Why Should We Believe Greg Johnson, Peyton Manning's Long-Lost Star Witness?

In a report published yesterday on MMQB, the frankly bizarre emergence of a new witness after 20 years of silence is quickly abandoned in favor of talking about Manning's accuser, Jamie Naughright.
March 3, 2016, 10:15pm
Kind of a big deal. — Photo by Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Something has been bothering me since I first read this piece from MMQB's Robert Klemko on a new witness to the Peyton Manning-Jamie Naughright story and I've had a hard time putting my finger on what.

In the piece, Klemko introduces Greg Johnson, a former teammate and roommate of Peyton Manning's from his time at Tennessee who claims to have been in the training room when the incident between Manning and Naughright took place in February 1996. Johnson reportedly reached out to the Mannings after The Daily Beast and New York Daily News reignited this story last month, and the Manning camp, in turn, put Johnson in touch with Klemko.

Re @RobertKlemko's story on Manning/Naughright, he presented the facts. You decide who to believe.
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) March 3, 2016

To present the facts and let the reader decide is an admirable mission statement, but I don't know if that's what happened here. The frankly bizarre emergence of a new witness after 20 years of silence, which makes up the story's first act, is quickly abandoned in favor of talking about Naughright—or, to be more specific, recording a lot of (mostly negative) opinions about Jamie Naughright's character. There are very few facts or opinions on Greg Johnson, which makes the piece feel like it was reported if not directly from Manning's perspective, at least such that it skewed that way. Klemko acknowledged in the piece how and why Johnson came to be speaking into his recorder, but sometimes a reader needs to be hit over the head with a qualification. Even a simple sentence saying that this person—who no one has any recollection of being in the room, and who went unmentioned in the thousands of pages of documents from the various court cases and investigations stemming from the incident over the years—has a clear bias, would further the goal of letting the reader decide on credibility.

The facts, as MMQB presents them—and which have now been disputed by an ESPN report quoting teammate Kevin Horne, who was definitively in the room according to documentary evidence as well as Manning's and Naughright's own testimony—are these: Johnson claims he was in the room at the time of the incident, that Manning lowered his pants and he "saw one butt cheek," saw Manning pull his pants back up, and heard Naughright called him an ass. Johnson then left and "thought nothing of it." This description of the events has been publicly available for some time now, and does not necessarily put Johnson himself in the room. Maybe that's a skeptical interpretation, but given the totality of the context—Johnson's decades-long absence, his closeness to Manning, and the strikingly familiar account—the skepticism is warranted. It's also wholly absent from Klemko's story.

Instead, we're told Johnson was deployed in Iraq at the time of the 2003 lawsuit and was thus unavailable to offer his version of events. However, Johnson was back in the States in 2003, while the case was still being litigated: Tennessee's own website has a story on his return from August of that year. He returned in July, got married in Hawaii, and was even in the UT Athletic Department on August 7th.

A July 11, 2003, article reporting on the suit in the Lakeland Ledger indicated that several depositions had already taken place, including those of the Manning, Coach Philip Fulmer, and the Tennessee AD. None of this was hinted at in the piece, although Klemko later said on Twitter that Johnson "went back almost immediately" to Iraq. That's not much to go on for a mysterious, long-missing eyewitness, but that's all we're provided. Horne is never even mentioned. On the flipside, Klemko dives deep and shows his work in trying to assess Naughright's own character. The upshot there is this: she's not very well liked.

Here, the story includes another caveat:

The MMQB does not intend to suggest that Jamie Naughright's behavior before or after Feb. 29, 1996, in any way invalidates her claim against Manning. Even if all of these testimonials are 100% accurate, they don't speak to whether her allegations concerning Manning are truthful or untruthful. They do, however, provide necessary context to the public discussion of a case that, since the Daily News article went viral, has been lacking it.

In an auto-play video at the top of the post, Klemko explains his reporting and divulges that he spoke at length with Naughright off the record, hoping to get a response from her about the new account and the several quotes contained within the piece that border on character assassination. She declined.

Klemko also acknowledged that he was skeptical about Johnson's sudden appearance in the story—something he did not do in the text of his reporting—but found him to be a credible source; this is based, it seems, on the word of Fulmer, Tennessee's former coach and someone who, crucially, does not remember his involvement in the training-room incident. He vouched for Johnson nonetheless. What we're left with is a report that feels like it gives every benefit of the doubt to the Johnson/Manning side, and which allows the reader to make every horrible inference he or she can when judging Naughright's side, all in the name of providing "necessary context" that is not really necessary at all.

The bits pertaining to Naughright's character are most definitely relevant, but, like Johnson's account, are also nothing new. At this point in the saga, we know she is litigious, we know that she has been accused of being vulgar, and we know many people in the Tennessee athletic family do not like her—that's what happens when you sue people, and when one of those people is the program's premier icon. Unlike Johnson's account, however, these claims about Naughright are fleshed out in Klemko's piece with quotes from multiple sources, most of them bashing her. It's hard to see who this context serves. As a reader, I want to know about Johnson. I want to know how to trust this conveniently smoking gun I've never seen before. I want to know more than a friend of Peyton Manning's was out serving his country after 9/11 so that's why we're now just hearing from him.

In many ways, the framing of this and other stories like it is completely natural, even instinctual. When a person files a lawsuit, or alleges a wrong has been done, the response from the other side is typically "they're after something." There must be an ulterior motive, something beyond merely justice, that is the real cause of these allegations. When you are accused of something, you stand to lose something; fighting for what you believe is yours is a natural response.

Unfortunately, when the accused is a famous person, these cases don't just play out in an empty courtroom. They become news and, because most people don't know the person making the allegations, and do feel that they know the celebrity in question—because of their play on the field and self-effacing work in commercials and upstanding post-game press conferences and such—that celebrity overwhelmingly has the support of the public. And a funny thing happens: the observers, who are not so much fans as people who have kind of passively been exposed to this famous person a lot, also have that reflexively defensive response, and take up the cause for the celebrity. They too begin to speculate about ulterior motives. She's in it for the money, she wants to get famous, she has an axe to grind—you do not need to be accused of something to think this of an accuser.

And that, I think, is what has bothered me about the MMQB report. This piece not only fails to play it down the middle; it plays into the very worst of those impulses by simply lumping Johnson's story, with minimal context, into something that approaches character assassination against Naughright. It's especially confounding given the buried acknowledgement that none of it was meant to impugn her claims. But, if we're being honest, we can acknowledge that readers have already made up their minds at this point.

If the goal is to present the facts and let the reader decide, you'd think that, given the obvious reasons for skepticism, Klemko and his editors would want to explicitly hammer down Johnson's story and credibility. If they had done that, maybe they would have come across Kevin Horne's name in the record, and it would have been a part of their story, instead T.J. Quinn's at ESPN. Instead, the MMQB report is heavy on quotes and anecdotes reinforcing the very worst we've heard about Naughright, and very light on the very obvious questions surrounding Johnson's sudden reemergence and potential motivations. In the end, it didn't feel like a presentation of the facts. It felt like the continuation of a narrative, told from the winning side.