By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Peyton Manning’s 20-year-old sexual assault case against former University of Tennessee trainer Dr. Jamie Naughright has long been settled. Peyton served his punishment and apologized to Dr. Naughright years ago for what he termed a “misunderstanding.” For all intents and purposes, by May of 2001 all parties had moved on.
That is what makes the Mannings’ decision to violate a nondisclosure agreement to briefly address the incident in their 2001 co-biography Manning so baffling. The resulting defamation suit only made things more complicated, as the only other eyewitness to the incident, Malcolm Saxon, refuted Peyton’s claims and in 2002 sent a personal letter begging him to come forward and “own up to what you did.”
Did Peyton and his father Archie knowingly publish false information or act in reckless disregard of the facts, with the intention of harming Dr. Naughright’s reputation and credibility? As reported by USA Today in 2003, Judge Harvey Kornstein eventually ruled that a reasonable jury could find “sufficient evidence” for defamation of character – if the case were to go to trial. It never got to that point.
Saxon, who was cited as the real “victim” of Peyton’s supposed “mooning,” refuted Peyton’s version of the story in a sworn affidavit. Peyton then revealed in his own deposition that Saxon sent him a personal letter in 2002, which the Mannings produced. Malcolm’s pleas carry the tone of one wronged individual seeking mercy for another:
Saxon says in the letter that he “stuck to the truth, and I lost my [redshirt] eligibility for it,” implying that Dr. Naughright was not the only victim in the Mannings’ alleged acts of defamation. It seems as though the school and/or the Mannings “punished” Saxon for refusing to corroborate their claims of a harmless “mooning.” Whatever the reason for Saxon’s loss of redshirt eligibility, the timing is curious at best.
Saxon had witnessed the difficulties Naughright faced in the wake of the book’s release and subsequent dismissal from her job at Florida Southern College at the end of 2001. He also witnessed an apparent lack of compassion from the Mannings that severely damaged the career of a “great trainer” who was simply “seeing if [Peyton] had a stress fracture.” Certain passages (ex. “Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not.”) insinuate that the incident may really have been an accident, a prank gone wrong, but one that went too far and ended up making no dents in Peyton’s reputation while battering that of Dr. Naughright. Whatever happened, Saxon’s letter strongly implies that Peyton’s version of the story was not entirely honest or accurate.
Saxon has long moved on in the 20 years since the incident. He respectfully declined CBS Boston’s request for comment.
Manning’s behavior that night in 1996, based on either side of the story, was crude and inappropriate (Peyton’s words) at best, and a repulsive criminal act at worst. But even if the incident was just a foolhardy mistake by an immature 19-year-old kid, Saxon’s letter paints the story as something Peyton could have told honestly and preserved his image. Instead, Peyton went out of his way years later to reinforce his “mooning” claims, and regardless of whether it was intentional or done with reckless disregard to the truth, his reputational protection came at the expense of a successful and respected trainer’s career.
Not only did Peyton never answer Saxon’s pleas for mercy, he said he never even read the letter. Regardless of innocence or guilt, in either case, the Mannings’ apparent disregard for Dr. Naughright’s career and livelihood was more disturbing than whatever Peyton did on that night in 1996. It was not enough for the Mannings to formulate their own version of the story and publicize it, they felt the need to paint Dr. Naughright as someone with a “vulgar mouth,” as if she got what was coming to her or as a female trainer had no place in a male-dominated locker room.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Mannings’ alleged cover-up is worse than the alleged crime. Like Saxon said in his letter, Peyton probably could have admitted the truth and still kept his all-important (to the Mannings) image and reputation intact. Revered public figures like the Mannings tend to inherently receive that kind of forgiveness and admiration for their honesty. A private figure like Dr. Naughright may have no such luxury.
Maybe Dr. Naughright had a vulgar mouth, maybe she didn’t. Maybe Peyton’s “mooning” was a harmless prank, maybe it wasn’t. But of all the fierce, fervent rhetoric peppered throughout the reams of legal documents from both sides, the Saxon personal letter to Peyton speaks the loudest of them all.
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.