton Manning, Sexual Assault and a Little Healthy Skepticism

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Peyton Manning, Sexual Assault and a Little Healthy Skepticism
JOE CAVARETTA/Associated Press

Being skeptical about the Peyton Manning sexual assault allegations from nearly 20 years ago does not make you a bad person.

Expressing doubts and withholding judgment about the details of 20-year-old events—as recounted and amended in 15-year-old, one-sided court documents, as summarized and sensationalized last week by a tabloid provocateur—does not make you sexist, racist, reactionary, closed-minded, a victim-blamer or part of the problem.

Skepticism of salacious or incriminating claims actually makes you a better citizen, not a worse one. A little critical thinking makes you a better voter and a better juror. It makes you a better consumer, student, parent and worker.

It's OK to not rush to judgment and declare Peyton Manning a monster.

It's OK to be uncertain about what really happened Feb. 29, 1996, between the 19-year-old Peyton Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright (then Jamie Whited) in an athletic training room at University of Tennessee. It's OK to approach the 2002 court documents pertaining to Naughright's defamation-of-character lawsuit against Peyton and Archie Manning with some honest suspicion.

It's OK to sniff a little at the work of Shaun King, the New York Daily News senior justice writer who dusted off a story that was in the public record for 15 years, gussied it up without doing any new reporting or even carefully representing the facts and reinjected it into the news cycle during the post-Super Bowl lull.

It's OK to think that this old scandal only has fresh legs because it helps fill midday sports-talk segments and sports-in-society editorial think pieces. It's OK to believe that trying to determine "what really happened" 20 years ago, after a pair of legal settlements, is a waste of time and energy.

It's OK to wonder why so many people are writing about what may have happened at University of Tennessee so long ago, while so few are writing about the serious allegations of sexual misconduct that were filed against the university just last week.

It's not just OK; it's appropriate, healthy and wise.

No matter how many outraged people on Twitter tell you otherwise.

Slick Lawyers, Horseplay and a "Smart Girl"

Healthy skepticism forces us to train critical eyes on the events that transpired.

We know, from all parties involved, that Naughright was examining Manning's foot for a possible fracture when the already superstar quarterback exposed his buttocks in close proximity to Naughright's face.

According to the widely reported and documented story of the time, Manning dropped his towel to moon a fellow athlete after some locker room smack talk, then remembered—whoops!—that a female trainer was kneeling behind him.

According to a 33-count complaint filed by Naughright against the University of Tennessee with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission in August 1996, Naughright said Manning "pulled his pants down and exposed himself to me." The act was one of many alleged incidents of sexual misconduct against her by university students, coworkers and others.

According to the 2002 court documents pertaining to Naughright's defamation lawsuit against Peyton and Archie Manning, Manning's genitalia made physical contact with the trainer's face.

"It was the gluteus maximus, the rectum, the testicles, and the area between the testicles," she testified in an affidavit.

Now, "skepticism" back in 1996 and 1997 generally meant, "Don't believe what the woman is saying," at least when it came to sexual harassment.

An article in the Knoxville News-Sentinel from Aug. 24, 1997, lists all 33 allegations, as well as the conclusions drawn by the university investigators. Some of the university's conclusions are pretty shocking. A player dumped water over Naughright's head to give her a "wet tee-shirt," but the investigators concluded: "Actions...not unexpected of this age group. ... Not reasonable to expect that the Athletics Department could prevent such horseplay."

Naughright alleged that a student verbally assaulted and threatened her when leaving the football field, but investigators concluded: "Not uncommon for injured players to get upset, discipline not necessary; not sexual or gender-based."

(Here's a detailed report of the university investigation; Manning is the redacted student in pages 21-22.)

The Manning incident, referred to as a "mooning" by the university investigators, was dismissed as "horseplay," though Manning was punished mildly with sprints and meal restrictions. Still, investigators found a few issues among the 33 allegations that could not be explained away, and while the university accepted no culpability in the case, it did agree to a $300,000 settlement with Naughright.

The summer of 1996 was a difficult time for a woman seeking justice regarding sexual harassment or assault. Clarence Thomas earned a Supreme Court seat despite Anita Hill's harassment allegations just five years earlier; public opinion, like the majority of voters in Congress, sided with Thomas. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson less than a year earlier. The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal was just starting to bubble into what would later become a presidential impeachment.

We were at a national crossroads in gender relations when Naughright was enduring a "bumper" nickname (pertaining to either her large breasts or alleged lesbianism), dodging wet-T-shirt "horseplay" and coping with Manning's unwanted exposure.

You can hear the tone of public conversation when reading columns about the incident from the time. Here is an excerpt from Chris Dickerson's column in the Charleston Daily Mail when news of the "mooning" reached the wires in May 1996:

The first question I had about this story was: What did she see that forced her into hiding for three months?

I can see being out of commission for an afternoon. Maybe still feeling nauseous for the next day or two.

But three months?

Had a tattoo of the UT logo made a lunar landing? Houston, we have a REAL problem.

Was there a pimple?

The second question I had about the story was: Being an athletic trainer, what is Whited going to do when she has to - gasp! - treat a groin pull?

Here's another quote, from Roy Exum of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, after the settlement:

Dr. Jamie Whited, who served as an associate athletic trainer at Tennessee from 1993-96, got together with some slick lawyers and then filed a 33-count complaint of sexual harassment and discrimination against UT. Obviously Jamie is a smart girl. The 'Dr.' in front of her name indicates she got an advanced degree from UT, and the fact there are some audio tapes involved in this case seems to indicate somebody was pretty crafty.

Articles about the incident in 1996 invariably have jokey headlines about a "Full Moon" or "Lunar Exposure." Exum's column came after the complaint and settlement, but generally the tone did grow more serious when Naughright filed her complaint. It was still just fine to condescendingly call a woman with a Ph.D., the aggrieved party in an important gender-equity case, a "smart girl" in the newspaper.

The $300,000 settlement boxed Naughright into silence about the details of any of her complaints. Reports at the time stated that Naughright asked the university in May 1996 to release details of "what actually took place" but got no response.

Skepticism tells us that there may have been much more to that 1996 incident than a playful mooning of a teammate by Manning. Naughright faced a hostile university, hostile media, a hostile national environment for sexual harassment claims and a superstar athlete with the clout to control the narrative whose misbehavior represented 1/33rd of a much larger problem. Maybe she and her lawyers decided not to push some of the details of the "mooning" in the name of getting a settlement done and getting the heck out of Knoxville.

That's what skepticism does: It engages the bullsnot detector and makes us look at the big picture.

But real skepticism works both ways.

Beyond Tennessee

The purpose of the 74-page 2002 court document that reignited the Manning-Naughright controversy was not to prove Manning sexually assaulted the athletic trainer five years earlier. Its purpose was to prove to a judge that Naughright's attorneys had a strong enough defamation-of-character case against Manning and his father, who referred to Naughright as "vulgar" in their 2000 book Manning.

(Here is the original legal brief from the Mannings' lawyers to which the famous Naughright document is responding. It deals mostly with proving that the remarks made in Manning are not libelous.)

The 2002 document is not a ruling by a judge or arbiter. It is, by its very definition, one side of an argument. The argument, again, was not to prove that Manning sexually assaulted Naughright. The assault discussion was meant to demonstrate a pattern of malice toward Naughright by Manning, a pattern that led Peyton and Archie Manning to purposely mischaracterize Naughright in their book.

The affidavits and testimony in the court document are often convincing, even as they recant or contradict matters that appeared to be in the public record after the 1997 Tennessee settlement. Manning's buttocks move from 18-30 inches away from Naughright's face (as reported in a Knoxville News-Sentinel report headlined "It Wasn't for the Money" on Aug. 24, 1997) to actual contact in the testimony. The lone eyewitness, Malcolm Saxon, not only recants his earlier testimony but also writes a long letter pleading with Manning to "maintain some dignity and admit to what happened."

As noted before, there are reasons to suspect Naughright may have downplayed the initial incident in an effort to expedite a settlement.

The 2002 document also contains long passages and testimonials meant to prove that Naughright did not have a "vulgar mouth." Several witnesses testify to never having heard Naughright use profanity. There are pages of refutations of an incident in which Manning offers to drive fellow students to a party for Naughright; Manning claimed that Naughright called the students "motherf--kers." The lawsuit hinged on whether it was appropriate to call Naughright "vulgar" and therefore spends as much time refuting details of this one five-year-old conversation as it does recounting the events of Feb. 29.

There are, finally, pages and pages documenting how excerpts from the book Manning began circulating at Florida Southern College, Naughright's employer at the time, thanks to a coworker who may have been seeking a promotion to Naughright's position. It's a weird tale of campus backstabbing, with coworkers and students suddenly learning that Peyton Manning objected to Naughright's coarse language years ago and suddenly turning against an exemplary employee.

There are plenty of implausible elements to the official 1996 story of the incident: Manning playfully mooning a teammate while forgetting a trainer was inches away; that trainer, experienced in the men's locker room and resigned to dirty nicknames and wet T-shirt incidents, suddenly needing a leave of absence after seeing Manning's bare buttocks.

But there are plenty of implausible elements in the 2002 court document as well.

Naughright's swearing, which was attested repeatedly in 1996 and 1997 ("Jamie had the worst language of anybody in the building," an unnamed secretary said in an Aug. 25, 1997, report on the Tennessee settlement cited on Page 17 of Manning's original brief; other accounts mentioned Naughright cursed a lot to fit into a male environment), had suddenly never happened at all. The courageous individual who won awards for her willingness to stand up to the University of Tennessee was suddenly powerless to stop an office conniver from disseminating a few snippets from a biography and utterly sabotaging her career.

College students even used the exact phrase "vulgar mouth" to taunt Naughright during a class on Page 68 of the affidavit, an incident that sounds strange on multiple levels. (Do students really use the exact phrase "vulgar mouth"? Do they care that much whether faculty members curse? Do they read lots of sports biographies?)

Both Peyton Manning and his father essentially twirl their mustaches throughout the 2002 document, almost as if they wrote a book for the sole purpose of someday turning Naughright's colleagues against her with their allegations of potty-mouth (though Naughright is never mentioned by name in the book). That's because the document was written precisely to vilify the Mannings—not for the specific events of Feb. 29, but for something else entirely. That's how lawsuits work.

Healthy skepticism requires us to take the 2002 document with a grain of salt. Believing Naughright's version of events in the 2002 document—especially without reading it as it descends down a rabbit hole of Florida Southern College faculty mail-tampering and backstabbing—is as naive as taking Manning's original story of a locker room prank at face value.

The defamation lawsuit was settled and sealed in 2003; neither side is allowed to speak about the particulars of the lawsuit, and there was no judge's ruling or jury trial. There was no cross examination, no independent investigation. There was no "media cover-up," just a cold trail off a cold trail. There has been no reason to mention the incident as anything but a strange skeleton from a superstar's teenage years in over a decade.

Then came a Super Bowl victory, a slow news cycle and a very creative act of journalistic repurposing.

Unreliable Sources

King is a complicated individual. The more you learn about the author of last week's extensive retelling of the Manning-Naughright saga, the more you start to wonder whether you would grab your umbrella after King swore to you that it was raining outside.

Healthy skepticism requires us to examine all evidence, even evidence from dubious sources. Fortunately, King didn't offer any new real evidence. He just cut the existing evidence down to its juicy core.

King's version of the Manning-Naughright incident is a blatantly slanted restating of a blatantly slanted document. It's a double-distilled condemnation of Manning, written in feverish longform with some strange tangents about Cam Newton, who was six years old when the events King recounted occurred but climbs aboard to add a veneer of topicality to the story.

King's story is the reason I am writing this essay. It's the reason the Manning-Naughright incident is news. There have been zero new revelations. This story only qualifies as "news" because it was written for a newspaper, and the details are old enough that a generation of readers has never encountered them. It's really debate bait, written by an activist/entrepreneur/journalist who isn't shy about inserting himself into controversial stories.

If your gateway to this is the King story, you arrive jaded and tainted. That story was designed to be inflammatory. And of course, we all arrive at every story with preconceived notions of gender relations, sexual harassment issues, politics, race and even the character and morality of famous quarterbacks.

I strive to be progressive on gender issues. So do many of my colleagues. There's a safe flag on a hill that reads "Peyton Manning Is Guilty." The flag on the other hill attracts a lot of people we disagree with, on most topics anyway. We don't want to go there. Few of us want to sound like the columnists of 20 years ago, guffawing at a "smart girl" who can't take a joke and wants a handout. And we sure as heck don't want to be stuck in the middle, taking flak from both sides.

But if you approach this story with skepticism, you may find yourself stuck in the middle.

You may conclude that Manning was probably guilty of more than a locker room prank in 1996, something foul, objectionable and illegal in both 1996 and 2016.

You may decide that Naughright's lawyers slung a little too much hooey in 2002, turning a few ill-conceived paragraphs from a biography into a conspiracy because that's what lawyers do.

You may conclude that King's reimagining of the Manning-Naughright tale was so skewed and sensationalized that it was essentially misleading.

Or you may reach very different conclusions that still allow for more gray tones than the typical Internet debate allows.

With some of the "conspiracy" and "cover-up" trappings deflated, you may be stuck looking at a few ugly moments from a 19-year-old's life in the Clinton Administration and wondering if there are better uses of your time and energy than pounding your fist about it in 2016.

For example, if we are dusting off sexual harassment scandals from the 1990s, we could use the upcoming Supreme Court appointments to revisit the Thomas-Hill hearings. That could lead to a more informed conversation and more meaningful social change than joining an angry mob and tearing down a quarterback's metaphorical statue.

Or we could talk about the federal lawsuit filed by six women against the University of Tennessee last week alleging cover-ups of sexual assaults, including rapes and beatings, that have occurred over the last five years. Most coverage of this living, breathing scandal so far has focused on the fact that the Manning-Naughright incident is mentioned briefly in the suit.

We can fight for social change on meaningful topics like these and simultaneously think the Manning story is dirty laundry excavated from the bowels of the basement, a boondoggle of unanswerable questions, a distraction from real issues, a callous attempt at self-branding by certain media gadflies, and/or just talk-show filler until spring training, March Madness and the NFL Scouting Combine. The real issues will still be with us. The events of 20 years ago will still be shrouded in the past.

That's not being cynical. It's being skeptical. And it's totally OK.

In fact, it may be the best thing you can do.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Quotes from newspapers not available on the Internet retrieved from the News Library database.

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