“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”
In case you missed it, here’s where we are – another nonstop week in the football world, even though it is the off-season. Across college campuses there is talk as well as premature speculation about top twenty-five rankings and national championships. High school players have committed to big time programs. And the NFL is gearing up for its annual college draft weekend in April.
It’s also another week filled with more allegations of sexual abuse by football players on college campuses - the same story that has wrapped itself around college programs and the NFL for the past few years, except this time it’s different. This time it’s not about Jameis Winston and FSU’s cover-up (and subsequent mishandling of the rape investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department) – this time it involves 5-time MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, and the University of Tennessee.
It’s been more than a week since New York Daily News writer Shaun King wrote that thirteen years ago, USA Today obtained 74 pages of explosive court documents on Peyton Manning, Archie Manning, the University of Tennessee, and Florida Southern College that revealed allegations of a sexual-assault scandal, cover up, and subsequent smear campaign of the victim. The allegations against Manning — which admittedly pale in comparison to many of the other allegations against athletes at UT — made it is clear that this is a systemic problem.
You can read King’s article (and links to the 74 page report) here
Since then, apologists have come screaming out of the woodwork with denials and excuses, using tired clichés like “it happened while he was in college”, that it was a “prank”, and “boys will be boys”. Like we’re supposed to dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse, Peyton’s lies, and his misogynistic attitudes towards women in the locker room as well as the University of Tennessee’s cover-up. Or that sexual misconduct and sexual violence have an expiration date. In the days since the story broke, some writers have called King’s ethnicity and motives into question – making him the center of the story instead of Peyton and his behavior. Coverage of the report has spiraled into seriously flawed discussions of the “crusade” against Manning’s legacy, dissections of how the media handled the incident 20 years ago, and debate over whether or not Manning’s genitals made actual contact with the victim’s face (seriously – this has been a conversation…..).
And then there is Peyton’s family - who even though they allege Manning didn’t do anything wrong, still went through the motions of discrediting the victim using both sexist and racist comments when the incident was first reported at UT. It was nothing more than a joke gone wrong; an immature student-athlete who accidentally mooned a female trainer while baring his ass to another male athlete. That's how Manning spun the incident, that's how most writers reported at it the time, and that's how most writers have written about it ever since.
These are the same people worried about Peyton’s legacy and the damage being done to his reputation because that is somehow more important than his actions. Actions and a despicable act committed by a 19-year old Manning that they tried excusing on immaturity, even though Manning subsequently defied court orders and continued disparaging the victim years later, exhibiting not only arrogance and vengeance, but a deeper, darker level of entitlement.
Ultimately, all of this completely misses the point. This isn’t — or shouldn’t be — about Manning’s legacy or the semantics used to describe his actions or the writer who delivered the story.
It’s about sexual abuse. Sexual misconduct. And a college cover-up.
It’s about the rape culture that permeates all aspects of our society, including the sacred institution of college football.
The way the victim of Manning’s sexual abuse says she was treated by the people in charge at the University of Tennessee (UT) speaks to deeper issues of rape culture in sports — the tendency to downplay stories from people who say they were sexually assaulted in order to protect athletes’ reputations at all costs - an environment where sexual violence in any form is excused.
“Complaints of sexual harassment are treated as jokes and efforts are made to protect the student athletes, and cover-up the complaint,” the victim’s complaint read.
This is about the toxic culture at UT (like too many other college athletic programs) over the decades — the constant efforts to cover up for athletes and dismiss women’s accusations have created an environment filled with sexual discrimination, alleged rapes, and a “horrible sexual environment and culture’. Manning’s actions happened in 1996. Twenty years later, a lawsuit has just been filed alleging that UT still favors prominent male athletes, and not only ignores but still covers up stories of women being harassed on campus. This past week, one football player at the University of Tennessee was arrested for punching and choking a woman. Another was arrested and charged on a number of child sex crimes. It’s about a university acting “with deliberate indifference in response to incidents of sexual assault.”
That deliberate indifference is what we should be talking about – not the impact of this story on Peyton’s legacy.
But too many people are willing to overlook facts, offer excuses, and leave the obvious questions unanswered. Is it because Peyton is a gifted quarterback? The poster boy for Nationwide and Papa John’s and a possible post-retirement job with the NFL network, with a cultivated image, and well-known for being an all-around good guy? Is it because he’s white? Or is it because we need a hero and we’re willing to overlook his crimes against women.
Will anyone remember this when Peyton Manning puts on his gold jacket for induction into the NFL Hall of Fame? His victim will. Victims of sexual crimes cannot forget what happened to them, put a spin on it, or leave it behind – pretending it never happened. But there will still be that Hall of Fame jacket—well-deserved based on what Manning accomplished on the football field—and there will still be people who want everyone to remember what a stand-up, moral man Peyton Manning is.
Except this week we learned that he’s not.
Our heroes aren’t supposed to be flawed. But when it turns out they are, we owe it to ourselves to face the truth – no matter how harsh and no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, we're doomed to make the same mistake the next time an athlete with an "gee whiz" attitude and a cannon-like arm does something that defies the narrative he’s crafted.
We will continue to turn the other way and deny those facts while the victims pay the price.