February 17, 2016

While at a family event in Chicago this weekend, Christine Brennan started getting texts about a column she’d written in 2003 about football icon Peyton Manning. Its headline: “Do You Really Know Your Sports Hero?”

“I remembered writing the column but not all the circumstances,” Brennan, a columnist for USA TODAY sports, recalled Monday. A former colleague, Mel Antonen (now at Sports Illustrated), had written a news story several days earlier back then based on serious allegations against Manning. She had followed with a column.

But why was it coming back now? It turns out that 13 years after Antonen and Brennan had both written about allegations of sexual assault against Manning while he was a University of Tennessee student and football star, the same basic allegations resurfaced in a long New York Daily News sort-of expose by Shaun King.

King was chagrined at what he deems a double standard in assessing the reputations of a black quarterback, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, and the white Manning. He’d received via social media a reference to the allegations versus Manning, so he did some research and learned about a dispute that Manning at the time characterized mere “mooning.”

It was, he concluded, perhaps a far more outrageous act toward Dr. Jamie Naughright, who was at the time served as the associate athletic trainer for the Tennessee football program.

The claims also happen to be now found in a new lawsuit filed against the university by six former Tennessee students who allege a “hostile sexual environment” going back many years.

Manning and Naughright settled an initial lawsuit about the incident and agreed not to publicly discuss the matter. But she would later file, and also settle, a defamation lawsuit as a result of a book Manning and his father, Archie, wrote. It included disparaging comments about her in alluding to the college incident (they wrote that she had “a vulgar mouth”). All that was detailed by King in The Daily News article that was not very sympathetic toward Peyton Manning.

Brennan is one of the best at her craft, a stellar graduate of the Medill School of Journalism and a superior reporter. Her specialties include the Olympic Games, and she is a regular television presence on CNN and ABC. Her 2003 column was characteristically engaging, careful and firm.

It concluded, “So you’re a sports fan, and you want to believe and, for quite a few years, you’ve had many wonderful thoughts about Peyton Manning. They’re still there, but now something else is there, too. You thought you knew the guy. Turns out you’re still learning.”

King of the New York Daily News referenced the column in his long piece, and that prompted tons of attention social media. The Washington-based Brennan had trouble finding her original piece (as did I). She finally took screenshots of pages on LexisNexis and, when a CNN producer found a link to the piece, posted all on Twitter over the next two days.

Had she thought about the column and the issues it presented in recent years?

After all, the implications for Manning’s sterling public image are obvious if Naughtright’s version of what happened are more accurate than Manning’s. And, by coincidence, they now meld with an Al Jazeera America report that alleges he’s received human growth hormone. In what Brennan agrees was a distinctly underreported admission, Manning spokesman Ari Fleischer, a former White House spokesman, concedes Manning’s wife received by mail a medication he declines to identify from the Indianapolis, Indiana clinic investigated by Al Jazeera. Manning vigorously denies the thrust of the report.

“Yeah, sure I had thought about it,” Brennan said. “At the Super Bowl, I did at least one show, maybe two, when I was asked about Manning’s legacy. I mentioned at least twice that as we look at the totality of his career, of course, there is the quote unquote ‘mooning’ episode and allegations that it was not mooning at all. And that people can look that up, google it, and make your own decisions on that.”

So she’d not forgotten but moved on. It’s a reality many journalists live with. You work hard, give a story or column your best shot, then get on with things. Sometimes you have less impact than you had hoped, perhaps sometimes more. And USA TODAY’s average daily circulation back then was a stunning 2.2 million, so it wasn’t as if she’d written in obscurity. The episode was, if nothing else, a reminder of the helter-skelter attention spans of the press and American society.

“It’s up to people to be interested, care about it, or not care about it,” she said. “It’s their call. I moved on to the next column the next week and, well, hundreds of columns later, here we are.”

So it certainly was not as if she had ignored it, even if the radio talks shows that sought her Monday might have perhaps assumed this was a new tale.

“It was a story hiding in plain sight for basically 20 years,” she said. “So I’m fascinated by the turn of events over the last few days.”

For sure, somewhere in the mix is probably the world of social media, which didn’t exist at the time. And, of more recent vintage, there is the national attention paid to the domestic violence case against former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. It’s why it might be hard to envision the much-assumed post-Super Bowl victory retirement announcement by Manning anytime soon. The gathering might well be dominated by questions about whether a very clean image is in some fundamental fashion unfounded and, in King’s analysis, built partly on lies.

“Everything is now looked at in the prism of a post-Ray Rice world, where people are far less forgiving, especially of any domestic violence or hostility toward a woman.”

If she had any doubt about changed societal circumstances — which a very sophisticated reporter really does not — they were dispelled with messages from women who would not normally contact her about sports.

“One college friend wrote, ‘Peyton Manning, really?'” Brennan said.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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