Peyton Manning isn’t worried. Even if Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup against the Carolina Panthers “might be his last rodeo,” he scans as the same affectless dude that enjoys nothing more than humming variations on the Nationwide jingle. One thing in particular that he’s totally not worried about is the NFL’s probe into the allegations that he used human growth hormones. “I do welcome it. It’s no news to me,” Manning said on Thursday.
How do you know when Manning is legitimately worried? He gets angry, and vindictive, and he absolutely will not let go.
To wit, way back in 1996 when Manning was a junior at the University of Tennessee, he allegedly sexually harassed a female trainer. According to this excerpt from the university’s investigative report, Jamie Ann Naughright (then Whited) was treating Manning’s foot when he began “asking me several personal questions” including whether she “hang(s) out with people she works with.”
When Naughright rebuffed Manning, he decided to drop trou. Naughright had her head down, but upon hearing the chuckles and guffaws, she looked up only to find herself face-to-face with Manning’s exposed ass and testicles.
“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,” Naughright would later say in a court deposition in a suit against the University of Tennessee (more on this in a bit). “To get leverage, I took my head out to push him up and off.”
How did UT discipline Manning? They took away his “privilege to eat at the athletic facilities dining room, and requiring him to run at 6:00 a.m. for two weeks.” The dining room ban was subsequently reduced to two weeks as well.
The allegations made against Manning came to light as one of numerous sexual harassment claims cited against the University of Tennessee. Naughright and the university ended up agreeing to a $300,000 settlement. The terms remained confidential.
But Manning needed to have the final word. In the book he co-wrote with his father, Archie, and a ghostwriter, Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, though he described his actions as “inappropriate,” he felt Naughright should have laughed off the up-close display of his rump and should have viewed it as “Crude, maybe, but harmless.” Manning also felt the need to call her a “vulgar woman,” swore that he was actually mooning a fellow teammate, not Naughright, and said that all of this unpleasantness could have been avoided were it not for the destruction of male-only spaces.
“Never mind that women in the men’s locker room is one of the most misbegotten concessions to equal rights ever made,” Manning wrote. “When Dad played, there was still at least a tacit acknowledgment that women and men are two different sexes, with all that implies, and a certain amount of decorum had to be maintained. Meaning when it came to training rooms and shower stalls, the opposite sex was not allowed. Common sense tells you why.”
“Common sense” indeed. In 2002, Naughright filed a defamation lawsuit against Manning, claiming that he was attempting to rewrite history. Naughright had since moved on to Florida Southern College and though she wasn’t personally named by Manning in the book, she received a letter “addressed to ‘Dr. Vulgar Mouth Whited.’’’
“It became common knowledge on campus that Dr. Naughright was the athletic trainer referred to by the defendants in Manning,” the lawsuit stated. As a result, she “was treated differently by both students and colleagues and her employment situation at Florida Southern College became untenable, which ultimately resulted in her leaving the employment of Florida Southern College.”
As to the question of to whom Manning wanted to show his ass, Malcolm Saxon, a track and field athlete who was in the room during the incident, wrote a letter to Manning to say that no, he was not the intended moon-ee (as Manning had written in his book), imploring him to “maintain some dignity and admit to what happened… Your celebrity doesn’t mean you can treat folks that way… Do the right thing here.”
Naughright and Manning ended up agreeing to an out-of-court settlement in 2003 that included a confidentiality ban on both parties. “He felt it was his mistake, he tried to apologize and he was remorseful,” Archie Manning told the Associated Press of his son’s incident in 2003. “He got punished and he took his punishment.”
Manning, however, just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Two years later, Naughright again took Manning to court after he violated the terms of the agreement by babbling about the incident “on network television nationally in a documentary entitled ESPN Classic Sports Century: Peyton Manning.”
If doubling-down and/or protesting way too much rings true when it comes to Manning, it should. In December, on the night before Al Jazeera America named Manning in its extensive documentary detailing the use of human growth hormones by pro athletes, Manning grabbed every available microphone he could find, calling the report “complete garbage.” He dropped by ESPN the following morning in a state of indignation, said the report was “bull” and that while he “wasn’t losing any sleep... disgusted is really how I feel, sickened by it.”
If that wasn’t enough of a PR pushback, Manning even signed up George Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, to bash Al Jazeera.
Once again, Manning couldn’t resist the temptation to take a potshot at an already beaten target. In early January, after reporters told him that Al Jazeera America would be permanently shuttering its doors, he sarcastically told USA Today: “I’m sure that’s just devastating to all their viewers.”
The Daily Beast emailed Mike Freeman, Bleacher Report’s NFL national lead writer, to ask why Manning turns to this brand of bullying offensive when he’s challenged.
“For every classy part of Manning, the one that sells pizzas and says, ‘Golly gee and aw shucks,’ there is a bit of a ruthless guy, in my opinion,” he wrote. “This is not stated maliciously. It’s stated honestly. I think what he did with Jamie is an example of that. He does that [exposes himself] to her, which is a despicable thing, and then later in his book, takes a shot at her. That shot was calculated. It was a way of trying to diminish Jamie and her original accusations.”
According to Freeman, Manning is able to get away with this because he is to a certain degree immune from criticism.
“Part of the reason why Manning hits back twice as hard—which is his right—is because he knows he’ll receive cover from large swaths of the media who will believe anything he says,” he wrote. “There are football writers, lots of them, that would lay their bodies over a puddle of water and let Manning walk over their bodies so his cleats don’t get wet.”
And it worked. Despite the revelation of a second confidential source verifying Al Jazeera’s investigation, Manning’s alleged HGH use has been more or less relegated to a non-story even in the midst of the relentless press frenzy that is Super Bowl media week.
The comparison to Cam Newton, the quarterback that’ll be on the other side of field on Super Bowl Sunday, couldn’t be more stark, not when detractors still cite his relatively trivial stolen laptop incident that got him booted from the University of Florida, or as grave an offense as his touchdown celebrations inspire pearl-clutching letters to the editor bemoaning his arrogance, calling him a “spoiled brat,” and literally begging him to think about the children. Granted, as Slate’s Tommy Craggs wrote, the “Tennessee Mom’s” panic feels like an outlier, “a holdout in a culture war long since ended, an old soldier bustling out of a cave with fixed bayonet, blinking in a new day’s sun.”
But were PED allegations leveled at Newton it’s hard to imagine Al Jazeera itself would be on the receiving end of the bulk of the criticism and seen its credibility repeatedly questioned. CBS’s Jim Nantz decided that the best course of action here is total silence. “If we talk about it we would only continue to breathe life into a story that on all levels is a non-story,” Nantz explained. Funny thing, Nantz and Manning share an agent who also happens to be a former business partner of Ari Fleischer’s.
Angrily not talking about Manning is practically a cottage industry. “Al Jazeera is not a credible news organization. They’re out there spreading garbage,” ESPN’s Mike Ditka told The Boston Globe. “That’s what they do, yet we give them credibility by talking about it.”
Fox News even went so far as to wonder if Al Jazeera’s real agenda here was to destroy “American icons and U.S. institutions.”
In this friendly a media climate, where alleged sexual harassment is largely forgotten, why would Peyton Manning worry?