The Court of Public Opinion: Peyton Manning’s Sexual Harassment Case

By Brian Lee

Peyton Manning is America’s golden boy. He is a member of football’s First Family, born into a hierarchy of athletic royalty.

His father, Archie, played college football at the University of Mississippi, was the No. 2 pick in the 1971 NFL draft and spent fourteen seasons as a professional quarterback. His older brother, Cooper, played college football before a spinal injury ended his career. Eli, the youngest Manning, has been the starting quarterback for the New York Giants since he entered the league in 2004, winning Super Bowl’s XLII and XLVI.

But of all the Mannings, Peyton has been destined for greatness since the beginning. A highly touted prospect out of high school, he attended the University of Tennessee, where he currently holds school records for touchdowns (89), yards (11,201) and career wins (39). His stellar collegiate statistics made him the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft, when the Indianapolis Colts smartly picked him over Ryan Leaf.

Manning was the Colts’ iron man, not missing a start and compiling 141 regular-season victories from 1998 to 2010. A victory against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI cemented his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Upon being cut by the Colts after missing the 2011 season with a neck injury, he signed with the Denver Broncos as a free agent in 2012, winning his second championship this year.

Over the duration of his extensive career, Manning has been viewed as nothing short of a great guy. Although he possesses a quiet demeanor and has successfully avoided public controversy, Peyton is extremely likeable. His humble, down-to-earth character has made him a popular spokesman for companies like Buick, Gatorade and Papa Johns.

Put simply: In the eyes of America, Peyton Manning could do no wrong. But for the last twenty years, he has been hiding a skeleton in his closet – a skeleton that resurfaced this month following the Broncos’ recent championship run. According to a recent story from thedailybeast.com, Manning was accused of sexual harassment by athletic trainer Jamie Ann Naughright in 1996, his junior season at Tennessee.

While she was looking down to treat Manning’s foot injury, he pulled his pants down, and when she looked up, she was in way too close proximity to his private parts. “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,” she said. As a consequence, Naughright said Tennessee revoked Manning’s “privilege to eat at the athletic facilities dining room, and requiring him to run at 6:00 a.m. for two weeks,” in a weak attempt at discipline.

Further legitimizing Naughtright’s claims, it became known only a few days ago that she contacted a sexual assault crisis center hotline in Knoxville after the incident. Unfortunately, she did not feel comfortable using Manning’s name or discussing details over the phone, because she “feared for her job, worried and feared for her life,” according to espn.com, also stating “there will be a cover up.”

Manning has claimed that the incident was a misunderstanding, asserting that his intent was to moon another male athlete. However, Malcolm Saxon, a track-and-field athlete who was present in the locker room at the time of the incident, stated, “maintain some dignity and admit to what happened… Your celebrity doesn’t mean you can treat folks that way… Do the right thing here.”

Unfortunately, while this alleged incident has been only a speck of dust on Manning’s otherwise squeaky-clean public image, the same cannot be said for Naughbright. She was part of a collective sexual harassment lawsuit against UT, which resulted in a $300,000 settlement.

After leaving Tennessee in the years following the incident, she moved on to a job at Florida Southern College. But she felt forced to leave after a short time, once her role in the case against Tennessee and involvement in the scandal with Manning became known to faculty and students.

In Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, a book published in 2000 that was co-written by Peyton and Archie, Peyton argued that his actions were “crude, maybe, but harmless.” He has failed to take responsibility, instead blaming his behavior on new rules that allow females’ access to male locker rooms.

What’s puzzling about this situation to me is how Manning has gone out of his way to seemingly smear Naughright at every turn. Since the incident, Manning has stated that she is a “vulgar woman,” and has often dragged her name into the mud.

It brings to mind the case of Lance Armstrong. At one time, Armstrong was America’s poster boy for overcoming adversity. He had been diagnosed with cancer, yet was able to stare down the face of hardship and win the Tour de France seven times.

When allegations of cheating began to arise, he vehemently denied them, making the lives of his accusers a living hell. In good faith, America believed Armstrong. More, they believed in Armstrong.

Just as people then were unwilling to see their hero for whom he truly was, people now are reluctant to believe that Peyton Manning was, is, or could be anything other than a good guy.

This begs the question: why has Peyton’s career been unaffected by this while Naughtright’s has been ruined?

Part of the reason lies in the fact that the alleged incident took place in 1996, before the social media era. If this scandal had happened today, it would have no doubt been plastered among the headlines on ESPN.

Nevertheless, it should not go unnoticed that he has clearly been given a pass by the media, who appear to be reluctant to delve deeper, seemingly afraid of what they might find.

Why? Since the Super Bowl, Cam Newton has dominated headlines for inconsequential reasons, with people complaining about his demeanor on and off the field. If a sexual assault case were opened against him, the coverage would be suffocating.

I don’t know whether Peyton Manning is innocent or not. Fortunately, we live in a society in which the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But when it comes to the court of public opinion, it seems like the jury has already made up its mind on Peyton Manning.

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