Some legendary athletes only need first names: Michael, Magic, Pele, Tiger, Metta World…Well, Peyton Manning surely deserves to be on that list despite his surname being NFL royalty. By making his retirement official on Monday, he fulfills the words caught on NFL Films audio after January’s AFC Championship game, telling New England coach Bill Belichick that this might be his “last rodeo.” Indeed, the Broncos announced late Saturday night that The Sheriff is walking off into the sunset. Peyton now leaves on top, just like his boss and fellow Papa John soul-seller John Elway, who famously retired after winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and1999.
Unlike Elway, who decided to continue playing after winning his first Lombardi Trophy with the Broncos, the 2016 version would have had a major quarterback controversy had Manning decided to return. As is, he was certainly more successful with his football IQ (and the Broncos stellar defensive play) last season than with his severely limited remaining physical abilities. Free agent backup/interim starter Brock Osweiler looks to be a more-than serviceable replacement. Manning’s retirement saves the Broncos $19 million off their salary cap number, plenty of dough to ensure the team makes Osweiler a very competitive offer to remain on one of the NFL’s top franchises for many years to come. Had Manning returned, the Broncos would have likely been faced with the unenviable task of cutting their adopted legend; who would have then had to compete for a starting job elsewhere, something that seems beneath him.
Of course, Peyton didn’t have to retire to be confronted with a situation unbecoming of the rare athlete whose popularity transcends the insular sports world. Immediately following Broncos’ Super Bowl victory, Shaun King of the New York Daily News released a bombshell attacking Manning’s squeaky-clean image, while days later, a group of six unidentified women at Manning’s alma mater University of Tennessee, filed a Title IX sexual harassment lawsuit against the school, including details accusing the star quarterback of some pretty sick stuff…sorry, it is what it is. Now, by saying “sick stuff,” I don’t mean Jeffrey Dahmer sick, or even Rae Carruth, Ray Rice, or Ray Lewis (allegedly) sick, I mean Blue Mountain State sick (Get Netflix just for this, trust me). Imagine Michael Vick sick, but with sports-medicine experts instead of pit bulls, and “junk” instead of electrodes…shall I continue? The thing is, while the lawsuit is news, public record of the sick stuff has been out there and completely ignored for years.
As this is a well-respected law blog, I will spare you the salacious NSFW details, and focus instead on whether or not the new headlines will open up Peyton (and his father, former NFL quarterback Archie Manning) to any legal liability. Although the Title IX lawsuit involves the names of at least 10 different Tennessee football players over a 20 year period, Manning’s is easily the most recognizable. Jamie Naughright, a well-respected female athletic trainer with a PhD in Health Education from Tennessee, accused Manning of the “sick stuff” while examining the star quarterback in 1996. The federal suit accuses university of maintaining policies that make students “vulnerable to sexual assault,” and has responded unreasonably to allegations of misconduct. Although the timing of the lawsuit may not be coincidental, the mention of Manning has certainly lifted the profile of the case.
Naughright filed a lawsuit against the university shortly after the alleged incident, and the parties settled in 1997. While the terms of the settlement were not fully disclosed, it is rumored that Tennessee paid $300,000 to Naughright, but with one of the stipulations being that she leave the university. For his part, Manning claims that his intention was not to expose himself lewdly to Dr. Naughright, but instead he was “mooning” teammate Malcom Sexton, although Sexton refuted this in an affidavit. Another teammate and supposed witness, Greg Johnson, appeared to side with Manning’s account on Sports Illustrated’s web site earlier in the week, however ESPN’s Outside the Lines alleges that Johnson was not present at the time of the incident.
In 2000, Archie Manning co-wrote the autobiography, “Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy,” in which Peyton and Archie Manning both claimed that Naughright had a “foul mouth” among other disparaging things written about the former trainer. Believing that the confidentiality terms of their 1997 settlement had been violated, Naughright filed a new defamation lawsuit in Florida in 2003. That case was also settled out of court under terms that have not been disclosed. Although former USA Today and current Sports Illustrated writer Mel Antonen covered the lawsuit in November 2003 after receiving 74 pages of court documents regarding the suit, the story quickly faded away until the recent headlines involving King’s story and the Tennessee lawsuit came to light.
Still, Manning testified his version of the “mooning” incident under oath during the court proceedings despite a mountain of conflicting testimony. Court records of other inconsistencies between the Mannings’ versions and those of other witness encounters with Dr. Naughright were well-documented. The presiding judge Polk County Circuit Judge Harvey A. Kornstein even said on record, warning both Peyton and Archie that:
“Specifically, there is evidence of record, substantial enough to suggest that the defendants knew that the passages in question were false, or acted in reckless disregard of their falsity. There is evidence of record to suggest that there were obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of Peyton Manning’s account of the incident in question. The court further finds that there is sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendants entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the passages in this case.”
More or less, the 2003 lawsuit did not appear to be going the Mannings’ way prior to the settlement. For her part, Naughright was essentially forced out of her post-Tennessee position as an assistant professor and the director of Florida Southern College’s Athletic Education Training Program in 2001 after excerpts from the book were revealed to her superiors.
The reopening of the Tennessee incident is not the only bad publicity Manning is facing in his newfound golden years. Al Jezeera America released a documentary in December that alleges that Peyton’s wife Ashley received multiple shipments of human growth hormone (HGH), which is banned in the NFL. The NFL star called allegations “absolute garbage,” and reporter Deborah Davies even told the Today Show, “We’re not making the allegation against Peyton Manning.” Others in the media world have also condemned the report’s shaky journalistic standards.
Still, if the smoke is enough to attract either NFL or federal investigators to look deeper into the supplier, either or both Mannings could be required to make statements that could become troublesome for them. More than likely the NFL would prefer to let these allegations fade into the sunset like Peyton himself. Still, similar cases involving tainted baseball legends Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds led to perjury charges against both. While Clemens was acquitted and Bond’s Obstruction of Justice conviction was ultimately overturned, both players have seen their legacies ruined and Hall of Fame chances virtually nullified. Although sports historians generally care more about performance enhancing drugs in baseball than in the NFL, the allegations may tarnish Manning’s image much more than what happened 20 years ago in a Tennessee training room.
While Manning is not a party to the Tennessee lawsuit, and is instead part of the “historical background” that illustrates the longstanding of sexual harassment within the university’s athletic department, there are questions as to how the lawsuit affects the settlements and non-disclosure agreements. Still, the thoroughly researched article by King, including damaging detailed court records from the 2003 lawsuit, as well as the Title IX lawsuit itself, has certainly given newshounds the scent of a scandal. Manning had remained out of the spotlight since he repeatedly told the world about his undying love for Budweiser during the postgame ceremony in Levi’s Stadium. Despite tributes pouring in and mostly good vibes heading into Monday’s press conference, the odds are that he will have to face an uncomfortable question or two, which he will probably brush off like a corner blitz. It remains to be seen, however, if the swirl of scandal surrounding the NFL legend will turn into any sort of tangible legal obstacle.
ESPN – Ian O’Connor
New York Daily News – Shaun King
SI.com – Michael McCann
The Big Lead – Jason McIntyre
Washington Post – Nick Martin
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