The real takeaways from the resurfaced sexual assault allegations against Peyton Manning

Former Tennessee quarterback, Peyton Manning holds a framed jersey as his number was retired before the game with South Carolina Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005 in Knoxville, Tenn. CREDIT: WADE PAYNE, AP
Former Tennessee quarterback, Peyton Manning holds a framed jersey as his number was retired before the game with South Carolina Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005 in Knoxville, Tenn. CREDIT: WADE PAYNE, AP

Last Saturday, less than a week after winning a second Super Bowl in improbable fashion, vaunted Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning — or rather, Manning’s legacy — received a big blow.

In a New York Daily News article provocatively titled “Peyton Manning’s squeaky-clean image was built on lies,” columnist Shaun King detailed a 74-page “facts of the case” document filed in 2003 by Dr. Jamie Naughright’s lawyers, which describes a day in 1996 at the University of Tennessee when Manning allegedly pulled down his pants and put his genitals in the trainer’s face while she was examining his foot in the locker room. The document also describes how Naughright’s life and career have been negatively impacted since then.

Though much of the information contained in King’s report was already public knowledge, this particular retelling, which was supported by the actual court documents, attracted tremendous attention and scrutiny.

In the days since, coverage of the report has spiraled into discussions of the “crusade” against Manning’s legacy, dissections of the media’s handling of the incident 20 years ago, hair-splitting over whether or not Manning’s genitals made actual contact with Naughright’s face, and even arguments over the blackness of Shaun King.


Lost in all of this coverage, however, is the bigger picture. The way that Naughright says she was treated by the people in charge at the University of Tennessee (UT) speaks to deeper issues of rape culture in sports — that is, the tendency to downplay stories from people who say they were sexually assaulted in order to protect athletes’ reputations at all costs — and this culture is one that Manning was an active participant in and even a beneficiary of.

That deliberate indifference is what we should be talking about.

After Naughright initially reported the incident, head trainer Mike Rollo swooped in to “fix it.” He noted that Naughright was “distraught” and “upset” but still referred to the incident as a “mooning” and a “prank,” despite the fact that Naughright had witnessed locker-room pranks and mooning incidents in the past and never seemed bothered. He described her reaction to the Manning incident as “unusual” but discouraged her from calling the police. Rollo said that he was concerned she would be an object of “scorn and derision” for making a police report about a mooning, although he added, “It’s all in the matter of interpretation that whether it was mooning or something worse than that.”

This counsel, it seems, was not out of character for Rollo or UT. In her ’96 employer discrimination complaint, Naughright listed 26 other instances of sexual harassment and discrimination she’d experienced while working for UT in addition to the alleged assault by Manning. She detailed an environment where Rollo repeatedly called her “Cunt Bumper,” her peers and students harassed her about the size of her breasts, and her worries about violence towards women committed by UT athletes were routinely dismissed.

“[C]omplaints of sexual harassment are treated as jokes and efforts are made to protect the student athletes, and cover-up the complaint,” her complaint read.


This is even more notable because just last week — 20 years after Naughright’s complaint — those same concerns were echoed by six women who filed a civil suit against UT. As Jessica Luther reported for Vice Sports, five of the six women have reported being raped by male athletes at UT, and they allege that the university fostered “a long-standing, severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes (particularly football players) that was condoned and completely unaddressed.”

That lawsuit specifically cites the Manning case as fitting into a pattern of the university acting “with deliberate indifference in response to incidents of sexual assault.” That deliberate indifference is what we should be talking about.

But let’s back up a minute to review the Manning case and how we got here.

Peyton Manning in 1996. CREDIT: Chris O’Meara, AP
Peyton Manning in 1996. CREDIT: Chris O’Meara, AP

On February 29, 1996, Naughright — who then went by her married name, Jamie Whited, and was Director of Health & Wellness for the Men’s Athletic Program and associate athletic trainer for the football program at UT — was examining Manning’s foot in the locker room. During that examination, Manning, a sophomore at the time, reportedly “pulled his pants down and exposed himself” to Naughright, after asking her “several personal questions.”

Later, in a deposition, Naughright described the incident in more detail, saying that Manning’s “gluteus maximus, the rectum, the testicles, and the area in between the testicles” were all in her face. She says she reported the incident to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Knoxville just hours later, before Rollo came into the picture, re-characterized the incident as a “mooning” intended for another player, Malcom Saxon, and urged her not to file a police report.

Manning was ultimately disciplined by being forced to run at 6:00 a.m. and was unable to eat at the athletic facilities dining room for two weeks, while Naughright went on medical leave. Though Tennessee’s Office of Diversity Resources and Educational Resources (DRES) dismissed Naughright’s allegations against Manning as “another example of horseplay that cannot be prevented,” she settled her suit with UT for $300,000 and left the school where she had studied and worked for nearly a decade. But the story doesn’t end there.


In a book that Manning co-wrote with his father and ghostwriter John Underwood, Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, he allegedly violated a non-disclosure agreement by talking about the incident again. In the book, Naughwright was described as having a “vulgar mouth” and Manning’s actions were characterized as “crude, maybe, but harmless,” something that she should have “laughed off.”

While admitting that “even in the context of ‘modern’ life what I did to offend this trainer was inappropriate,” Manning says in his book that females should not be allowed in the men’s locker room at all, even just to do their job:

The way it happened, Tennessee had hired a female trainer, and never mind that women in the men’s locker room is one of the most misbegotten concessions to equal rights ever made. When Dad played, there was still at least a tacit acknowledgment that women and men are two different sexes, with all that implies, and a certain amount of decorum had to be maintained. Meaning when it came to training rooms and shower stalls, the opposite sex was not allowed. Common sense tells you why.

The excerpt from the book was sent to Naughright’s new place of work, Florida Southern College, and once word of her inclusion in this incident spread around campus, she alleges that her reputation was ruined and, ultimately, she had to leave that workplace. She filed a defamation lawsuit against Manning; though he tried to have it dismissed, Polk County Circuit Judge Harvey A. Kornstein allowed the case to be heard because “there is evidence of record to suggest that there were obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of Peyton Manning’s account of the incident in question.”

In depositions included in that suit, Archie Manning and Underwood revealed that Peyton described Naughright as a “very unattractive gal” with “uh, big breasts” and “unbelievable” language who “had been out with a lot of black guys.” So, even though they allege Manning didn’t do anything wrong, they still went through the motions of discrediting the alleged victim using sexist and racist tropes.

A letter from Saxon, the only eye-witness of the incident, was also included in the suit. In it, Saxon said that the version of events that Rollo and Manning had told was not correct, and plead for Manning to come clean. “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,” he wrote. Manning and Naughright eventually settled that suit out of court.

Peyton Manning celebrates after winning Super Bowl 50. CREDIT: David J. Phillip, AP
Peyton Manning celebrates after winning Super Bowl 50. CREDIT: David J. Phillip, AP

Let’s fast-forward to today. Manning’s career is likely over, and he’s going out not only as a Super Bowl champion, but also as an incredibly sought-after on-air talent, with a ridiculously rich endorsement portfolio, and a reputation as one of the classiest, most humble athletes of all time. Until, of course, these allegations resurfaced and attracted widespread attention. Now the story is a little more complicated.

Unfortunately, instead of reckoning with the complexities of the situation and the culture behind it — one can be a well-liked, talented athlete who has been a great peer, for instance, but still have had bad actions enabled by a broken environment that hero-worships athletes and disrespects women — many in the media are simply, well, losing the plot.

Writers such as Peter King of MMQB and Mike Lupica at Sports on Earth are primarily interested in pointing out the validity of their coverage of the incident, both then and now, without doing any work to drive the story further. Clay Travis of Fox Sports 1 is hell-bent on framing the incident as a “prank from 20 years ago” that has no merit at all because Naughright’s initial affidavit describing the incident didn’t mention that Manning’s genitals made contact with her face, while a later affidavit did. He completely dismisses Saxon’s denial of Manning’s account and the fact that Rollo said the events were “up for interpretation.”

This is about the toxic culture at UT over the decades.

Travis’s colleague, Jason Whitlock, has turned this into a character assassination of the controversial King, despite the fact that there are court documents and decades worth of reports from reputable reporters (Christine Brennan of USA Today in 2003, Mike Freeman of the Florida Times-Union in 2005, Robert Silverman of The Daily Beast two weeks ago) on the same case. And many have discounted the documents by Naughright’s lawyer for being “one-sided,” despite the fact that Manning (and Rollo’s) side of thing has been repeatedly recounted.

Ultimately, all of this completely misses the point. This isn’t — or, rather, shouldn’t be — about Manning’s legacy or semantics or the messenger.

This is about the toxic culture at UT over the decades — the constant efforts to cover up for athletes and dismiss women’s accusations have created an environment so rife with mistrust and corruption that it’s impossible to know who or what to believe. And it is ongoing. This week alone, one football player at the University of Tennessee was arrested for punching and choking a woman. Another was arrested and charged on a number of child sex crimes.

Back in 1996, had a guy like Rollo not swooped in and tried to “fix” the situation and encourage Naughright not to press charges, and had Manning later not felt the need to smear Naughright to get the last word on the situation in his book, this incident might not be resurfacing as Manning is trying to ride into the sunset. Had UT put proper procedures in place after Naughright’s initial complaint to address the sexism and harassment that permeated the program, then perhaps there would not be a civil suit today from five women who allege they were raped by Vols athletes and then mistreated by the university.

No matter your position on Shaun King’s journalistic credibility or your interpretation or the severity of the allegations against Manning — which admittedly pale in comparison to many of the other allegations against athletes at UT — it is clear that this is a systemic problem, one rooted in a disrespect for women and a god-like worship for all things football.

It’s rape culture, pure and simple, and it’s an issue that spreads far beyond Knoxville. There are no easy answers to solving the problem, but changing the subject doesn’t help.