As reported and analyzed on Saturday, Peyton Manning along with his father Archie Manning and a ghostwriter were sued for defamation in 2002. The lawsuit stemmed from the trio’s published commentary about a disputed incident between Peyton Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright on Feb. 29, 1996. SI.com has obtained additional documents from Naughright’s lawsuit, which involved state and federal courts, took three years to litigate and spawned a second lawsuit filed by Naughright against Manning in ’05 that in turn led Manning to countersue Naughright. Taken together, the documents (shown below) raise questions about the alleged facts and highlight how media coverage of Manning altered the litigation’s trajectory. (A timeline of the key facts is also detailed below.)
Naughright, the University of Tennessee’s director of health and wellness while Manning played for the school, filed her defamation lawsuit in a Polk County, Fla. trial court on May 29, 2002. This was approximately one year after Naughright had received a package addressed to her as “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited,” with “Whited” a reference to her married name while she was an employee at Tennessee. Naughright would testify that the package contained materials from the book Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy. The book—which was authored by Peyton Manning, Archie Manning and ghostwriter John Underwood (a former Sports Illustrated writer, though he was not with the magazine then)—depicted Naughright, although not by name, as vulgar and as behaving inappropriately. It also downplayed her allegation that a then 19-year-old Manning made unwanted contact of a sexual nature with her in ’96 while she examined him for a possible foot injury. In the book, Manning described the incident. He admitted that he acted in an “inappropriate” and “out of line” way by mooning a teammate in the view of Naughright, but insisted that his behavior was lawful.
As explained below, Manning’s account bore some resemblance to Naughright’s depiction of the incident after it occurred and, to a lesser extent, her depiction of it in her lawsuit: Neither her initial remarks nor her lawsuit refer—at least not explicitly—to any contact by Manning. Yet a statement of facts filed in court by Naughright on Oct. 15, 2003, and reported Saturday morning by the New York Daily News offered a far more damning portrayal of the encounter. In sworn testimony, she insisted that Manning had placed his “naked butt and rectum” on her face. As supporting evidence, Naughright included a sworn statement by the player Manning allegedly mooned, Malcolm Saxon. Saxon said that although he originally supported Manning’s account—that Manning mooned Saxon—he wanted to own up and make clear that it did not occur as Manning had characterized. Saxon, however, offers a vague recanting and does not say that Manning made contact with Naughright.
As is the case in many lawsuits, Naughright’s lawsuit took years to play out. Numerous depositions and affidavits were submitted to the court. According to court docket sheets, Peyton Manning filed his affidavit, which contained his sworn statements and denials made while under penalty of perjury, on Oct. 3, 2003, three days before he would go on to lead the Colts to a 38–35 victory over the Buccaneers. In Nov. 2003, the two sides resorted to mediation, a non-binding form of dispute resolution where a mediator proposes settlement ideas in hope that both sides agree to one of them. Mediation appeared to work—the parties reached a settlement on Dec. 3, 2003, right as Manning was enjoying his first MVP season. The court gave final approval of the settlement on Jan. 12, 2004, and the case was dismissed. Terms of the settlement are confidential and have not been made public (Naughright separately settled a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee for a reported amount of $300,000 plus various athletic paraphernalia, including a ’96 Citrus Bowl watch and a ’91 NCAA championship ring). It appeared the Naughright-Manning legal matter had been resolved once and for all.
But a year later, on Jan. 14, 2005, an allegation surfaced that the settlement agreement between Naughright and the Mannings had been breached. At the time, Peyton Manning was preparing to play the Patriots in the divisional playoff round on Jan. 16 (the Patriots would defeat the Colts 20–3 in that game, with Manning throwing for no touchdowns and an interception). On Jan. 18, Naughright filed a second lawsuit against Manning in Polk County. In it, she demanded that Manning abide by the settlement agreement. This was a contractual claim in a nature: When parties in litigation reach a settlement, the settlement contains a number of provisions that are memorialized in a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement is a binding contract, and like any contract, breaching it can motivate a court to order the breaching party to stop breaching and to pay the non-breaching party financial damages.
At first glance, it is unclear what specifically triggered Naughright’s claim for enforcement of the settlement agreement. The Florida case files for Naughright’s lawsuits against Manning were “destroyed” on June 26, 2014. Keep in mind, this “destruction” was not in any way nefarious: the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration permit a court clerk’s office to dispose of records after final judgment in a case. Many of the records for Naughright’s lawsuits against Manning were actually contained in a court file for nearly a decade until their destruction.
Other litigation records, however, are available because Naughright and Manning utilized federal courts in the litigation and federal court documents are usually available to the public. Indeed, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida permitted Archie Manning to “remove”—essentially transfer—Naughright’s 2002 lawsuit into federal court. It allowed Peyton Manning to do the same with Naughright’s ’05 lawsuit. Naughright unsuccessfully opposed removal, which defendants sometimes seek for, among other reasons, possibly better case law and a potentially more-favorable jury pool. Jurors for federal trials are picked from federal districts, whereas jurors for state trials are normally picked from more local population pools. Whatever the motivations, the federal court trail allows review of some of the court documents. Upon review of those documents, SI.com has learned several key points.
Uncertainty about whether Manning is alleged to have made contact
Naughright’s complaint against Manning filed on June 10, 2002 does not refer—at least not explicitly—to Manning placing his rectum on Naughright’s face. In fact, there is no explicit reference to any physical contact by Manning on Naughright. Instead, Naughright refers more generally to Manning “not merely mooning” and that he undertook an additional act “of such an egregious nature as to be beyond the pale.” In other words, her complaint makes clear that she believes Manning did something in addition to mooning, but she declines to elaborate or state that it involved contact. She also argues that Manning’s conduct was directed at her, rather than at a teammate, as Manning asserts.
Obviously, mooning someone and making other unwanted sexual gestures at that person are offensive acts. Yet they are not as offensive or as unlawful as making unwanted sexual contact with that person. Indeed, once unwanted contact is made, an otherwise offensive act may transform into battery—or worse.
Additional insight is gained from a motion to dismiss filed by Manning’s attorneys on July 2, 2002. In it, the attorneys reject Naughright’s characterization of the ’96 incident. Specifically, they contend Naughright only suggested a legally insignificant variation of the incident:
Plaintiff suggests that Peyton Manning aimed his mooning at her and not a fellow athlete, as he suggests in the Book, and so the Book is false. Obviously, such a small detail does not effect the substantial truth of the Book; what is significant is not at whom Peyton Manning was aiming when he dropped his trousers but that the Plaintiff saw Peyton Manning’s bare backside.
Manning’s legal team also included an affidavit signed by Naughright in 1996 concerning the ’96 incident. Although she describes Manning as behaving in a gross and offensive manner, she does not describe Manning as making any physical contact with her:
“He pulled his pants down and exposed himself to me, as I was bent over examining his foot after asking me personal questions. I reported this to my supervisor, who referred to it as ‘merely a prank,' and no action was taken in regard to this until after I formally complained.”
These documents suggest that Manning’s attorneys were likely confident in 2002 that they would defeat Naughright’s lawsuit. They probably believed that while her account of the events was clearly worse than what Manning detailed in the book, it was not so different as to warrant a finding of defamation, which requires, among other things, that the statements be false in a legally significant way. This may help to explain why Manning did not apparently offer Naughright the kind of settlement terms that might have resolved the litigation.
The dynamics of the litigation changed, however, when, Naughright asserted Manning made contact. In her statement of facts filed on Oct. 15, 2003, she asserted that Manning had made contact with his “naked butt and rectum.”
Naughright and Manning sue each other over their settlement agreement
According to federal records, Naughright believed that Manning violated their settlement agreement on or about Dec. 30, 2004. This was around the time when ESPN aired the documentary, “ESPN Classic Sports Century: Peyton Manning.” Naughright, who said she declined an invitation from an ESPN producer to participate in the show, believed a violation occurred during the show. Her attorneys described the allegation violation in the following passage:
[ESPN’s show on Manning] contained a segment which depicted her photographically, rehashed issues which took place at the University of Tennessee, statements from Manning’s book and had juxtaposed thereafter statements by Manning that some people in the past had tried to take advantage of him or embarrass him. Thus, Naughright had again been the subject of an attack by innuendo.
Manning answered Naughright’s complaint by denying the allegations and also stressing that he never made any statements about Naughright in the ESPN broadcast. In addition, Manning counter-claimed that it was Naughright—not Manning—who had violated their settlement. Specifically, Manning insisted that Naughright contacted Florida-Times Union columnist Mike Freeman and shared with him settlement-privileged information that he used in his Jan. 16, 2005 column, “Manning still battling college foe: The arrogance of Peyton Manning has once again landed him in legal trouble.”
Although many of the federal court records from 2005 are sealed, the parties appeared to settle their matter in July ’05. Manning would soon thereafter report for Colts training camp. Six months later he would go on to lead his team to a 14–2 record in the regular season. Yet, now 10 years later, an unclear incident from ’96 still clouds the soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback.
Michael McCann is a legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated. He is also a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He teaches an undergraduate course at UNH titled “Deflategate.” McCann is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law and he teaches “Intellectual Property Law in Sports” in the Oregon Law Sports Law Institute.
1986: Naughright (then Whited) begins freshman year at University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
1989: Naughright begins working with UT men’s athletic program.
1994: Peyton Manning begins freshman year at UT as a student-athlete.
November 1994: Undisclosed incident between Naughright and Manning that Naughright’s attorneys later contend “will not only explain the genesis for Peyton Manning’s dislike for Dr. Naughright but will be relevant to understanding the 1996 incident Peyton Manning writes about in the book Manning.” Naughright’s lawyers assert that they redacted this incident from the public record “as a courtesy” to Manning.
February 29, 1996: Incident between Manning and Naughright in the UT training room. Naughright testifies in her deposition that Manning “placed his ‘naked butt and rectum’ on her face” and characterizes the incident as “sexual assault.”
August 27, 1996: Naughright files employment discrimination complaint at UT, alleging multiple counts of harassment by university staff. Naughright alleges that, on February 29, 1996, an undisclosed athlete “pulled his pants down and exposed himself to me, as I was bent over examining his foot after asking me several personal questions. I reported this to my supervisor, who referred to it as ‘merely a prank,’ and no action was taken in regard to this until after I formally complained. I have been on medical leave ever since this incident occurred.”
A university analysis of Naughright’s complaint concludes that “[t]he investigative team finds that Ms. Whited was not discriminated against and was not subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct such that it created a hostile work environment in the Athletics Department.” Regarding the 2/29/96 complaint, it states that “[undisclosed athlete] denied that he directed his ‘mooning’ at Ms. Whited and a witness corroborated his account.” It concluded, “[i]n this context, the action was not sexual in nature or directed at Ms. Whited; and therefore was not sexual harassment.” Manning’s punishment from the university involved “removing his privilege to eat at the athletic facilities dining room, and requiring him to run at 6:00 a.m. for two weeks under the supervision of Coach Cutcliffe.”
August 13, 1997: Naughright and UT enter into Settlement and Confidentiality Agreement under which Naughright received $300,000 and several items of UT championship paraphernalia in exchange for accepting termination of her employment and maintaining confidentiality.
May 2001: Naughright allegedly receives excerpts from Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, authored by Archie and Peyton Manning, addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited” at her office at Florida Southern College.” The book references a “mooning” incident at UT involving a “female trainer” that “crossed the line” but was “not exactly a criminal offense.” The book also accuses the trainer of having a “vulgar mouth” and using the incident in her “accumulating list of complaints” to support a sexual harassment lawsuit.
May 29, 2002: Naughright files a lawsuit against Peyton Manning, Archie Manning, John Warren Underwood, Peydirt, Inc. and HarperCollins Publishers in Florida State Court (Polk County) alleging defamation based on the statements in Manning. The complaint does not specifically make an allegation of sexual assault but characterizes the 1996 incident as “so bizarre and gross as to cause any reasonable person severe mental and emotional harm.” It seeks $15 million in compensatory and $15 million in punitive damages.
June 10, 2002: Case is transferred to Federal Court in the Middle District of Florida based on finding of diversity jurisdictions.
July 2, 2002: Manning files Motion to Dismiss Complaint, which attached affidavit containing UT’s investigation of Naughright’s sexual harassment claims against the University and 2/29/96 incident involving the undisclosed athlete. Manning argues that “the bulk of the statements contained in the passage [of Manning] are substantially true” and cites the UT investigation in support.
December 10, 2002: Malcolm Saxon writes letter to Peyton Manning asking him to “maintain some dignity and admit to what happened.” Saxon states, “Peyton, you messed up. I still don’t know why you dropped your drawers. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not. But it was definitely inappropriate.” Saxon’s letter does not list any other details of the incident, but he later executed an affidavit (undisclosed) that allegedly “refuted” Manning’s version of the incident.
December 30, 2002: Case is remanded (transferred) back to Florida State Court based on reversal of prior diversity finding. Federal courts can only hear cases when there is an exclusive federal question (not applicable in this lawsuit) or where there is an amount in controversy in excess of $75,000 and there is “complete diversity” –meaning that the plaintiff is a citizen of a state that is a different state from the states where the defendants are citizens.
October 15, 2003: “Facts of Case” document obtained by New York Daily News accompanying Naughright’s Opposition to Manning’s Motion for Summary Judgment. The original Motion for Summary Judgment, which would have included Manning’s version of its “Facts of the Case,” is not currently in public record.
December 3, 2003: Manning and Naughright reach confidential settlement agreement resolving Naughright’s 5/29/02 defamation claim.
January 18, 2005: Naughright files second lawsuit in Florida Federal Court claiming breach of 12/3/03 settlement agreement, following airing of ESPN Classic Sports Century: Peyton Manning on December 30, 2014.
July 2005: Manning and Naughright reach settlement agreement resolving 1/18/05 claim.
June 26, 2014: Case files destroyed for original 5/29/02 defamation case following ten-year waiting period.