MSU’s head gymnastics coach resigns amid scandal

Kim Kozlowski, and Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Michigan State University’s head gymnastics coach resigned Tuesday, the same day a second woman came forward to accuse her of ignoring complaints of sexual abuse by a university sports doctor.

Kathie Klages’ departure after 27 seasons — described by her attorney and university Tuesday as a retirement — also comes a day after she was suspended with pay by the university.

Klages, 62, was accused in a civil lawsuit Tuesday of downplaying complaints against Dr. Larry Nassar, a former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who is under investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting dozens of athletes over several decades.

“Like many others, MSU Gymnastics Coach Kathie Klages is deeply disturbed by the recent allegations and lawsuits brought against Dr. Larry Nassar, Michigan State University, and others,” said Klages’ attorney, Shirlee Bobryk, in a statement.

“Although she is not a named defendant in any lawsuit, she is extremely distressed by the accusations that have been made about her creating any sort of impediment to gymnasts reporting complaints of criminal sexual conduct or sexually inappropriate behavior.”

Nassar, 53, is accused of abusing 35 young women over a 22-year period, from 1994 to 2016. All the alleged victims were female, mostly minors, the youngest 9, according to the lawsuits. The oldest was in her 30s. The women have accused Nassar of assaulting them under the guise of treatment. In most of the cases, the complaints say he used a “treatment” that involved penetrating them with his fingers.

According to a federal court filing Tuesday made by four new women Tuesday — who were being seen for hip, back and knee pains — Nassar massaged them then penetrated them with his finger, without warning and without gloves or lubricant.

Nassar grunted, breathed heavily and asked some of them unusual questions, such as their sexual activity with their boyfriends, according to the court filing.

One of the women said she informed Klages about the sexual assaults but nothing was done, making her the second victim who allegedly warned Klages during the late 1990s about Nassar.

The alleged victim, who was 14 or 15 years old at the time, was a participant in a Spartan youth gymnastics program when she met weekly with Nassar in 1997 at his office at MSU for back pain.

Nassar sexually assaulted her several times during a treatment that involved him using his fingers to penetrate her vagina and anus, according to the court filings. On at least one occasion, she declined the “treatment” but Nassar held her down and performed it anyway, court documents say.

The woman said she was asked by Klages if Nassar had performed the “procedure” involving digital vaginal and anal penetration on her.

Klages then told her “there is no reason to bring up Nassar’s conduct” after she confirmed his actions, court documents say.

A lawsuit filed two weeks ago also accused Klages of downplaying sexual abuse complaints against Nassar. Three women said they complained to MSU officials in the late 1990s and early 2000s: one complained to Klages, another complained to several trainers and another complainant told a sports staff member, according to the lawsuits.

One complainant was a teenager who was part of a Michigan youth program instructed by Klages in the late 1990s, according to a lawsuit filed last month. The teen was treated by Nassar for back pain and said the doctor fondled her several times from 1997-99.

The teen complained to Klages, who had told her to see Nassar, and the MSU coach told the teen she had known Nassar for years and couldn’t imagine him doing anything untoward, according to the lawsuit.

Klages also told the teen a formal complaint could lead to serious consequences for the girl and for Nassar, the teen said in the lawsuit.

Mick S. Grewal Sr., an Okemos-based attorney who is representing 10 women, said Klages failed the young athletes.

“Had a proper investigation been done in the 1990s after both of these athletes told (Klages), all of this could have been prevented. All the other victims might not have been assaulted by Dr. Nassar,” Grewal said. “She failed to protect these young women. She should be investigated for her conduct for failing to protect these girls.”

Bobyrk, meanwhile, on Tuesday defended Klages, saying: “the MSU gymnastics team members and coaching staff have been (Klages’) top priority for her entire career. She would never do anything to put any of them in harm’s way. Dr. Nassar was trusted by Ms. Klages to competently and ethically treat her team members. Had she ever received any information to cast doubt on the appropriateness of that trust in Dr. Nassar, she would have reacted immediately to protect her gymnasts.”

Bobyrk said Klages would continue to cooperate in ongoing investigations but would not comment further.

“However, Ms. Klages looks forward to being able to testify under oath and fully answer all questions that relate to any involvement she is alleged to have had in the situation,” Bobyrk said.

MSU spokesman Jason Cody declined to comment Tuesday “out of respect of the ongoing investigative process, criminal and judicial processes, and the victims involved.”

Nassar, meanwhile, is facing federal and state charges. He is charged with possession of child porn, assaulting a girl at his home and destroying evidence. He has pleaded not guilty. He is being held without bond at the Ingham County Jail.

None of those charges have to do with his work at MSU, but police are investigating complaints they’ve received from 60 women.

In the assault case, a preliminary exam is scheduled for Friday in Ingham County District Court. He is charged with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a person younger than 13, which is punishable by up to life in prison.

MSU reassigned Nassar from clinical and patient duties as of Aug. 30, a day after a complaint from one of the gymnasts was made to authorities. He was fired Sept. 20.

Nassar had been under intense scrutiny since September when two gymnasts, including a member of the 2000 U.S. women’s Olympic team, said they were sexually abused by him when they were teens. He has denied it.

The incidents happened on MSU’s East Lansing campus, at a gymnastics facility in Dimondale near Lansing and at USA Gymnastics events, according to the lawsuits. He was a longtime team doctor for USA Gymnastics, which is the sport’s national governing body.

USA Gymnastics said it fired Nassar and notified law enforcement in summer 2015 shortly after receiving a complaint about him.

But the accusations weren’t limited to gymnasts, according to the lawsuits. Other alleged victims played softball, basketball, soccer, swimming, figure skating, field hockey and track and field.

The Nassar scandal isn’t the only controversy at MSU.

The university confirmed on Tuesday a staff member with the football team, Curtis Blackwell, was suspended with pay. Late last week, the university announced three players with the football team were under investigation by MSU police over sexual assault allegations.

That has also triggered a Title IX investigation, as well as an independent investigation into the football staff’s handling of the issue.

Staff writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.