Peyton Manning’s Last Audible

How He Could Respond to Sexual Assault Allegations, But Won’t

Manning at the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory parade

Last Sunday, my wife and I sat — ok, I was standing — on our couch in our house in Denver, deliriously happy that the Broncos bested the Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50. I was wearing a knock-off orange t-shirt, with an “18” on the back, and the letters “NFL” in its familiar shield supplanted with “PFM” on the front. My dog was wearing the same shirt, because we apparently are those people.

Peyton Fucking Manning.

It’s been a familiar refrain in Broncos country for the last four seasons for all the reasons that have already been exhaustively covered. Manning was brought in for presumably the final chapter of his record-setting career, perhaps to close it out with a second title, which is exactly what he did. Thanks in no small part to Von Miller and a vicious defense.

While sports commentators lavished all the praise they could muster onto Manning for this storybook ending, the inevitable backlash began almost immediately, as tales of Manning’s past transgressions popped up all over social media. It started with commentary about how little he contributed to this Super Bowl run, which is kind of true. But still. Then there was the racially-tinged counter-responses to media backlash about Cam Newton’s post-game press conference, highlighting that Manning too has also acted like a sore loser after past playoff losses. Which is also true.

And then there was the one that caught my eye.

Peyton Manning’s Forgotten Sex Scandal

I had never heard about this before, so I clicked on the article, and read in utter discomfort and contempt.

Manning and I are about six months apart in age, with a similar trajectory west — from Indiana to Colorado. I’ve always loved football, though I grew up a rabid Chicago Bears fan. I liked Manning okay, but was not a huge fan until I briefly lived in Indianapolis in the early 2000s. After that I committed sports bigamy and turned my fandom to the Colts. Years later, after watching Manning’s record-setting season and Super Bowl runs, seeing his devastating neck injury, and reading about his remarkable comeback, I couldn’t help but be excited about his arrival in Denver.

With the Broncos, he seemed to be a wiser, less petulant, more at-ease version of himself. He talked with gratitude about playing football, and expressed great appreciation for those around him. He sounded and played like a good teammate, an old pro among the young, hungry guys. He ingratiated himself to Denver and its fans. His foundation provided several local nonprofits with sizable donations, a continuation of his community work in Indy. And his omnipresent commercials were occasionally funny, if not endearing.

More recently, I fell hard for the myth-building around Manning, about his presumed “last rodeo,” rooting for him to go out on top.

Two days ago, Shaun King wrote a story for the New York Daily News that reports several things. That Manning, while a player at the University of Tennessee, dropped his pants and shoved his junk into the face of a female trainer, Dr. Jamie Naughright, while she was attempting to diagnose a foot injury. That Dr. Naughright, who had already endured years of sexual harassment at Tennessee, immediately reported the assault. That Manning initially denied any of it ever happened. That Dr. Naughright’s boss at Tennessee was complicit in concocting a different version of events that happened. That years later, Manning, his father, Archie, and their ghostwriter attacked Dr. Naughright’s character in a book, which led to the termination of her job at the time at Florida Southern College. That an ensuing lawsuit filed by Dr. Naughright was ultimately settled. And that, even though pieces of this story had been previously reported, USA Today never released nor published the court documents in question, for reasons unknown.

Subsequent news stories have reported that Manning is named as part of a new federal lawsuit filed by six women against the University of Tennessee, alleging a “long-standing severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes.” Dave Zirin writes about how all this connects to Manning:

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.

Following the initial stories about Manning’s alleged assault, Emma Span, senior editor at Sports Illustrated tweeted, “It’s not only possible, but also very freeing, to love watching an athlete play without feeling compelled to defend him on a personal level.”

That too was my reaction to the stories about Manning. He probably did it, I thought. And he probably did lots of other bad stuff. That’s how I felt after years of watching Lance Armstrong race bikes, and growing up watching Michael Jordan play basketball.

An incredible athlete? Sure. A good guy? Maybe, but probably not. A human who made some awful choices and maybe did bad things? Likely.

I’ve long maintained that people who excel to that degree, who are that driven and that tenacious — be it in sports, politics, business, or anything else — are probably not great humans. This doesn’t absolve them from the consequences of their actions — that’s taken care of by the complicit institutions and systemic inequities that help enable them. The degree of power and entitlement that comes with such positions is at best dangerous, and, if unchecked, can be outright destructive.

So no, I don’t feel compelled to defend Manning at all. Behind the good guy, squeaky clean image, he might be a monster for all we know. But I do feel compelled to challenge him and anybody else to take responsibility for his actions, to speak up against misogyny, harassment, and sexual assault. Because if someone from such a privileged perch as a rich, white member of American football royalty won’t speak out against such horrible actions at an individual and institutional level, who can who would actually make a difference?

Maybe it is false. Maybe Peyton Manning didn’t pull down his pants and put his crotch on a female trainer’s face. Maybe he didn’t re-enact what he called “a prank” in front of her. Maybe didn’t call her a bitch. Maybe it really was a a joke that went awry. Maybe he was just mooning another athlete and inadvertently put himself and an innocent bystander in an inappropriate situation.

Maybe his family didn’t use its influence to try to squash the story. Maybe the Tennessee athletic department didn’t cut the student-athlete eligibility of the one athlete who may have witnessed the alleged assault. Maybe big-time college football isn’t as corrupt as we all assume. Maybe these athletic programs, campus security, and local police don’t go to great lengths to cover up academic cheating, sexual assaults, rape, and other crimes.

Then again, maybe not.

When my wife and I first saw the reports about the allegations, she immediately said regardless of what actually happened, Manning should come out and apologize, say he was young and dumb, take full responsibility for his actions, and demand better from his peers and the institutions around him. And she could not be more right.

Imagine if that’s how Manning responded. Imagine how that might change the narrative about the plague of sexual assault, domestic violence, and misogyny within the most popular pro sport in the country. Imagine how it might influence the institutional reactions within college sports to the dehumanizing epidemic of violence against women.

Imagine if, instead of hiding behind bullshit victim-blaming, he took responsibility for what he did. Imagine if he called out his own actions, his own family, his alma mater, and the entire football industrial complex itself for their complicity. Imagine if, instead of silence and opacity, we heard the transparent thoughts and regrets of a future Hall of Famer who did something truly stupid and horrible twenty years ago.

Imagine if, instead of disappearing into the anonymity of retirement, Manning called out his own contributions to validating casual sexism and systemic misogyny as the norm, and condemned the institutional forces that helped enable him.

Even if the least horrible version of what happened is true — that he mooned a teammate and inadvertently exposed himself to a female professional trainer — imagine what good could come from him taking full responsibility and issuing an unconditional apology.

It wouldn’t just be a smart PR move. It would be the right thing to do. And it would help upend the code of silence that exists in boys clubs everywhere, be it NFL teams, college football programs, sports media, suburban office parks, and any other male-dominated venue that undermines and attacks women who are brave enough to be a part of it.

Before he walks off into the sunset of his much-lauded football career, Manning could do one more thing that’s seldom if ever been done before: put his own reputation on the line for something far bigger and more important than his own legacy.

He won’t. But he could.