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Breaking down sexual assault allegations against Peyton Manning

In Saturday's New York Daily News, Shaun King detailed sexual assault allegations against Peyton Manning that include a cover-up accusation. 

According to sworn testimony detailed in an article by Shaun King in Saturday’s New York Daily News, Peyton Manning “forcefully maneuvered his naked testicles and rectum directly” onto the face of Dr. Jamie Naughright, the University of Tennessee’s director of health and wellness, in 1996 and then “smirked” and “laughed” about it. At the time, Manning was the 19-year-old star quarterback for the Volunteers. Naughright was 27 years-old and examining Manning for a possible foot injury. Manning initially denied the incident took place but later acknowledged that a possibly “crude” but nonetheless “harmless” event occurred. Associate team trainer Mike Rollo believed that any contact between Manning and Naughright was accidental since Manning was mooning another student-athlete (Malcolm Saxon) right as Naughright moved her head. Yet Saxon—the alleged “mooned” player—later signed a sworn affidavit saying he was never mooned.

Not surprisingly the incident had an aftermath at the University of Tennessee, although one largely out of public view. Several hours after believing that she had been assaulted by Manning, Naughright filed a report with the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Knoxville, Tenn. According to Naughright, university officials seemed intent on downplaying the incident and protecting Manning, arguably the best and most celebrated player in Tennessee’s history. In fact, she claims one university official asked her to blame whatever transpired on an African-American athlete and she refused.

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​Naughright also asserts that Manning would thereafter harass and mock her around campus and in front of her coworkers and Manning’s teammates. Naughright eventually left the school as part of a financial settlement, and reportedly she and Manning signed a non-disclosure agreement to not discuss the alleged incident. Florida Southern College hired her as a professor and program director.

The 1996 incident was not the only one between Manning and Naughright. In 1994, Naughright says an incident occurred that “explains the genesis of Peyton Manning’s dislike” of her. Naughright, however, agreed to keep the 1994 incident confidential, though only as a “courtesy” to Manning. It stands to reason that she could eventually retell what occurred.

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Even though Manning and Naughright had moved on from the University of Tennessee and signed a mutual non-disclosure agreement, Manning would write about the 1996 incident in Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, a book he co-authored with his father, Archie Manning, and a ghostwriter, John Underwood (a former Sports Illustrated writer who had left the magazine by the time the book was written). Naughright testified that portions of the book were mailed to her office in 2001 and addressed to “Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited”—in an apparent attempt to harass and discredit Naughright (whose last name was Whited for much of her time at Tennessee), and to embarrass her among her academic colleagues. In the book, Peyton Manning describes a training room incident as “crude maybe, but harmless” and, though not by name, he portrays Naughright in a disparaging light. In particular, Manning describes Naughright as “vulgar.”

Naughright filed a defamation lawsuit against Manning and Underwood. Prior to the parties reaching an out-of-court settlement, Manning gave damaging testimony. He described Naughright as habitually vulgar and particularly profane during a 1995 trip to Charlottesville, Va. Manning’s testimony appears contradicted by other witnesses, which raises the possibility Manning may have exaggerated or lied about Naughright. Moreover, testimony by Peyton Manning and Archie Manning revealed that the son told his father that Naughright “was unattractive but had big breasts” and that she liked to hang out “with a bunch of black guys.”

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Who’s telling the truth? Why is a 1996 controversy, which was also the subject of a Big Lead article by Jason McIntyre in 2014 and several other news stories, surfacing in ’16? Why should we care about how Manning, who’s a month away from turning 40, may have acted when he was a college student?

The first question can only be answered with the following: it’s unclear who’s telling the truth. The accusations and denials were made under oath and thus under penalty of perjury. It would seem that someone is lying, but we likely won’t ever find out who that might be. We do know, however, that Manning was not charged with sexual battery or other crimes for the unknown 1994 incident or for the disputed ’96 incident. Likewise, no records have surfaced indicating that he was ever investigated by law enforcement for either incident. While star college athletes have been known to receive favorable treatment by law enforcement, that alone does not prove Manning’s guilt. Moreover, relevant statutes of limitation under Tennessee Law have long since expired, so law enforcement will not be launching an investigation. For its part, the NFL will not investigate a story that it was likely aware of and the key facts of which took place prior to Manning starting his NFL career in 1998.

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Also, Manning settling the defamation lawsuit should not be equated with an admission of guilt. Many celebrities settle lawsuits by paying accusers even when those celebrities insist the accusers are lying. The celebrities do so because the very filing of a lawsuit —and its accompanying media coverage—poses reputational risk. A lawsuit can also lead to pretrial discovery, which in turn may reveal unflattering information about the celebrity. In short, the 1996 incident will remain a disturbing mystery and we should not assume we know what occurred.

The second and third questions—why is a 1996 incident the subject of a high-profile 2016 news article and why should we care about how a nearly 40-year-old Peyton Manning behaved in college—prove more complicated. As mentioned above, the 1996 incident has been explored in other news articles, though not nearly with the level of chilling detail and insightful analysis provided by King. In my view, the timing of King’s article is noteworthy because of allegations made against Manning in a December 2015 Al Jazeera America report and how Manning, the media and NFL have responded to them. According to the report, the Indianapolis anti-aging clinic Guyer Institute sent human growth hormone (HGH) to Peyton Manning’s wife, Ashley Manning, in 2011 for the purpose of Peyton Manning to use. HGH is banned by the NFL and can only be lawfully prescribed by physicians for three very limited uses, none of which are relevant to playing in the NFL. The NFL is investigating the HGH allegations, which implicate a group of NFL players, and there is no timetable for the league to announce its findings. The league has thus far declined to hire a law firm to conduct an “independent” investigation for HGH allegations, a departure from how the league investigated Tom Brady and the New England Patriots over Deflategate.

While Manning has not denied that HGH shipments were mailed to his wife, he adamantly insists that he has never used HGH. Yet, unlike Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, Manning has not (yet) filed a defamation lawsuit against Al Jazeera America or against, because (Al Jazeera America is closing) the parent company Al Jazeera. If Manning sues, he would be required to give sworn testimony and could eventually be exposed to pretrial discovery about any substances and medicines he takes.

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Instead of suing, Manning hired private investigators to research his accuser, Charlie Sly, who later recanted. The private investigators even went so far as to visit the parents of the 31-year-old Sly presumably in hopes of uncovering unflattering information about their son. Manning’s aggressive response to rebutting HGH accusations appears consistent with how he responded to the 1996 allegations of sexual assault: dispute the allegation and pressure the accuser. Whether that approach is ethically laudable can be debated, but Manning’s popularity with many in the national media—normally a skeptical and critical group—suggests it seems to work. That said, Manning’s decision to include discussion of a then-forgotten 1996 controversy in his book raises questions about his judgment: had he not done so, he would not have been sued for defamation and no court records would have surfaced.

The timing of an in-depth story about 1996 allegations against Manning is also interesting because Manning’s storied NFL career may soon be over. Rumors persist that Manning, fresh off his Broncos winning Super Bowl 50, will announce his retirement prior to the start of the 2016 season. If Manning retires, the NFL would have no grounds to punish him for any findings that he used HGH; presumably the league would either stop investigating Manning or decline to publicly share whatever is found.

Manning would again be one step ahead of potential trouble.

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.