By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Readers met Shaun King’s confrontational hit piece on Peyton Manning in the New York Daily News with a mix of shock and shrugs. Many of the court documents he “analyzed” had been reported on before, albeit sparingly, and most of the details of the case have been available to study for over a decade – but there was still a sizeable portion of the population that either didn’t know the whole story or didn’t know about it at all.
Now, much more of the country has learned about Manning’s alleged sexual assault on then-trainer Dr. Jamie Naughright at the University of Tennessee in 1996, apparent attempts to discredit and defame her, and eventual lawsuits and settlements. The public didn’t necessarily need King’s partisan hatchet-job, with the predictably tabloid-y headline of “Peyton Manning’s squeaky-clean image was built on lies,” to do it – Manning’s case has also been cited in a new lawsuit against the University of Tennessee alleging a violation of Title IX rights and a rampant, system-wide culture of sexual harassment.
King’s analysis of the documents is as thorough an examination as these documents have ever undergone, but it is far from objective or credible. He combed through an inherently one-sided set of documents, designed by Dr. Naughright’s lawyers to attack Manning and paint him as a liar, bully, and deviant, and accepted all of the testimonies and arguments as undisputed fact. He took the judge’s closing assertion, that a jury MIGHT be able to find sufficient evidence of defamation and actual malice IF the case went to trial, as a definitive judgment, which Mike Florio pointed out was a fundamental misunderstanding of the American legal system. King, a noted Black Lives Matter activist, also has an obvious agenda against Manning and in favor of Cam Newton.
No matter what you think happened in the training room that night in 1996, or whatever you think Peyton Manning did to Dr. Naughright in the following years, King’s offensive was not a fair look at the case. But Peyton Manning can’t blame King for this; he can only blame two people: himself and his father Archie.
As part of the 1997 settlement between Naughright and Tennessee, Naughright agreed to leave the school and both parties agreed not to publicly discuss the incident or case. For whatever reason, Peyton and Archie Manning decided to break that confidentiality agreement by addressing the incident in their book Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy, which they co-wrote with John Underwood.
One passage from Peyton reads: “If nothing else in life, I want to be true to the things I believe in, and quite simply, to what I’m all about. I know I’d better, because it seems whenever I take a false step or two I feel the consequences. Like with the ‘mooning’ incident that made such a stir in Knoxville before my junior year.”
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Peyton’s entire case was built on the idea that his alleged sexual assault was really just a harmless “mooning” aimed at a teammate. It may have been innocuous, but he wasn’t supposed to mention it at all. He took it further, however, when he went on in the book to accuse Dr. Naughright of having a “vulgar mouth,” an accusation that several witnesses disputed in sworn testimonies and depositions.
It’s hard to believe that the Mannings did not write these excerpts without malice toward Dr. Naughright. These excerpts suspiciously showed up all over the campus of Florida Southern College – where Dr. Naughright had been working as program director of the Athletic Training Educational Program – including an ominous letter dropped at her office door addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited.” (Whited was Dr. Naughright’s married name at the time.) The Mannings’ involvement in the distribution of the excerpts has not been proven, but again, even if Archie and Peyton had nothing to do with it, it was a consequence of their own actions.
Perhaps the Mannings just wanted to control the narrative surrounding whatever happened in 1996. Perhaps they made a rash decision holding a grudge over the trouble he faced; prominent Colts beat writer Bob Kravitz recently called Peyton “one of the great grudge-holders I’ve ever seen.” If either of these scenarios were true, Peyton at best went along with some bad advice, and at worst went out of his way to unnecessarily destroy Dr. Naughright’s reputation and career.
Peyton Manning may not have sexually assaulted Dr. Naughright, and he may not have masterminded the subsequent attacks on Dr. Naughright’s character. But for those who are waiting for “Peyton’s side of the story,” he essentially gave it already. His discussion of the 1996 incident in the book has long been published and had he simply avoided mentioning it, the story may have gone away like the Mannings wanted. Now, the first real cracks in the foundation of the impeccable Manning Royal Family may be showing, and it’s happening because of their own vindictive actions, even if all they did was tell a story in a book.
Dr. Naughright’s side of the story has not been entirely consistent over the course of the cases and settlements, but even if she is outright lying, she’s doing it because of the story the Mannings decided to tell.
Peyton has not been charged with a crime or convicted of anything, and it’s fair to theorize that Archie and/or the University of Tennessee were the real ringleaders behind the apparent character assassination against Dr. Naughright. But whether he’s innocent or guilty in all of this, Peyton put his name to ink and cast that book out for the world to see, including Dr. Naughright. Whatever future scrutiny comes of this, whatever controversy it generates, King and the media didn’t do it to the Mannings. The Mannings did it to themselves.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.