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Peyton Manning, Shaun King, and the pursuit of facts in 1996 Tennessee incident

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The sports media world has been engulfed in this old case about offensive - but not criminal - behavior because too many readers and media members didn't consider the holes in this "story."

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Anyone still basking in the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl glory last Saturday morning probably took to Twitter for more epic Super Bowl 50 videos, clips of Von Miller's tour through the late-night talk shows or just another fabulous recap of the team's unlikely but amazing season.

Instead, fans were treated to a one-sided and apparently vindictive attempt to trump up an old case against Peyton Manning 20 years ago as a college athlete at the University of Tennessee.

The attempt worked.

Instead of being viewed for what it was - advocacy journalism (and we use that term loosely) based on a clear agenda by a non-credible writer - many readers immediately viewed the New York Daily News story from Shaun King as fact.

Now the sports media world has been engulfed in this old case about offensive - but never-proved criminal - behavior because too many readers and media members didn't consider the holes in King's story.

In this, our examination of the story, we hope to present facts - real facts, not the "Facts of the Case" that were provided by the plaintiff's attorney in a lawsuit nearly a decade after the incident took place. And since we do not have the facts surrounding what took place at the University of Tennessee (we were not there), most of these facts will pertain to the legal ramifications and coverage since.

First, some background

This story is in no way new to the media or to many sports fans, despite King's attempts to make it appear as if there were new information. King wonders aloud in his article why other sportswriters didn't pick up on this info years ago; they did. Perhaps they merely recognized that the document and references King was provided wasn't an affidavit; it wasn't a legal decision; and it wasn't in any way a new ruling. The document King bases his entire indicting article on is just the plaintiff's version of "facts" submitted seven years after the decision in a new attempt to file a lawsuit.

That document is one part of a long, complex number of legal proceedings that all stem from an alleged incident that took place in 1996 and should have concluded over a decade ago (relevant court documents have since been destroyed, as is typically done 10 years after a settlement is reached). Here is an edited excerpt from a very good timeline, via Michael McCann of McCann Sports Law and also a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated, that helps give context to the situation:

1996-97: UT incident and immediate fallout
  • February 29, 1996: The alleged incident occurs between Peyton Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright (then Whited) in the UT training room. In Naughright's employment discrimination complaint six months later, Naughright alleges that an undisclosed athlete (Manning) "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." Whited also called a sexual assault crisis center but documents from the call have no description of the incident and include the written comment "victim said she will call back" under "follow-up" on the form.

  • August 27, 1996: Naughright files the aforementioned employment discrimination complaint at UT, alleging multiple counts of harassment by university staff. The university concluded there was no sexual discrimination to Naughright nor that a hostile environment existed. Regarding the athlete's situation (which we know to be Manning), he was not allowed to eat in the athletic dining room and had to run at 6 a.m. every day for two weeks.

  • August 13, 1997: Naughright and UT enter into Settlement and Confidentiality Agreement under which Naughright received $300,000 and UT championship paraphernalia (including a 1996 Citrus Bowl watch and 1991 NCAA championship ring) in exchange for accepting termination and maintaining confidentiality.

2001-03: Manning's autobiography breaches confidentiality
Naughright's story changed in 2003, where she suddenly alleged "contact" with Manning's genitals, contradicting statements in 1996 and 2002.
  • 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 in Florida State Court against Manning and others involved in the book alleging defamation based on the statements in the book. The complaint does not allege sexual assault but characterizes the 1996 incident as "so bizarre and gross as to cause any reasonable person severe mental and emotional harm." Naughright seeks a total of $30 million in damages ($15 million compensatory; $15 million punitive). This case is transferred to federal court but later remanded back to state court.

  • October 3, 2003: Manning files his affidavit in response to Naughright's 2002 defamation suit.

  • October 15, 2003: Naughright issues a "statement of facts" related to her 2002 defamation suit. This is the 74-page document King referenced throughout his article last weekend, which contains her sworn testimony that Manning placed his "naked butt and rectum" on her face. This is the first time Naughright alleges "contact" with Manning's genitals, something not part of her original complaint nor her 2002 lawsuit filing.

  • December 3, 2003: Manning and Naughright reach confidential settlement agreement resolving Naughright's May 2002 defamation claim.

2004-05: ESPN documentary spurs second lawsuit
  • December 30, 2004: "ESPN Classic Sports Century" airs, which contains some commentary from Manning on the case.

  • January 18, 2005: Naughright files second lawsuit in Florida Federal Court claiming breach of the December 2003 settlement agreement.

  • July 2005: Manning and Naughright reach settlement agreement resolving the January 2005 claim.

2014-present: Old news becomes new "news"
  • June 26, 2014: Case files destroyed for original May 29, 2002, defamation case following 10-year waiting period (common practice).

  • February 9, 2016: University of Tennessee is sued over violations of Title IX for "creating a culture that enables sexual assaults by student-athletes, especially football players. Six players are named in the suit filed by six anonymous "Jane Does." The Manning incident from 1996 is mentioned, though Manning is not named in the suit. The University asked the courts on Feb. 23 to take Manning's references out of the suit because of the "utter lack of relevancy" to the case that spans incidents from 2013-15.

  • February 13, 2016: Shaun King publishes a story based only on Naughright's October 2003 version of "facts" submitted for her second lawsuit that was settled two months later. King's article thus drudges up a 20-year-old incident that had been settled by both parties more than 10 years ago.

How Manning messed up

It would be false to portray Manning as only a victim here. What he did in 1996 was stupid, immature, and if completely true as to the 2003 accusation of contact, indefensible (again, we don't have those facts). Still, Manning has essentially not changed his version of what happened (though he hasn't given many details) and has not claimed to be innocent. Perhaps due to the gag order put in place by the court.

While McCann and others have wondered why Manning even brought it up in his book with his father years ago because of the legal liability, the move to some extent shows his attempt to admit to doing something stupid and point out he had learned a lesson from that situation.

Based on Manning's repeated testimony on the matter, what he did was offensive and lewd but not illegal. The same holds true for Naughright with what she said in her initial 1996 complaint and again in her 2002 defamation lawsuit.

From her 1996 affidavit:

"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."

There is plenty wrong here. Both Manning's behavior as well as the initial response from Naughright's boss. The 1990s were not the same work environment for women as today, so it's not hard to imagine her complaints were brushed off until a formal complaint was made. Even then, a formal complaint of something like this being shoved aside would unfortunately not be unusual.

It was a football training room, and any person would be wise to understand the environment would not be pristine. Still, any kind of sexual harassment should have been taken seriously by the administration, and it seems clear that it was not.

At this point it is a he said/she said argument on what took place in the training room, but given Naughright's changing testimony, it bears questioning whether her "statement of facts" seven years later was indeed a true statement of fact.

How King messed up

It doesn't take long to see Shaun King has an agenda versus Manning. In a tirade he posted on Facebook last week against Manning, King compared No. 18's lack of a handshake with Drew Brees following the Colts Super Bowl loss to the Saints to Cam Newton's poor behavior in his post-Super Bowl 50 news conference. King did this in order to call the media racist for its treatment of Newton regarding the Panthers quarterback's behavior.

Then a few days later, King wrote a story based only on Naughright's "statement of facts" from an old case without even looking for Manning's similar statement of facts or calling the Manning camp for any kind of response. The story also sought to bring up the treatment of Newton once again. It was completely irrelevant, unless of course, there was a continued agenda to pursue.

As several sports journalists pointed out on Twitter, this one-sided "wanna-be story" would never have made it past editors of any credible media outlet with a semblance of journalistic integrity.

"The 74-page document is not objective. The 74-page document is not supposed to be objective. The 74-page document is not a court order or any other decision made by a neutral party. And, ultimately, the 74-page document is incomplete without comparing it to the corresponding 'Facts of the Case' document submitted by the defendants in the case," wrote Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio.

King has since written a second report to defend his honor, which sportswriters have once again condemned for its one-sided crusade. Not the least of which being because King took comments from the judge in the 2002 case out of legal context and completely misinterpreted the statements, showing once again a lack of understanding how the law works on King's behalf and his editors.

Furthermore, new evidence also suggests that the judge had actually ordered many pages of that 74-page statement from Naughright to be deleted from court record. This would suggest that even the court did not consider this document to contain completely truthful evidence.

But that's not all. There's also plenty of information out there that Naughwright is not without some issues here as previous lawsuits of hers against famous people would suggest. A Feb. 23 report from Brandon Spano has more evidence suggesting the vindictive nature in Naughright's actions.

Fox Sports' Clay Travis has spent the better part of the last two weeks poking big holes in King's work and in King himself, as well as the victim's motivesA recent piece even suggests Manning has a decent claim at a defamation lawsuit of his own - this time against King.

"There's a willful indifference to the truth here and King's also clearly acting with malice," Travis writes. "I'd love to see Manning sue the paper and this dude. He won't do it because it's not worth his time, but he has a pretty decent claim."

Finally, King is a Black Lives Matter crusader. There's nothing wrong with that, but he is known among many in the sports world for often skewing stories with a racial agenda. There are serious questions as to his claim of being black and to the legitimacy of his charities. Basically, several people believe the dude is a liar.

On media and "facts"

There was a time people were skeptical.

Before social media and 24-hour news, people wanted to be informed. They wanted the truth.

Now people want to nod in agreement and get affirmation for what they believe. They don't want to be challenged. They don't question what they read, see or hear.

Back in the day, that's where the media came in. The real media.

Newspapers, radio or TV presented both sides of the story. Journalists put in the work to interview multiple sources. Before publication, every detail was fact checked. If there were even the slightest question, the piece was held. If a fact wasn't corroborated, it was either taken out or the reporter was forced to get it.

There was a time when reporters wanted the truth and weren't so quick to rush to judgment or fill in the blanks with the answers they wanted to unanswered questions. If they got a one-sided document, they knew they had to get both sides of the story to present the facts - whether a news story or column.

Man, that feels like eons ago.

Today, the uniformed inform the uninformed. Or as the old phrase goes: "The blind lead the blind."

If that doesn't make you cringe, perhaps you're one of those people mentioned above.

We've been in the media and know a lot of great people in the industry who work hard. They love to educate, enlighten and inform. Their only agenda is to get the truth for the public.

Many in the media no longer live by that creed.

Instead, it's a race for clicks. It's about their story "going viral." If you drag people through the mud to make it happen, "hey, at least I put my name out there."

It's about agendas. The facts be damned.

As with any house of cards, though, it falls apart - usually sooner rather than later.

The truth always finds a way, no matter how much it's distorted by manipulation and tricks. No matter the words and narrative used to sell that agenda.

"Manning might actually have a defamation claim against (King)" Clay Travis

But by that point, the damage is done.

If even one person changed his or her mind on Manning because of this insult to journalism, that goal was reached.

As Peter King said in his MMQB column: "20 years have come and gone since the events of that day in Knoxville, and Manning was not charged with a crime, and Manning was not convicted of a crime. The authorities in Tennessee and later in Florida, when (Jamie) Naughright pressed her case, did not find Manning guilty of anything. Observers of the case can think what they want after reading the affidavits, and that cannot change. You may well find it hard to think of Manning the same way as you did before."

We feel sorry for those people.

No one has ever said that Manning is perfect - least of all himself.

As longtime columnist in Indianapolis Bob Kravitz wrote: "The people who know Manning best know that he's not much better than the rest of us. Remember that hilarious United Way skit he did for ‘Saturday Night Live?' You know who came up with that idea? Manning's brother-in-law. It's a source of some humor within the Manning camp that he's been propped up as a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela."

Take a moment to recall the worst deed you've ever committed in your life. Perhaps it was last week, or even 20 years ago. Now, what if society judged who you are as a person on that one shameful action?

One would hope that others would also consider the good you've spread over your lifetime before they label you. As for Manning, there's been way, way, way, way more good.

Doesn't he deserve the benefit of the doubt, just as we would want for ourselves in a similar situation?

The fact is that none of us have a clue what happened Feb. 29, 1996, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Unlike some, we don't claim to have all of the facts. As noted above, there are so many holes in this report that it would sink quicker than the Titanic. Again, the information peddled comes from a 74-page document created by lawyers hired to make it appear awful. Oh, by the way, that fact was conveniently left out of King's report. And as we said earlier, what does the quarterback of the Panthers have anything to do with this event 20 years ago? Why was he included if there weren't an agenda on the part of King?

If you want to see how a real journalist should approach this story, reference McCann's piece at Sports Illustrated from earlier.

Credible news organizations require reporters who submitted such a one-sided report to go back and get both sides.

Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports called the media standard today a "write about allegations now, check facts later" kind of standard. He is absolutely right.

"If you look what she said in 1996 in an affidavit, there's no allegation that Peyton sat on her and put his balls in her face," Whitlock said Tuesday. "Not until 2003 when money is on the line and her lawyers are putting pressure, that this comes out."

Whitlock, who is a veteran sports columnist, also said "hell no" that King writes this article if Newton wins the Super Bowl.

So does it change Whitlock's opinion of Manning, a quarterback he's always believed was overrated but a person he's always liked?

"For me, personally, this doesn't change it," Whitlock said. "I love Peyton Manning. I love how teammates rally around and support him. I would have to see some really strong proof he sat on this woman's face. That (information) would diminish my opinion a little, but people make mistakes in their youth. I've always known he's flawed like every other human. I sit and think about some things I was involved in college that were stupid and inappropriate. People evolve."

For what it's worth, we'll continue to wear our orange No. 18 jerseys and remain thankful Manning picked the Broncos four years ago.

If Manning retires, we will remember this season for one special ride that ended in a Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win and him holding the Lombardi Trophy.

More than that, we'll remain in awe of what Manning does for so many people across this country. How much joy he brings to people's lives. For giving people a reason to smile when they may not have one.

There was a time people were skeptical of one-sided information.

There was also a time where people with glass houses didn't have the access and ability to throw stones the way King did.