Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Alleged sexual assault tarnishes Peyton Manning’s once pristine image

Quarterback Peyton Manning is congratulated by an unidentified cheerleader after Tennessee defeated Ohio State 20-14 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1, 1996.
Quarterback Peyton Manning is congratulated by an unidentified cheerleader after Tennessee defeated Ohio State 20-14 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1, 1996. AP

Peyton Manning’s noble Super Bowl triumph is not marinating into the legacy that was predicted for him.

The ride into the sunset for football’s Southern gentleman is taking a detour.

If Manning decides to go out on top and retire — as he should — he won’t be able to scramble away from the questions that are tarnishing what had been a pristine image throughout his long career.

A University of Tennessee training room incident from 20 years ago in which Manning said he dropped his shorts and mooned a fellow athlete and a female trainer said he did much worse to her has resurfaced in a recent lawsuit alleging that the university created a “hostile sexual environment” where sexual assaults by athletes were tolerated and hidden.

He is also the subject of an NFL investigation into the delivery of human growth hormone (HGH) — a banned, performance-enhancing substance — to his offseason home in Miami. Manning maintained during Super Bowl week that the HGH mailed to his wife, Ashley, is “her business.” He has said an Al Jazeera report that he was given HGH during his 2011 rehab from neck surgeries was “complete garbage.”

Assailant and drug cheat are not terms usually attached to Manning, 39, who grew up in New Orleans’ Garden District in a first-class family, son of former quarterback Archie and his wife Olivia, brother of Cooper and Eli.

Along the way to becoming a five time NFL MVP, he lent a hand in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, had a children’s hospital named after him, made fun of his squeaky-clean reputation on Saturday Night Live and became one of sports’ most popular pitchmen.

Turns out Manning is human after all. He’s made mistakes. Mistakes tend to be forgiven by magnanimous fans. And as is the case with so many celebrity athletes, Manning simply needs to come clean. Explain himself once and for all.

On Feb. 29, 1996, Dr. Jamie Naughright, director of UT men’s athletics health and wellness, was crouching down to examine sophomore Manning’s foot. That’s where the story diverges. He said he playfully flashed his rear end at another male athlete. She said he “forcefully maneuvered his naked testicles and rectum directly onto her face” with his penis on top of her head. She pushed him away and later called a crisis hotline.

In the transcript, obtained by ESPN, Naughright said she was sexually assaulted by a “very well known public figure,” worried about her job and her safety, sensed there would be a coverup. She alluded to how the rape of a female athlete a year prior and another rape had been “covered up” and how her boss told her not to go to the police.

At first, Manning said nothing happened and UT considered it to be horseplay. But the athlete, runner Malcolm Saxon, said in a letter to Manning that became part of the court record that Manning did not moon him.

“I have never been on Jamie’s side or on your side,” Saxon wrote. “Peyton, you messed up. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not. But it was definitely inappropriate. Please take some personal responsibility here and own up to what you did. You have shown no mercy or grace to this lady who was on her knees seeing if you had a stress fracture. You might as well maintain some dignity and admit to what happened. Your celebrity doesn’t mean that you can treat folks this way.”

Naughright — who said she was asked to blame the incident on another athlete, who was black — sued UT, citing numerous examples of sexual harassment during her years as a trainer, including an offensive nickname bestowed on her by her boss. She was asked to leave UT, with a $300,000 settlement. She and Manning signed a confidentiality agreement. He apologized.

In 2001, when she was working at Florida Southern College, Manning chose to bring up the incident again, in a book by Manning and his father in which he said she had a “vulgar mouth” and should have laughed off the whole thing as crude but harmless. She sued for defamation and won another settlement. A Polk County judge said he doubted Manning was telling the truth and four UT athletes disagreed with Manning’s depictions of Naughright.

What the 19-year-old Manning did could be dismissed as a prank unless it happened to you or a woman you care about — your sister, mother, girlfriend, wife. Then it’s not so funny or juvenile but demeaning and threatening.

Whether Manning made physical contact with Naughright remains in dispute, because Naughright did not provide a detailed description until 2003. But it’s clear Manning’s misconduct was covered up and he was protected. It was another example of an athlete receiving a pass, and using his status to crush and belittle someone not as famous.

The focus on Manning now, 20 years later, unfortunately detracts from the more important scope of the lawsuit by six women against UT for enabling a culture of indifference. Women across the nation are standing up to say enough with the preferential treatment of athletes in a macho culture that excuses sexual harassment or assault as “boys will be boys” or “she asked for it.” The assumption that women are no more than groupies smitten by jocks isn’t just insultingly archaic; it’s dangerous. Universities have belatedly realized that rape isn’t drunken debauchery but a serious crime occurring on their campuses.

The Manning case forces us to look at the All-American hero from a different angle. Super Bowl-losing quarterback Cam Newton was criticized in the wake of the game for expressing his frustration. But at least he was being genuine, and honest.

Linda Robertson: 305-376-3496, @lrobertsonmiami