“The Sheriff” has officially rode off into the sunset. Peyton Manning announced his retirement at a press conference in Denver on Monday, March 7. Choking up from the first word, his speech was as immaculately prepared as he was on the field. Manning went through his progression: from being the prodigal son of Archie Manning, former quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, to star QB at the University of Tennessee, to his record-setting years in Indianapolis and Denver. He never failed to mention his teammates, coaches and influential figures throughout his illustrious career. What he did neglect to bring up were the two controversies swirling over his bulbous forehead.
Six women have filed Title IX lawsuits against the University of Tennessee after the school allegedly mishandled sexual assault cases, claiming “deliberate indifference and a clearly unreasonable response after a sexual assault” has brought additional unwarranted harassment. The suit features a 1996 case against Peyton Manning, toting it as a key example of negligence. He allegedly rubbed his exposed genitals and anus on Dr. Jamie Naughright, the university’s director of health and wellness at the time, while she examined his foot. As part of a settlement agreement, Naughright received $300,000 and was dismissed by the university while Manning was asked to run a few extra laps at practice; both parties also signed a confidentiality agreement. This was all detailed in a lengthy Daily News article by Shaun King published less than a week after Manning’s victory in the 2016 Super Bowl.
In it, he dismantles Manning’s public persona of an “aw-shucks” Papa John’s pitchman. King received a 74-page court document from an anonymous source regarding the 2002 lawsuit between the plaintiff Naughright and defendants Manning, his father, ghostwriter John Underwood and HarperCollins Publishers. Peyton and Archie released a biography in 2001 chronicling America’s First Family of Football. Naughright, then a prominent faculty member at Florida Southern College, was frightened to see Xerox copies of the book in her office with excerpts lambasting her character, defaming her credibility and outright lying about her experience at Tennessee. Her supervisor, having read through the papers before she could clarify things, fired her from Florida Southern as Manning dragged her name through the mud in order to keep his image clean in the public’s eye.
Each of Manning’s former teammates at Tennessee who testified under oath rejected his claims of Naughright being a “vulgar”or promiscuous woman and in fact, hailed her professionalism around the student-athletes. The lawsuit was settled in 2003 under closed terms, but the two met in court again in 2005 after the airing of an ESPN documentary violated their earlier agreement. After they settled again, the scandal floated away into the ether until the most recent allegations against Tennessee brought it back into the social consciousness.
As Manning ended his powerful speech with the words, “God bless all of you and God bless football,” he took questions from reporters. Only one, USA Today’s Lindsay Jones, was willing to bring up the sexual assault case. Manning addressed it by plainly stated he “did not do what has been alleged and I am not interested in relitigating something that happened when I was 19 years old.” He evoked Forrest Gump by conclude his remarks with “that’s all I have to say about that.” Jones was bombarded by vitriolic Manning defenders on Twitter, throwing out the usual four-or-five letter words reserved for any woman with a platform. Supporters of Jones, such as NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe applauded her for doing her job as a journalist by asking the tough questions public figures like Manning should anticipate. He certainly was not flustered by it and gave the succinct answer one would expect from the five-time NFL MVP.
On December 27, Al Jazeera America aired a documentary investigation that linked Manning, along with Clay Matthews, Ryan Howard and other well-known athletes, to a performance-enhancing drug supplier named Charlie Sly. The pharmacist was not shy about his connections to these athletes when talking to Liam Collins, a British hurdler who wore a hidden camera for the investigative unit. Sly asserted that Manning’s wife Ashley received shipments of human growth hormone on behalf of her husband from the Guyer Institute, an Indianapolis clinic where Sly had worked, to an address in Florida in 2011 as Manning recovered from neck surgery. Sly recanted all of his statements after the report aired and Manning vehemently denied the claims days later, saying he was “angry, furious…disgusted is really how I feel, sickened by it.”
As if the football gods didn’t shine on him enough, three weeks after the explosive report on Manning, Al Jazeera America announced it will be shutting down by the end of April. CEO Al Anstey said the network is ceasing operations because its “business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.” When told of the news, Manning replied, “I’m sure that’s just devastating to all their viewers.”, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Neither the shuttering of a news corporation nor his retirement mark the end of this saga for Manning. The NFL plans on continuing their probe into the PED scandal with partnerships with the United States Anti-Doping Agency and Major League Baseball.
Peyton Manning will be remembered for his stature in the NFL and how he became synonymous with the word “football” for a generation of Americans. He ushered in a new style of quarterback play, emphasizing the subtlety and awareness needed to dissect a defense rather than shooting from the hip; his eventual enshrinement into the Hall of Fame is merely a formality. How the public perceives him, however, is far from set in stone.
Published in The Ticker