East Lansing — MSU trustee Joel Ferguson chuckled recently when asked if he was worried the school would be investigated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“This is not Penn State,” he told a Lansing radio show.
One day later, the NCAA said it would investigate the university, just as it had done with Penn State in 2012. The day after that, Lou Anna Simon resigned under pressure as president of MSU, just as Penn State President Graham Spanier had done in 2011.
Each day seems to bring a new development that inexorably links the two schools’ experiences with a pedophile running amok in their athletic programs, legal experts say.
At Penn State, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys.
At Michigan State, sports doctor Larry Nassar has been convicted of molesting nine girls during supposed medical treatment. Thus far, 265 victims have accused him of abuse.
“It’s Penn State all over again,” said Scott Tompsett, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in NCAA infraction cases.
The similarity doesn’t end with the sexual abuse, lawyers say. It continues with the way the schools responded to the allegations.
Spanier and other Penn State administrators had known about Sandusky’s behavior for 11 years before it ended, according to the school’s internal investigation.
At least 14 MSU officials, including Simon, had received complaints about Nassar over 20 years, The Detroit News reported last month. The abuse continued two decades after the original complaints.
A tale of two schools
But there was a point where the paths of the two schools dramatically diverged, say lawyers familiar with both cases.
When Penn State examined its handling of the Sandusky complaints, it hired an independent investigator who produced a damning, 250-page report.
MSU also performed an internal review but hired a former federal prosecutor who also was charged with defending the school against voluminous lawsuits.
The MSU lawyer, former U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, said school officials didn’t know about Nassar’s abuse until it was reported in the media in 2016, which was contradicted by The News’ story. Fitzgerald produced no report.
The school did an about-face last month and asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to do a criminal investigation, which is now underway.
John Manley, a California lawyer who represents more than 100 Nassar victims, lauded Penn State’s investigation and said Michigan State had a chance to do the same, but it dropped the ball.
“All this has been hidden from view,” he said about MSU’s review. “It’s time for a real investigation to find out who knew what when.”
On Jan. 26, Schuette’s office for the first time confirmed it had an “ongoing investigation.” The next day the Republican attorney general, who is running for governor, selected former Kent County prosecutor Bill Forsyth to be the special independent prosecutor on the MSU Nassar probe.
The NCAA used Penn State’s probe to impose sanctions against the school. One week after the punishment in 2012, Simon became chairwoman of the organization’s executive committee.
In words that would come back to haunt her, Simon criticized Penn State for mistakes she called purposeful, pervasive and premeditated.
“The right thing is saying something when you see something, and doing something after you said something,” she said in 2012. “It’s really that simple.”
Joe O’Dea, an attorney for Penn State, declined to compare the burgeoning scandal at MSU with the one at his school.
Jason Cody, who was Michigan State spokesman until last week, last month rejected any comparison, saying Penn State had ignored the abuse complaints while MSU responded to theirs in 2016.
Sandusky and Nassar once both enjoyed gilded reputations.
Sandusky was known for his defensive acumen, molding some of the best linebackers in college history. Nassar was so accomplished he also worked for USA Gymnastics, treating Olympic gold medal winners.
The glittering facades dissolved into sordid nightmares. Both men will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Sandusky, 74, was sentenced in 2012 to 30 to 60 years in prison.
Nassar, 54, was sentenced last month to 40 to 175 years in prison. He already had received a 60-year sentence for having child pornography and is awaiting punishment for more sexual abuse charges.
Both schools are accused of turning a blind eye to the molesters in their midst.
In 2001, three Penn State administrators and fabled football coach Joe Paterno concealed a report that Sandusky sexually abused a boy, according to the independent investigation.
The probe, conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh, uncovered emails that showed the officials planned to report Sandusky to child welfare but changed their minds after Paterno met with athletic director Tim Curley.
Instead, they banned Sandusky from bringing children to the school and informed Sandusky’s charity about the incident.
The reason Penn State didn’t report Sandusky was to avoid bad publicity for the school and football team, according to Freeh’s report. Four of the 10 sexual assaults by Sandusky occurred after the officials’ inaction.
“(It was a) callous and shocking disregard for child victims,” Freeh said in the report.
MSU’s Nassar record
As for Michigan State, the investigation by The News found that among the 14 officials who received complaints about Nassar were athletic trainers, assistant coaches, a university police detective and a person who is now the school’s assistant general counsel.
And, of course, Simon. She learned in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and police report had been filed against one of the university’s doctors.
The school’s Title IX investigator, who consulted with four doctors and trainers who knew Nassar, concluded Nassar’s treatment was medically sound during an investigation into one of the complaints, according to documents reviewed by The News.
But the investigator in her report to the school said Nassar’s treatment was exposing patients to unnecessary trauma and opening the school to possible liability. Those concerns weren’t contained in the report given to the complainant.
“The parallels are obvious, but the differences are stark,” said Ada attorney Chris Hastings about the MSU and Penn State cases.
“Michigan State not only had notice but was a year and a half into an investigation before they took any step toward protecting the people.”
About to get hotter for MSU
After the release of Freeh’s Penn State report in 2012, the fallout was fast.
The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, yanked 30 football scholarships, barred it from postseason play for four years and vacated 112 of Paterno’s victories.
But the organization had stepped into muddy waters, legal experts say. As the governing board of intercollegiate athletics, it normally limited its oversight to infractions directly related to sports, such as recruiting offenses.
Critics of the sanctions said the NCAA had overstepped its bounds.
After a lawsuit by Penn State supporters in 2014, the organization backed down. It restored the scholarships, rescinded the postseason ban and restored the victories.
By responding to the sexual abuse at Penn State, the NCAA has now painted itself into a corner, said Dave Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, a college sports watchdog.
If the organization acts against MSU, its authority could be challenged, said Ridpath. If it does nothing, it will look like it doesn’t care about young female athletes.
“They almost feel like they’re forced to do something,” Ritpath said.
The Penn State imbroglio also led to criminal charges against senior school administrators.
Spanier, Curley and Gary Schultz, the school’s senior vice president for finance and business, were charged with child endangerment. They had all known about the 2001 allegation against Sandusky but failed to do anything, said police.
Paterno died in 2012.
Curley and Schultz pleaded guilty last year and served three months and two months in jail, respectively.
Spanier, who fought the charge, was found guilty last year and sentenced to two months in jail and two months of house arrest. He remains free while he appeals the sentence.
As for Michigan State, the criminal investigation has just begun. And the lawsuits continue to grow as more victims join the civil fight in federal court.
Neil Wolf, a Chicago area attorney who once was general counsel for Benedictine University, said MSU’s fight over its handling of Nassar is about to heat up.
“The litigation is going to get hotter, bigger, more intense and more complicated,” he said.
Associated Press contributed.