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If you’re a sports fan who hasn’t been living beneath a rock, you’ve probably read the damning Peyton Manning article by Shaun King, which has gone viral. 

King unearths details from a former University of Tennessee trainer’s lawsuit against Peyton Manning, which was settled out of court in 2003. Someone — likely related either to the trainer or her formal legal team — leaked the 74-page court document that laid out the plaintiff’s case, and it paints a not-so-pretty picture of Manning and his father, Archie.

The incident that would ultimately lead to the lawsuit occurred while Manning was a junior at Tennessee in 1996. It was covered extensively by Knoxville media at the time, and has been a subject at various points throughout Manning’s NFL career by various sports blogs. At the time it occurred, it was reported as a “mooning” incident. The trainer, Jamie Naughright, sued the University of Tennessee, and the case was settled. Later, however, a book written by the Mannings vaguely recounted the incident — without naming Naughright — and included some not-so-flattering allegations of their own about the trainer, who had by that time moved on from UT as part of the original settlement agreement. She sued again, this time including some fairly serious allegations that were revealed for the first time in King’s story. 

Essentially, Naughright claimed that she was defamed by the Mannings and as a result lost her job at Florida Southern University. Specifically, Manning said in the book that Naughright “had a vulgar mouth.” As part of the lawsuit, it was also revealed that Manning had revealed to his father — who in turn revealed to the ghostwriter of their book — that Naughright (who is white) was being promiscuous with black student-athletes at Tennessee. 

I hesitate to even write this post, since I posted a defense of Manning’s Budweiser advertisement in the aftermath of Sunday’s Super Bowl win. It isn’t my job to defend Manning, and he doesn’t need me to defend him. I think Manning has been a model example of the role model professional athletes should be, and I’ve been a fan since he first stepped foot on the UT campus as a freshman in 1994, but I’m not into hero worship. If I felt Manning’s good-boy image was just a facade, I’d change my tune in a heartbeat. I have had lifelong admiration for Bill Cosby, and I didn’t want to admit that the sexual assault allegations against him were true, but there comes a point when the evidence reaches a tipping point…and it seems pretty obvious, however much it disappoints me, that Cosby is a scum bucket. 

But one thing I absolutely detest is our culture’s eagerness to place successful people on a pedestal and then tear them down. We take a delight to it that I think must be akin to the giddy glee ancient Romans felt when they walked into the Colosseum to see fellow humans meet their death in the name of entertainment. In this case, the person wanting to do the tearing down is King. He attempts to turn these issues into white-vs.-black issues and he has a major problem with the criticism Carolina quarterback Cam Newton received for his press conference after the Super Bowl. (Newton, obviously, is black.) That led to this. 

On the other hand, simply dismissing all of this because King is racist and has a grudge to pick is the equivalent of shooting the messenger. King didn’t make up the allegations against Manning (although his rambling article is the equivalent of seriously embellishing them), and these allegations deserve a closer look. Taken at face value, they’re pretty damning — not just against Peyton Manning, but against his father, Archie. But before we decide that every big of good Manning has ever done is for naught, let’s consider a few things.

1.) I’ve always felt that there was more to that 1996 incident at UT than what the school described it as: Manning mooning a teammate and Naughright just happened to see it. Just good ol’ college fratboy fun, and a female unfortunately happened to be in the room, in other words. In her lawsuit, Naughright essentially described it as Manning dropping his trousers and pushing his butt and groin into her face as she examined him for a stress fracture. Specifically, she said that it was “the gluteus maximus, the rectum, the testicles and the area in between the testicles…and all that was on my face when I pushed him up and off.” It should also be noted that it’s pretty well established that Manning and Naughright had a previous run-in while Manning was a freshman and didn’t like one another. That incident has never been revealed.

2.) So, assuming Naughright’s description is accurate — it’s just one side of the story, but so far it hasn’t been refuted — that’s pretty gross. Manning clearly acted inappropriately. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. It’s not the kind of thing you do to anyone, especially a lady, and it certainly clashes with Manning’s golden boy image. At the same time, it happened while he was a junior in college, not yet old enough to buy the Budweiser he spoke of after Super Bowl 50. That doesn’t excuse it, but I’m sure glad I’m not being judged as a 30-something adult for the really dumb and inexcusable things I did as a college student. And I’ll bet most of you are, too. 

3.) While we’re assuming Naughright’s description of the incident is accurate, does that rise to the level of sexual assault? It’s never been described as that publicly until just recently. Certainly Naughright described it as such in her lawsuit, for obvious reasons…and King adamantly declares it a sexual assault. However inappropriate it may have been, though, I really don’t think it meets any legal definition of sexual assault.

4.) However damning the 74-page court document might be, it’s important to remember, as NBCSports.com’s Pro Football Talk pointed out today: “The 74-page document is not objective. The 74-page document is not supposed to be objective. The 74-page document is not a court order or any other decision made by a neutral party. And, ultimately, the 74-page document is incomplete without comparing it to the corresponding ‘Facts of the Case’ document submitted by the defendants in the case.” The article goes on to correctly describe it as “a piece of advocacy…something that was written by the lawyers representing Jamie Ann Naughright in her defamation case against the Mannings. The 74-page document is, necessarily, one-sided.” In other words, this is just one side of the story. And if you’ve ever examined lawsuits — trust me, I’ve written stories about many — you know that you always take one side, whether it’s the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s side, with a grain of salt.

5.) It’s probably important to remember that in a civil case, the burden of proof is much lower than in a criminal case. In other words, in a civil case you can afford to throw a lot at the wall to see what sticks.

6.) Naughright settled her defamation lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed sum. The Mannings’ motive for settling is obvious — who wants those sordid details in the public eye? It’s the same motive that often leads to wealthy defendants — whether individual or corporate — to settle out of court. But what was Naughright’s motive for settling out of court? Plaintiffs typically settle out of court for less than they were originally seeking because they know they don’t have a rock-solid case.

7.) As for the embellishment part, King really goes overboard. He claims that Naughright was an “absolute force of nature” within the UT Athletics Department as the football program enjoyed the best three years of its modern history from 1996-1998. Force of nature? She was an associate trainer. Phillip Fulmer? Yes. Force of nature. Peyton Manning? Yes. Force of nature. Doug Dickey? Um, sure. Force of nature. An associate trainer? Not exactly. 

After the Mannings’ book was released in 2001 with its reference to the unnamed trainer who was obviously Naughright, King claims that it “scarred Naughright like a scarlet letter to this very day.” Stupid though it may have been for the Mannings to violate the confidentiality agreement from the original lawsuit by including the incident in their book, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the only allegation about Naughright in the book was that she used vulgar language. That’s it. The other allegation — the part about her being promiscuous with black student-athletes —was never made public by the Mannings. In fact, it’s just now being made public as a result of the lawsuit that Naughright filed. If Florida Southern let her go because someone claimed in a book that she had a vulgar mouth (good luck proving that one in court), that speaks more to Florida Southern than anything else.

8.) Manning’s insistence that Naughright had a potty mouth, accompanied by his inability to back up the claim under oath during deposition, is a head-scratcher. Those two really didn’t like each other, apparently. His claim at deposition about agreeing to do Naughright a favor by driving some kids around during a trip is even more bizarre. But if that’s the worst thing Manning has done in his life, I hardly think it’s going to prevent him from being a first-ballot hall-of-famer.

9.) The other allegation — that Naughright was sleeping with black student-athletes at UT — was not made by only Manning. It was made by others as well. It was never proven — if anything, it was debunked — but it was apparently a rumor that was making the rounds within the sports program in the ‘90s.

10.) This part is quite damning to King’s portrayal of Naughright as a professional trying to do her job who was bullied by the Mannings and caused to lose her job: Naughright may be a respected professional within her field, but she’s also spent a lot of time filing lawsuits against a lot of people. Her ‘90s sexual harassment lawsuit against UT included a number of other alleged incidents not involving Manning. Attorneys for one of those she sued, fashion designer Donna Karan, wrote in a court filing that “Naughright has an extensive history of filing repetitive lawsuits against or involving public figures, apparently having ‘spent the majority of eight years (1998 through 2005) filing legal complaints against or about (Peyton) Manning . . . (some of which) had no basis in law or in fact and were fueled only by (Naughright’s) relentless search for revenge.” 

11.) It’s interesting that King’s story is catching traction now, since the actual alleged “sexual assault” has been common knowledge for many years. Naughright’s description of what Manning did — essentially pressing his naked butt into her face — has been public for years. The only things that were revealed for the first time in the court document made public by King are that Manning (and others) said Naughright was sleeping with black student-athletes at Tennessee, and an allegation that UT attempted to have Naughright blame the original incident on another athlete.

12.) So, with all of the above being considered — especially No. 10 — it seems that this is much ado about nothing. Which brings us back to King and his attempt to do as much damage as possible to Manning’s public perception. King has plenty of issues of his own, having been called out for plagiarism, having lied about his contributions to charity, and having falsely claimed that he was the victim of an anti-black hate crime as a 1990s high school student in Kentucky.

To that end, as much as I typically detest Clay Travis as a writer, I thought his take on this story was pretty much spot-on:

So twenty years ago Peyton Manning — as part of a locker room prank — pulled off a mooning and teabagging combo on a trainer. It was juvenile and dumb and the trainer eventually included the allegation as part of a sexual harassment suit she filed against Tennessee. But it speaks to Peyton Manning’s image that this is the absolute worst thing anyone can find that he has done in nearly twenty years in the public eye, a locker room prank gone awry.

Travis goes on to write:

But this brings us back to Shaun King, who wants us to believe that Peyton is a much more sinister figure than the dad-bodded affable product pitchman that he’s become as he nears forty years old. Basically Shaun King, who has been living a lie for his entire life, wants us to believe that Peyton has been living a lie too.

Only, what actual evidence does he provide?

Not much.

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