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Peyton Manning under new scrutiny over old sexual assault claims

February 18, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
After his team’s Super Bowl 50 victory weeks ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning seemed headed for a storybook finish to his career. But new scrutiny has brought attention to old allegations that he committed sexual assault as a student at the University of Tennessee. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As the Super Bowl came to a close less than two weeks ago, quarterback Peyton Manning seemed to be heading toward a storybook ending to his long career, as his Denver Broncos won the big game.

But right around the same time, old allegations were raised anew, and with a much higher profile this time, about whether Manning may have committed a sexual assault during his college career.

Manning has long denied it, but he and his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, are under new scrutiny.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The allegation against Manning is that, in 1996, while a female associate trainer was examining his foot for an injury, he dropped his shorts and sat on her head and face. Manning denied this in a memoir he released, saying he was only mooning a male athlete, and the trainer simply was nearby.

But a recent column and investigation in The New York Daily News raised this again. The article also published court documents from a 2003 defamation lawsuit against Manning. And Manning is named in a new lawsuit that says the University of Tennessee has fostered a culture that enables sexual assaults by student athletes.

Christine Brennan is a sports columnist for USA Today and a commentator for ABC News who wrote about Manning’s history in 2003 and again this week. She joins me tonight from Atlanta.

So, Christine, is this now coming up again because just a couple of weeks ago, there were 100 hungry reporters covering the Super Bowl, putting Peyton Manning and everybody else under the microscope?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: It’s a fascinating story, Hari.

And it really, I think, speaks to the power of social media. Of course, back in 2003, when I wrote about this, and USA Today did cover this story, there was no Twitter, there was no Facebook. And, literally, an ember becomes a wildfire in a matter of a couple hours on a Saturday afternoon. That’s what happened with this story.

There certainly is the component of the Cam Newton story and then the backlash about people criticizing him. Now The New York Daily News dredges up and looks at the news about Peyton Manning, and here we are again, a 20-year-old story now back in the news, a fascinating journalistic look and how things can happen in our social media world, and also, I think, a look at a powerful, very popular family, the first family of football, the Mannings, and how they have perhaps engineered news over the years, and now a story that they cannot control.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Cam Newton story was about the allegation that he stole a laptop years and years ago, right?

But, besides the social media effect, did this first family of football try to suppress this or smear the person who made these allegations? What was the history? And why is that so important now?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Not with me. I never had any contact with the Manning family, never heard from them.

And, of course, if I had heard from anyone saying, don’t write this, I would have redoubled my efforts as a journalist to work on the story and write it. That would be the way I was trained, and that’s my sense of journalism.

But I understand, in one case, ESPN Radio host Paul Finebaum told me yesterday on the record that he received phone calls from Archie Manning, or at least one phone call, when he was a columnist in Birmingham, Alabama.

When Archie Manning, this great star from the Southeastern Conference, calls you, and you’re in Birmingham, Alabama, and says, please don’t write the story back in the ’90s, and it’s the Manning family, Paul Finebaum said he’s a little embarrassed now, but he said he didn’t write it, because he understood that that was a big thing.

I think that’s a big part of it. And I also think the fact is, you have got a lot of small towns in the Southeastern Conference, around the country. People love their college football. And I wish I could say that journalism would trump that, but that’s not always the case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

So, Peyton Manning has not responded to this most recent wave of accusations or this resurfacing of these accusations. Is there a consequence to this, because you turn on a TV these days, and he’s selling just about everything?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, and in one case, UltraViolet, a women’s rights group, has called on at least two of the sponsors to say drop him and cut ties — business ties.

I don’t know. It’s hard to — I think it’s important as journalists, Hari, to say what we know and say what we don’t know. I do not know what the future holds for Peyton Manning. I certainly know this is not the way he wanted to exit the NFL, if, in fact, he’s retiring.

This is the last thing he wanted…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sure.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: … because his legacy today, his reputation today is more tarnished than it has ever been.

But, for the future, I think there is certainly a chance he can rehabilitate himself. But if he’s going to retire, he’s going to have to meet the press, and he’s going to have to answer some of these questions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a bit about the Title IX investigation that was happening at the University of Tennessee. I mentioned it briefly. But that’s a bigger case than just Peyton Manning.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, it is, yes.

Last summer, there were 124 schools that were under investigation from the Education Department on issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Were they doing enough to find these things out and to deal with them, 124 universities?

So, the University of Tennessee is not alone. And people might remember that I think the most famous one has been the Florida State story with Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner a couple of years ago.

So, this is a problem throughout our country, the fact that our universities do not seem to have a grasp on how to look at sexual assault, deal with it, adjudicate it. And that’s what — the Tennessee story, and that’s where they have cited Peyton Manning in this case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Christine Brennan from USA Today joining us from Atlanta today, thank you.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Hari.

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