A previously unheard-from former Vols player says he saw what went on that day in 1996; plus more on the controversy that has clouded Manning’s image as he contemplates retirement
LAKELAND, Fla. — In the case of Peyton Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright and what happened in a University of Tennessee training room in late February 1996, just one person other than the quarterback and the trainer has attested to having witnessed the incident. That person, Malcolm Saxon, wrote a letter in 2002, later reproduced in the course of a lawsuit Naughright filed against Manning, which seemed to support Naughright’s assertion that the incident involved something other than “mooning”—the characterization Manning has consistently used to describe the act.
Until today, Saxon’s account was the only one by a witness other than Naughright or Manning regarding the 20-year-old incident. In the testimony and documents reviewed by The MMQB, no definitive mention is made of other witnesses, or whether or not the three were alone in the training room at the time.
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Since then, the incident has been resurrected numerous times: in a 2003 lawsuit Naughright filed over her characterization in a Manning biography; in a 2005 suit filed by Naughright after the incident was discussed in an ESPN documentary; and most recently in a New York Daily News story, published after Super Bowl 50, which rehashed a 74-page document, part of the 2003 suit, presenting Naughright’s version of the story. Though the incident had been covered over the years by news outlets in Tennessee and nationally, the Daily News story ignited a firestorm.
It all came as a surprise to Greg Johnson, a former University of Tennessee football player and college roommate of Manning’s. He tells The MMQB he was also in the training room on Feb. 29, 1996, and saw what happened.
After the Daily News story broke, Johnson says he reached out to Manning expressing his willingness to talk to a reporter off the record. Now a law enforcement officer, Johnson says he was reticent to be identified because of his occasional role as an undercover investigator. After being put in touch with The MMQB through Manning’s representatives, Johnson agreed to talk for this story.
“I won’t speak to my opinion of Ms. Naughright or of Peyton,” Johnson told The MMQB by phone. “I was in the training room fairly often. I don’t know why I was in there that day.”
Johnson, a senior linebacker and special teams player in 1996, says he entered the training room and saw Manning leaning with one elbow on a training table while Naughright, then an assistant trainer, examined his foot from behind.
“Saxon walks in, and Peyton was the kind of guy who had to be friendly with everyone; he wanted to include everyone, from his teammates to the cross country guy. He says hey to Saxon and pulls down the back of his shorts, and I saw one butt cheek, and then he pulled his pants up. And Jamie said something like, ‘Aw, you’re an ass.’ Then I left. Thought nothing of it.”
That account aligns with the description of the incident that Naughright provided in a 1996 affadavit, filed as part of an employment discrimination complaint she lodged against the University of Tennessee. The complaint involved more than two dozen allegations of sexual discrimination or harassment, including the training-room incident. In the affidavit, Naughright described Manning as having “pulled his pants down and exposed [his buttocks] to me.” Naughright called a sexual assault hotline in the wake of the incident, per ESPN.
The 2003 document that the Daily News story referenced amplified and significantly changed Naughright’s original depiction of the incident. In that later document she alleges that Manning placed his buttocks, rectum, testicles and “area in between testicles” directly on her face, making physical contact. Manning has consistently denied that any contact took place.
Johnson says he saw no physical contact between Manning and Naughright while he was present. “It just didn’t happen,” he says. “Later someone in the administration asked me what happened. They asked if Peyton mooned somebody. They said you can’t do that with a female trainer present. Next thing I know, Peyton is banned from the chow hall. He took his punishment; as 20-year-olds we understood that you can’t do that.”
Even so, Manning initially defended himself, in part, by shifting the spotlight to Naughright. In June 1996, according to the 74-page document, he told the university that he didn’t approve of Naughright’s “vulgar language,” which he says she employed in order to be “one of the guys.” A newspaper quoted Manning that year as saying, “I’m glad it’s all behind me, no pun intended.”
Manning went on to spend his senior season at the university and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he would win his first of two Super Bowls following the 2006 season. His career NFL earnings to date are estimated to be in excess of $248 million, not including endorsements and the like. Johnson graduated in 1997, and after that, he says, he traveled to Panama and enlisted in the Marine Corps. His first overseas deployment came in 1998.
Looking back, Peyton Manning might have benefitted from Johnson’s account of the incident before now, yet his former roommate was not deposed in the 2003 case because, Johnson says, he was on an overseas tour of duty and unaware of the stateside news in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Iraq. According to the book Once a Vol, Always a Vol, authored by longtime UT staffers Gus Manning (no relation) and Haywood Harris, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Johnson was part of a Marine contingent involved in the rescue of American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.
“They didn’t really report much about Peyton in the Iraqi Desert Times,” he quips.
In the intervening years, Johnson says, he did not give much thought to the training room incident, and he never imagined he’d be talking about Manning and Naughright 20 years later.
Says Johnson, “It just wasn’t a significant moment in my life.”
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The graying history teacher and prep school cross country coach stood on the porch of his single-story home on the northern edge of Jackson, Miss., and apologized. Malcolm Saxon said he wanted to set the record straight but didn’t want to be thrust headlong into pro football’s current headline scandal.
“I’ve said all I can say,” Saxon said.
Twenty years ago, Saxon, a cross country runner and finance major at the University of Tennessee, was in the athletic training room at the school’s athletic complex when he saw what he would later describe as something other than a “mooning,” which is how Manning has always characterized the incident.
In 2002, after the Manning book came out, Saxon wrote to Peyton: “You might as well admit to what happened and maintain some dignity.” In the letter, Saxon says he lost his eligibility over his refusal to amend his account.
Yet the letter doesn’t specify what exactly Saxon did see, and in an affidavit filed for the 2003 suit he describes Manning dropping his trousers in Naughright’s presence but does not elaborate on how the incident was something other than mooning. In neither the letter nor the affidavit does he mention physical contact between Manning and Naughright.
Asked to comment on Johnson’s new account, Saxon repeated his earlier reply in an email: “I’ve said all I can say.”
That was a familiar sentiment encountered during The MMQB’s quest to learn more about that day, Feb. 29, 1996. We were met with apologetic refusals and slammed doors from former trainers and athletic department officials, as well as current Tennessee employees, from Jackson to Atlanta to Knoxville and Lakeland, Fla., where Naughright moved after leaving the University of Tennessee and found work with Florida Southern College, and later, in the world of yoga.
Manning declined comment to The MMQB for this story through a spokesman, as did the University of Tennessee and Florida Southern. Also declining comment were a half-dozen friends and associates of Naughright’s and more than a dozen members of the 1996 athletic training program at Tennessee, several of whom cited a fear of being sued by Naughright. In a phone conversation with The MMQB on Monday night, Naughright herself declined to comment on the record on the 1996 incident or to meet with The MMQB in Lakeland.
Three of Naughright’s previous lawyers, one in New Jersey and two in Florida also declined interview requests, and each said they no longer represented Naughright, including Stephen R. Senn, the man who helped pen the 74-page document in 2003. A friend of Naughright’s, Kirsten Benson, to whom Naughright first disclosed the ’96 incident, declined a request for comment when approached by The MMQB at her Knoxville home.
The unnamed student whom Naughright, according to her complaint, claimed the university tried to pin the “mooning” incident on—a black student athlete who she says would have served as scapegoat but for Naughright’s refusal—did not respond to a text and a voicemail seeking comment. (His identity, long-shrouded, was provided to The MMQB by a source familiar with Naughright’s case.)
Naughright named Gary Wyant, at the time assistant athletic director for football operations, as one of two of her superiors who she said tried to convince Naughright to pin the incident on the black player. Reached by phone, Wyant said the accusation was “an absolute lie,” characterizing the rest of the material related to himself in the 74-page document as “lies and mischaracterizations.” He declined to delve further: “I don’t want to get into another skunkfight with Ms. Naughright. People are finding out who she really is, and it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this long.”
Phillip Fulmer, the former Tennessee football coach, agreed to an interview on the condition he’d only be asked about Manning and his character, and not the 1996 incident. “Peyton was a young man that was incredibly bright, outgoing, friends with everyone, courteous to everyone, and enjoyed his teammates,” says Fulmer, who last coached in 2008.
Fulmer could not recall having a conversation with Johnson in 1996 about the incident. “There were a lot of people in and out of my office,” Fulmer says, “and as I recall, that [incident] went up the ladder pretty quick.” He added: “If Greg Johnson said it, you can bet it is the truth.”
As Johnson remembers, Fulmer justified Peyton’s cafeteria ban to players in 1996: “I thought, OK, I didn’t agree with the punishment, but Coach Fulmer explained that you can’t play that kind of joke with a female in the room,” Johnson said.
Key to Naughright’s 2003 complaint were assertions and various depositions which efforted to refute the assertions of Manning and others that Naughright’s vulgarity blurred the line of what was acceptable behavior in her presence. Several student athletes deposed for the suit stated they had never observed Naughright behave unprofessionally during her time at UT. From the suburbs of Atlanta to the Knoxville metro area, many former associates contacted by The MMQB declined to comment on Naughright’s professional demeanor. But Michael Kohl, a member of the athletic training staff from 1995 to ’96 as an undergraduate student, said: “I’ve been listening to these talk radio shows and just biting my tongue.”
“She would often say things that would surprise you, made you feel uncomfortable,” Kohl says.
Barbara McNeely, who worked at the UT-Knoxville Student Health Clinic as the nursing supervisor during Naughright’s time there, described her dealings with Naughright as “rude and crude.” McNeely says Naughright included the nickname “Bumper” when introducing herself. McNeely continued: “She’d say, ‘People call me Bumper because I have such big t---,’ and then she’d grab them and shake them.” In her 1996 complaint against the university, Naughright cited the unwelcome use of that nickname by Tennessee players and staff as one of the instances of harassment that contributed to a discriminatory work environment.
“I’m not too worried about speaking with [The MMQB],” McNeely says, “because after twenty years of maligning the Mannings, it is time for someone to have the courage to tell the truth about Naughright. If you ask anyone who dealt with her at that time, you will probably hear the same thing. It’s just a shame what she’s done to Peyton.”
Given the opportunity to respond to each of these claims, one by one, Naughright declined.
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The MMQB does not intend to suggest that Jamie Naughright’s behavior before or after Feb. 29, 1996, in any way invalidates her claim against Manning. Even if all of these testimonials are 100% accurate, they don’t speak to whether her allegations concerning Manning are truthful or untruthful. They do, however, provide necessary context to the public discussion of a case that, since the Daily News article went viral, has been lacking it.
Naughright today lives in a three-bedroom house with a pool in Lakeland, which she purchased in 1998 after leaving the University of Tennessee following the $300,000 settlement of her discrimination suit against the school. Neighbors rarely see her and mostly assume she’s often out of town. A small surveillance camera monitors the approach to the glass front doors, and at the bottom of one door, an orange sticker in the shape of the state of Tennessee reads “VOL FOR LIFE”.
Naughright, who has a Doctor of Education degree in Health Education & Promotion from Tennessee, began work at Florida Southern in 1998. Her career was derailed there, she says, by the release of Manning’s book, excerpts of which she found on her office desk upon returning from a work trip in 2001. The envelope containing the pages was addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited.” (Naughright is her maiden name. Her married name was Whited.) Manning’s quote in the book that Naughright had a “vulgar mouth” was central to her defamation suit against him, which was settled in 2003, with terms undisclosed and both parties subject to a confidentiality agreement.
Shaken by the contents of the book and its subsequent proliferation among her colleagues, Naughright asserted in the 74-page document that her performance suffered and led to her leaving Florida Southern. She soon entered the world of yoga. According to an online biography penned by Naughright, she assisted Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman with the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, a holistic approach to healthcare founded by Donna Karan. And she became a co-owner of a new yoga studio in Lakeland, My Time Yoga, which has since closed. Dr. Larry Padgett, a Winter Haven orthopedic surgeon, consulted with My Time Yoga and worked with Naughright on several other projects in the early 2000s.
Reached at his house in Winter Haven, Fla., Padgett said his professional experiences with Naughright were overwhelmingly positive: “The thing I would say is, at least on a professional level, around patients, clients, on various projects or at Florida Southern—through all of that time, Jamie was always very professional, very smart, very good at what she did. And the patients seemed to like her very much.”
That was a popular sentiment among those who had worked with Naughright. While some of those interviewed on and off the record had issues with her personal demeanor, most agreed she was a highly capable athletic trainer and doctor with a tremendous reputation among patients.
As for the legal battle with Manning, Padgett says it was never an issue in their professional relationship. “I wasn’t really concerned with something that had been settled that she didn’t really want to talk about,” Padgett says of the Manning case. “I felt educated enough, she did say that it occurred, and she kept to herself the fact that during that time she was involved in other lawsuits.”
In 2010 Naughright filed a lawsuit in New York State against the fashion designer Donna Karan after allegedly suffering injury during physical therapy with a trainer whom Karan had recommended. That suit was dismissed. The same year Naughright filed suit in Florida against a Lakeland restaurant and catering company, Deli Delicacies, claiming physical injuries as the result of slip outside the store.
Reached at her home in Lakeland, the former owner, Gretchen Anglero said she had been friends with Naughright leading up to the suit and had advised her on the challenges of her fledgling yoga business. That case was settled out of court for undisclosed terms, according to Polk County records. “This is what she does,” said Anglero, who closed the business in 2012 for unrelated reasons. “She sues people to make money.” Naughright declined to comment.
A week before the Super Bowl, a voicemail was left at the home of Peyton Manning’s parents, Archie and Olivia Manning, by a woman identifying herself as Jamie Naughright. In the recording, which was played for The MMQB, the woman uses coarse and offensive language, some of it sexual in nature, to describe members of the Manning family and threatens to “release all these documents” related to Manning.
The content and language of the Manning voicemail was similar to that used by a woman claiming to be Naughright who for years phoned the sports desk at the Knoxville News Sentinel with accusations regarding Peyton Manning and Philip Fulmer and assertions that the newspaper had failed to adequately cover the training-room incident. John Adams, a columnist for the newspaper, wrote a story outlining the content and frequency of those calls.
“It suddenly did become relevant because of the media publicity,” Adams says of the paper’s decision to publish the story. “This has been ongoing for the last two years at the News Sentinel.
“It was the most vulgar wording imaginable,” he says of the language used by the caller. “You know, newsroom guys don’t shrink from foul language, but this was just over the top. It was mainly about Manning and our failure to uncover the story, while in fact we covered this thing extensively when it happened.”
Additionally, The MMQB has learned that a woman claiming to be Naughright was in talks with a major news outlet before the Daily News article and, as in the Manning voicemail, promised to “release all the documents,” though when pressed to do so on numerous occasions, she changed the topic of conversation, according to a member of the outlet’s editorial staff. The media organization vetted the source and was satisfied the woman on the other end of the phone was Naughright.
Tom Stokes, a radio producer, received a call this month from a woman identifying herself as Naughright who repeats some of the allegations in the Manning voicemail. Stokes later released an edited audio of that call.
“It does surprise me,” Padgett says of Naughright’s recent alleged behavior. “That is not indicative of the Jamie Naughright I worked with. She was never any of the negative things I’ve read about in the 13 years I’ve known her.
“There must be more to what’s going on that we’re not aware of. There’s obviously something else there. But it sounds like something that’s difficult to get at.”