By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — No matter what anyone says, and no matter how hard anybody tries to downplay its significance, the story written by Shaun King for the New York Daily News concerning Peyton Manning’s alleged sexual assault and years of smearing and discrediting the alleged victim was a major, major story.

Yes, the incident took place nearly 20 years ago, and yes, many people who are tuned in to the sports world were at least aware of it. But many, many more people had no idea. The huge response tells you that. But even for those of us who “knew” the details, it turns out that we only knew the PG-rated version of events which Archie and Peyton Manning, as well as the University of Tennessee, hoped would become the narrative of the events. And beyond that, there were incredible revelations in the story, ones that can’t be denied or dismissed. They are bad.

Yet, because this is sports, people quickly worked to bend their brains into pretzels to try to excuse the behavior from the quarterback when he was at Tennessee and also in his subsequent years in the NFL.

And, much worse, many people have gone out of their way to discredit the victim.

I’ve seen her referred to as a someone who is overly litigious, as if filing a lawsuit and losing her job at her alma mater, the school for which she worked for nearly a decade, was her dream.

I’ve seen people attack the writer for being a race baiter, as if the writer’s background somehow invalidated the court documents, which speak loudly enough on their own.

I’ve seen people look absolutely terrified to even so much as privately let one negative thought about the great Peyton Williams Manning cross their minds.

I’ve seen people hurl profanities at others for having the audacity of believing that sexual assault is a bad thing.

I’ve seen people make jokes, or turn the coverage into some strange “DeflateGate” comparison, as if a frivolous sports “scandal” applies to something that involves real life. And I’ve seen people loop this in with the recent reports of Manning receiving HGH shipments at his house, again missing the point that performance-enhancing drugs really don’t belong in this conversation.

I’ve seen a lot of people doing and saying numerous things that they presumably would not be saying or doing if not for the fantasy land of sports.

It’s disheartening.

Admittedly, much of it is a result of the time in which we live. We are conditioned to experience something — sports, movies, awards shows, whatever — and then offer reactions on social media. It’s our own little soap box from which we can deliver messages, and nobody but ourselves can color that information. If we want to attack someone, we have direct access to that person, thanks to Twitter. If we watch a presidential debate from either party, we’re free to log on to Facebook and write three inflammatory paragraphs (which close to zero of our friends will actually read). It’s what we do. We chime in.

But somewhere in there, the humanity aspect has gotten lost. Complex incidents like a sexual assault case with disturbing testimony and years of defamation of a woman whose only offense seems to have been being near Peyton Manning are now treated like debates of whether or not Dez Bryant caught the football in Green Bay.

And nobody seems to have a problem with it.

Arguably the most egregious offense came from a Fox Sports columnist who wrote what can rightfully be considered as the most heinous “sports column” ever written. Tennessee native and self-described “lifelong Volunteer fan” Clay Travis wrote 1,500 words discrediting King and the entire story just hours after King’s story was published.

Travis cited a report issued by the University of Tennessee (which is an evidently flawed source of information) in which a supervisor classified Manning’s act as “merely a prank.”

“So twenty years ago Peyton Manning — as part of a locker room prank — pulled off a mooning and, potentially, a mooning plus backside contact on a trainer,” Travis wrote. “It was juvenile and dumb and the trainer eventually included the allegation as part of a thirty count sexual harassment suit she filed against Tennessee.”

Travis later reiterated that this was all over “a locker room prank gone awry.”

“My God, a mooning and, if the plaintiff’s claim is to be believed, which is a different story than she initially told, a mooning accompanied by brief contact in a locker room!” he mockingly wrote. “But, but, twenty years ago, what about that prank? Why aren’t we still talking about that prank from twenty years ago today? Why, why, — clutching pearls and trembling — WHY?!”

Later: “This was a locker room prank.”

Travis left out the part where Malcolm Saxon refused to go along with the “mooning” fiction and, as a result, lost his eligibility as a student athlete.

He also omitted the part where two University of Tennessee staff members offered the victim an opportunity to instead blame a black athlete for the assault.

From the victim's motion against Peyton Manning

From the victim’s motion against Peyton Manning

Travis also characterized the victim’s lawsuit against Manning in 2003 to have been filed because “Manning apologized for inappropriate behavior in his book when discussing the incident.” In actuality, the book trashed her reputation and violated a confidentiality agreement. Manning’s “apology” included this discussion of his own behavior: “it seemed like something she’d have laughed at, considering the environment, or shrugged off as harmless. Crude maybe, but harmless.”

There are many more qualified people to speak on sexual assault, but here’s the thing: the aggressor does not get to decide what is or isn’t offensive to the victim. Unless, of course, the person charged is an exceptional athlete.

But Travis’ column isn’t surprising. After all, an equally offensive and flippant story was written in the Orlando Sentinel all the way back in 1996. The popular response to blame the victim has been going on for two decades.

That’s why this weekend’s story was such a big deal — because somehow the Manning machine has been able to suppress so much of the story for so long. Obviously, the victim’s documents are going to paint Manning and the University of Tennessee in as harsh a light as possible, but that means we’re going to dismiss all of the content? All of that sworn testimony goes out the window? Saxon’s letter to Manning — the one in which the former teammate wrote to Manning “You have shown no mercy or grace to this lady who was on her knees seeing if you had a stress fracture” and “Your celebrity doesn’t mean that you can treat folks this way” — no longer exists?

We have to turn it into a race debate, or we have to make obnoxious comments, or we have to tweet out links to our vile stories 12 times over two days. (If something like that is celebrated by editors and managers solely for the number of clicks generated, then we really have lost our way. Really.)

We’ve got to go so far as to say this?

Look, nobody in 2016 is taking to the streets armed with pitchforks. We don’t need to put Peyton Manning in jail for this. Many of us would just prefer that over the past 20 years, he would have owned up at some point to the incident and feel genuine contrition instead of violating a confidentiality agreement in order to condemn the victim’s “vulgar mouth” and habit of going “out with a bunch of black guys.” We’d like to see Archie Manning explain himself, too.

We’d also like to see a major collegiate football program be held accountable for gross misconduct.

We’re not holding our breath for any of that to happen any time soon.

You look back at that aforementioned Orlando Sentinel column from 1996, and you see the writer only showing concern for the athlete and not the victim. You see the writer easily accept every bit of information that is spoon-fed to him by the accused party, using the term “bare-bottom razz” and the phrase “inadvertently exposed his buns” and blaming the victim for proceeding “to raise an ugly ruckus over Manning’s cheeky faux pas.”

Just a cheeky faux pas.

You see the narrative being shaped: what happened was nothing, and if the woman wants to complain, then she is in the wrong.

“[The victim] refused to accept apologies from Manning and the university,” the columnist wrote, tinting the image of the victim, “and she was given two months’ paid leave to recover from the horrifying sight of that now-fabled and freckled tush.”

The writer also patted Manning on the back for the incident, because it showed “encouraging evidence there’s a spunky, spirited lad hidden there somewhere within that unusually mature, PR-perfect goody two-shoes under center for the Vols.”

Good for Peyton. Maybe he’s not a goody two-shoes after all.

In dismissing the victim’s “complaint,” the writer was happy to publish this quote from a college-aged Manning: “I thought by now everybody around here knew me better than that. Then I began to realize I was just part of her whole process.”

I was just part of her whole process.

In other words, it’s all her fault, and eventually this will all wash away. He was certainly correct about the latter part.

In many respects, we’ve come a long way since 1996. But too often it seems that in terms of basic decency and humanity, we’ve made zero progress at all.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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