“It doesn’t matter!” “Who cares?” “Just a fraternity prank!” “Old news!”
Peyton Manning’s many media prizefighters were out in full force on Saturday after the New York Daily News published a thorough account of a sexual-harassment claim levied against the 39-year-old quarterback when he was a college-football superstar at the University of Tennessee.
It’s certainly true that this story has been in the public sphere for 13 years. (I have written about it, and many sportswriters can say the same.) This is a vile story in which young Peyton, as I wrote at the time,
was accused of sitting on the face of a female athletic trainer, bare-assed, spread wide. Peyton in his book claimed he was just “mooning” a track athlete, also there for physical therapy, and the trainer, whom he described as having “a vulgar mouth,” took offense…. But Peyton’s actions were serious enough that the “vulgar-mouthed” woman in question immediately reported the incident to the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Knoxville. The track star Peyton claimed to be joking with wrote Peyton a letter in 2002 saying, according to USA Today, “You might as well maintain some dignity and admit what happened…. do the right thing here.”
But the Daily News and columnist Shaun King had access to the entirety of the complaint levied against Manning and UT. This brought several new factors to light. We learned, for example, that John Underwood, co-author of the family memoir Manning: A Father, His Sons, and a Football Legacy, testified under oath that Peyton’s father, Archie, tried to get him to stick in the book that the trainer who reported him, Dr. Jamie Naughright, was not credible because she liked to have sex with black student-athletes in the dorms. (Jesus.) We also learned that the attacks on Dr. Naughright took place over the course of many years.
But, most critically, the lawsuit reveals in methodical and stark detail—and people can read the suit here—the relentless efforts executed by the powers-that-be at the University of Tennessee to make sure that Manning and their lucrative Rocky Top football program was shielded. Instead of airing out the issues that may have existed, they went full “politics of personal destruction” on Dr. Naughright’s character and credibility.
This is why this story matters, for reasons even beyond the ways in which it peels back Manning’s carefully curated image. It matters because the twisted culture that led to Manning’s being protected and Dr. Naughright’s being destroyed has endured. On Tuesday, six women filed a civil suit against Tennessee. Four say that they were raped by athletes on campus, three by football players. In their suit they contend that Knoxville has “A long-standing, severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes (particularly football players) that was condoned and completely unaddressed.” Read Jessica Luther’s breakdown about the case at Vice Sports that dissects why the plaintiffs allege there is “an official policy of deliberate indifference to known sexual assault.”
I contacted Jessica Luther, who is the author of the forthcoming book about sexual assault and college athletics, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, and asked, given that Tennessee has had a great deal of turnover in both the Athletic Department and school administration over the last two decades, whether she sees these stories as connected.
Luther wrote me the following:
Yes, I see them as connected for two different reasons:
1) The lawsuit filed by the six women makes this connection. At the beginning of the suit, they list incidents that they feel are examples of the overall culture in UT athletics (especially football) that minimize and ignore sexism, sexual violence, and overall poor conduct/behavior on the part of athletes over the last two decades, going back to 1995 (‘Incidents involving athletes and misconduct, including specifically sexual violence, have been a part of a hostile sexual environment and culture at the University of Tennessee Athletic Department for more than a decade’ is how that section of the lawsuit reads). Manning is listed in that lawsuit as one of these examples.
2)The lawsuit is against UT—the university itself—and not any individual, not the AD, the president, or any coach. The argument is that there is an overall culture at the institution that encourages “deliberate indifference and clearly unreasonable acts and omissions that created a hostile sexual environment.” If anything, reading the defamation suit against Manning in conversation with last week’s lawsuit against Tennessee shows that it doesn’t matter who the president or AD is. That’s the whole point. The most important and powerful part of this lawsuit is this argument: the interests of college football is in charge the whole university system bends to that.
It is difficult to look at this from every possible angle and not agree with Luther. That’s why this is really not a Peyton Manning story. He is just a high-profile illustration of the priorities at play and the ways in which the reputations—not to mention the very safety—of women are irrelevant to the needs of Big Football. If this is ever going to change, it will happen one school—and one battle—at a time. In other words, the fight underway to clean up Knoxville and Peyton’s case is not only relevant: It’s foundational. The school did not confront Peyton’s actions two decades ago. It covered them up, and now the school is paying the price. For a story of gender, race, and the corruption of the soul of the Old South, the words of William Faulkner could not be more appropriate: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”