When the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning completely solidified his place in history as one of the greatest to ever play the game. While he has not officially announced his retirement yet, one can assume that Manning, now 39, will finally decide to call it a career. When he does, the pages of the NFL record books will be littered with his name.
Off the field, Manning has been the poster boy for the NFL since he was drafted number one overall in 1998. His reputation has been nothing short of exceptional. Carmen Tegano, associate athletic director at Tennessee (Manning’s alma mater) once described him as having “the brain of a lawyer, heart of a warrior and the soul of a champion.” Throughout his professional career he is renowned for being the ultimate professional. He is well spoken, polite, funny and charitable. He was even awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year trophy for his efforts off the field in 2006. In a league where September of 2015 was the first month in six years an NFL player had not been arrested and other star quarterbacks are caught cheating, Manning was undeniably the golden boy. However, shortly after Denver’s Super Bowl victory, something emerged that could permanently dirty Manning’s spotless reputation.
After the Super Bowl, outspoken African-American Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton received backlash from all over the country after he walked out of his press conference. “Sore loser,” “disrespectful” and “arrogant” were only a few of many unfavorable terms used to describe Newton’s actions. New York Daily News writer Shaun King came to the aid of the quarterback, posting a picture to his Facebook of Newton embracing and congratulating Manning once the game had finished. One of the comments posted on the photo simply read, “Peyton sexually assaulted a girl in college.”
The comment was outlandish enough to inspire King to Google “Peyton Manning sexual assault University of Tennessee.” Upon doing so, he discovered two USA Today articles published 13 years ago about an incident involving an athletic trainer at the school. Later that day, King published a piece discussing the racial double standards in the media between Newton and Manning, and briefly mentioned the sexual assault case, pointing out that the allegations against Manning had been completely forgotten.
24 hours after the article hit the stands, King was sent a 74-page legal document entitled “Facts of the Case” describing an incident that took place in 1996, in a training room at the University of Tennessee.
The woman that Manning assaulted was Jamie Naughright, director of health and wellness for the men’s athletic program at the University of Tennessee. She earned her BA from the university in 1991, and stayed on to complete her doctorate there a few years later. She dedicated her life to athletics at the University, and was extremely well respected by her colleagues, students and athletes for doing so. Or at least by most of them.
On Feb. 29, 1996, Naughright was examining star sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning’s foot for a stress fracture on a training table. As she knelt down to inspect his foot, which was dangling off the table, Manning allegedly proceeded to expose himself indecently and sexually assault her. Naughright then says she pushed Manning away and went to report the incident.
When Naughright’s boss, associate trainer Mike Rollo (who was accused of verbally assaulting Naughright when she interned for the department from 1989-1992) learned of the complaint, he made up a story claiming Manning was “mooning” a teammate, Malcolm Saxon, and Naughright happened to get in the way. Saxon testified that the story was completely fictitious, and lost his eligibility to play as a result. Naughright parted ways with the University of Tennessee as part of a settlement the two parties worked out, in addition to signing a confidentiality agreement stating that neither her nor Manning would discuss the incident publicly.
However, the agreement was violated in 2001 when Manning, now a star NFL quarterback, decided to discuss Naughright in a book he co-wrote with his father called “The Mannings.” Naughright, who became the head trainer for the USA men’s and women’s track and field teams before becoming the esteemed director of the Athletic Education Training Program at Florida Southern University, was blasted by Manning in his account—enough to cause her to be fired by the University.
This time Naughright didn’t sit quietly. She filed a defamation suit against the Mannings and their publisher. When Manning’s lawyer requested for the case to be dismissed, Judge Harvey Kornstein, who oversaw the case, was disgusted, and claimed there was sufficient evidence to prove that Manning lied about incidents with Naughright in his book. After a lengthy trial in which a number of Manning’s teammates and other members of the University of Tennessee’s athletic program were interviewed, it was concluded that everything Manning said in his book about Naughright had been completely fictitious. In 2003, the University of Tennessee settled with Naughright for a reported $300,000.
So where does this leave Peyton Manning? His career is surely over and a shocking story about an incident that was killed and buried with fear and lies nearly two decades ago has been dug up and brought back to life; an incident that shines a new, grim light on one of the most respected figures in the history of American sports. How should he be remembered? As the model for what every professional athlete should strive to be both on and off the field, or as the teenager who assaulted an athletic trainer and did everything he could to cover it up? Individuals are going to have to decide for themselves, but something tells me throwing for 55 touchdowns in 2013 will outweigh anything some athletic trainer has to say about a “prank” he played in college.