What really happened between Peyton Manning and a female trainer on a now-scandalous day at the University of Tennessee? Most likely, we’ll never truly know. But that won’t slow the masses from playing judge and jury with Manning’s legacy. (Mark Humphrey/1997 AP)

Manning case: Why assume when you don’t know?

In a country where only 19 percent of working-age Americans have four-year college degrees and just 39 active lawyers are serving every 10,000 residents, tell me: Is it any surprise that so many people don’t understand the law?

I’m including any number of opportunists in the purportedly well-educated mainstream sports media. They see 20-year-old allegations resurface against Peyton Manning — who wasn’t charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one — and decide to ride that seductive traffic-bait speed train to social-media fame (heh) and riches (heh).

How nice if they’d have done more than cursory homework before assuming that Manning, who already is dealing with a human growth hormone report that seems dubious, committed sexual assault and smooth-talked his way out of it. That would make better use of any sharpened social conscience, rather than drawing the same (fill in the blank) conclusions about another (fill in the blank) troubled athlete. Thankfully, sporting culture has advanced considerably in America since the caveman era; I recall being hazed as a young reporter in a pile of slop in a big-league baseball clubhouse, and I’ve seen female reporters subjected to despicable treatment that altered their lives.

That being said, the media judges still must be fair and principled before assuming what might have happened in 1996 — unless, of course, they were in the training room that day in Knoxville, Tenn., which I doubt.

Last week, a New York tabloid that admittedly is trying to headline-screech its way into renewed relevance published sworn testimony from a case when Manning was a 19-year-old quarterback at the University of Tennessee. While being examined for an injured foot, Manning was accused by the female trainer treating him, 27-year-old Jamie Whited, of pulling down his shorts without provocation and “forcefully maneuvering his naked testicles and rectum directly” onto her face. Manning claimed he was “mooning” a male cross-country runner in the same training room area. The runner, Malcolm Saxon, originally sided with Manning, then testified in a sworn affidavit that Manning participated in an act more offensive than mooning but stopped short of saying he’d made contact with the trainer, now known as Dr. Jamie Naughright.

“Bro, you have tons of class,” Saxon wrote in the statement, “but you have shown no mercy or grace to this lady who was on her knees seeing if you had a stress fracture. … You might as well maintain some dignity and admit to what happened. … Your celebrity doesn’t mean you can treat folks that way.”

The university, entrenched in the Deep South football-as-religion money machine, gave Naughright a $300,000 settlement when she left her position in 1997. Three years later, Manning unwisely downplayed the episode in a book he co-authored with his father, Archie. “It seemed like something she’d have laughed at, considering the environment, or shrugged off as harmless. Crude, maybe, but harmless,” Peyton Manning wrote. The book passage prompted Naughright to sue Manning for defamation, resulting in a confidential settlement in 2003, yet in her complaint, she did not claim specifically that Manning placed his testicles and rectum onto or in her face, saying his actions went “beyond the pale.”

Is it possible Manning forcefully maneuvered his naked testicles and rectum directly onto, in or near Naughright’s face?

Yes, and if he did, Manning should be disgraced for life as yet another entitled college jock who got away with a serious crime.

Is it possible Naughright, sensing two opportunities to cash in against a public figure, embellished the training room story to strengthen her case and win ample legal rewards?

Yes, and if she did, Naughright should issue a public apology to Manning and return her legal damages to Manning and the university.

But here’s where common sense takes over and shallow media attention-seekers should be ashamed and heed these six words:

You have no idea what happened.

So if you have no idea what happened, how do you have the gall to take either side in this he-said/she-said marathon — against Manning or against Naughright — without doing a shred of investigative work beyond what the New York Daily News produced in publishing a one-sided document provided by Naughright’s attorney?

“Peyton Manning’s legacy has been indelibly tainted,” analyst Skip Bayless said on ESPN.

This would be the same ESPN that reiterated the other day, after the Manning story broke, that it has entered the fray against NBC, CBS and Fox to hire Manning as a commentator. Obviously, his legacy hasn’t been indelibly tainted in the minds of those who sign Bayless’ check, which suggests none of the networks will be vetting Manning’s past when fiercely competing for his services — disturbing and hypocritical in its own right.

Unlike the Ray Rice case, in which two videos revealed all we needed to know about his abhorrent guilt in an elevator, the Manning case involves no visual evidence. Had it happened now, a video camera likely would have captured the scene and exposed exactly what he did or didn’t do. But this happened in 1996, and chances are, though it would be vital to know for the record as he almost surely heads into retirement as the NFL’s all-time prolific quarterback, we’ll never get the answers we want.

So please don’t guess or pretend to know, not that my pleas will stop amateurs who make the Internet such a trash bin.

For football reasons alone, Manning would be a fool to come back next season. He can’t throw anymore, and the Denver Broncos won in Santa Clara in spite of him. As his very smart mother said after the game, why risk more injuries — after four neck surgeries and other aliments in recent seasons — when he can go out on top with his second Vince Lombardi Trophy? Would he really want to spend one final season with the Rams, in Los Angeles, where he wouldn’t make the playoffs while throwing more quail interceptions and angering the team’s new fan base?

Knowing Manning, he’d prefer to announce his retirement after the NFL, working with the World Anti-Doping Agency, releases findings of an investigation into his alleged HGH link. That way, no one can say he was running away from the juice police. Problem is, the Broncos need a quick decision so they can move forward with other offseason contract needs. So any day now, he will release a statement saying he’s leaving the game. If he indeed used HGH, the revelation would — and should — tarnish the way we remember him. But again, don’t assume until you know more.

It’s stunning how so many elite quarterbacks, having had power over their profession and their lives for so long, lose control at the end of their fairy tales. Sports Illustrated published only a partial list. Brett Favre went out ugly, accused in a sexting scandal reported by a sleazy website. Tom Brady is awaiting results of a league appeal over Deflategate. Joe Montana was traded by the 49ers to Kansas City, where he didn’t go out in glory. Dan Marino, who never won a Super Bowl, lost his final game by 55 points in the playoffs. Steve Young was battered. Phil Simms was dumped shortly after shoulder surgery. Troy Aikman was released so the Cowboys wouldn’t have to pick up a contract extension. Jim Kelly, who since has conquered cancer, never returned to football after leaving a playoff game with a concussion.

The Manning circumstance is more about popularity. He has been the aw-shucks, goofball uncle who made a fortune as a commercial spokesman for countless products, such as the pizza and insurance ads in heavy rotation in recent seasons. Is he the latest example of sports image fraud: We thought we knew him but really didn’t? Is he far worse than Tiger Woods, who was scandalized by bimbos but never accused of sexual assault?

It would take a public confession by Manning to ever reach the point of no return. And if he has stood by his story for 20 years, and stood by his HGH denials for weeks, his stance won’t be changing on either front. Nor should it, seeing how he never has been charged with a crime.

Legacies are compelling fodder for commentators and columnists. But like voting procedures for halls of fame, the immortality arbiters better be deadbolt-lock-certain before assigning guilt. At last count, ESPN has run four website opinion pieces that have come down harshly on Manning, making it more awkward if he’s introduced as the network’s new star on “Monday Night Football.”

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

archie manningdan marinoDenver BroncosHGHjamie naughrightjamie whitedJay Mariottijim kellyJoe MontanaKansas City Chiefsmalcolm saxonMonday Night Footballpeyton ManningRay RiceSan Francisco 49ersSanta Claraskip baylessSteve YoungSuper Bowl 50Tiger WoodsTom Bradytroy aikmanuniversity of tennessee

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