They won’t like it. It’s not what they’re used to. But things are changing fast at Michigan State, for trustees, administrators, the athletic department, even cornerstone coaches like Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo.
They’ll either change with it, or be gone.
In the harsh light of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, everyone is wondering how this went on so long. But remember, harsh light is not the norm in this world.
Secrecy is built into college athletics, particularly big-time football and basketball. Practices are closed. Travel is team-only. Injury information is shielded like nuclear codes. And under the guise of “protecting” the student-athletes, contact with the media is extremely limited. You can’t just phone a college player. You can’t chat one up in the training room. Try it, and your access is pulled.
Big-time college sports, even at public universities, have enjoyed a non-public responsibility for decades. And when you get to wear a cloak of secrecy, you start to think you can control information.
So a call from campus police about an incident involving a star athlete — police who are sometimes sympathetic to the local sports program — can be kept private. Discipline can be kept internal. Wrongdoing can stay “in the family.” Even getting kicked off the team can be done with a one-sentence explanation:
“Joe X was dismissed for disciplinary reasons.”
This is the world that college coaches and athletic directors have gotten used to.
At least it’s over at Michigan State. The walls are coming down there faster than Jericho. A week ago, there were votes of confidence. Today, President Lou Anna Simon is gone. Athletic director Mark Hollis is gone. Others will follow. And the trumpet that felled them was the quivering voices of more than 150 accusers and family members whom judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed to speak in her courtroom.
Day after day, we watched a grim parade of brave young women detailing abuse that would make any feeling person scream. It was extraordinary. It shook the world.
And now the world is demanding to know who else knew, who did nothing, and worst of all, who covered something up.
Under such scrutiny, it only takes one thread to pull apart a cloak. That thread already exists, in the form of two letters concerning a young woman named Amanda Thomashow, who, in 2014, went to Nassar for hip pain, and endured him groping her private parts, despite her telling him to stop.
She had the courage to complain to MSU, which started a Title IX investigation concurrent with a police investigation. Somehow, choosing to rely on employees who were close with Nassar, MSU cleared him of any wrongdoing and concluded that Thomashow didn’t understand the “nuanced difference” between abuse and medical treatment.
That’s bad enough. But Thomashow got one document and the university got another, with an extra 205 words that basically said “medically sound or not” Nassar’s procedures opened the school to potential lawsuits, so they should change the way things are done.
That’s guilt, folks.
And it’s just the start. A former MSU gymnast, Lindsey Lemke, told ABC’s “20/20” that her coach tried “to scare me so I wouldn’t speak up” about Nassar’s abuse. There’s two accusations of cover-up. With Nassar allegedly abusing more than 150 victims, do you really think we’re done?
No. This is just getting started. MSU will be sued for tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions. And it is now in the eye of the furious public, which means no patience, no tolerance, guilt assumed before innocence.
This may lead to unfair conclusions. But in the college world of enrollment and recruiting, perception is reality.
So when ESPN last week came out with a report detailing sexual assault incidents in the football and basketball programs, it was lumped under the “something’s seriously wrong at MSU” umbrella.
Doesn’t matter that these charges were, in some cases, 8 or 9 years old. Like I said, fairness is out the window.
And Dantonio and Izzo need to understand that. They need to accept the old way of “we know what we’re doing” will get you fired. Even a whiff of cover-up is too much. Sexual assault, abuse and harassment are explosive issues in America today. And sadly, while Nassar showed how rampant they can be in women’s sports, we already know they’re a serious problem in men’s sports.
Simon is gone for a reason. Hollis, despite his claims, is gone for the same reason. The NCAA is coming. Michigan’s attorney general is coming. The federal government is coming. The eyes of the world are here.
Better open the doors. Answer the questions. Report any and all wrongdoings. No hushed calls from authorities. No hiding behind protecting the kids, when you’re really protecting your program.
Otherwise, your head is on a stick. Dantonio and Izzo can talk all they want about not quitting. But they’re smart guys. They can see that, in this climate, it’s no longer their choice.
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Readers may write to him at: Detroit Free Press, 600 West Fort Street, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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