Michigan State, former football staffer Curtis Blackwell head toward showdown in lawsuit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Curtis Blackwell, a former Michigan State football staffer, alleges in an intensifying lawsuit that he continues to be blackballed from the industry after being wrongfully fired for his alleged role in a 2017 incident resulting in a sexual-assault case involving three former players.

While three former Michigan State football players have been allowed to continue their careers and pursue their dreams of playing in the NFL even after each was sentenced to three years probation in a sexual-assault case, a former MSU football staffer alleges in an intensifying lawsuit that he continues to be blackballed from the industry after being wrongfully fired for his alleged role in the 2017 incident.

Curtis Blackwell, Michigan State's former director of college advancement and performance, is suing head coach Mark Dantonio, former president Lou Anna K. Simon, former athletic director Mark Hollis and two members of the Michigan State University Police Department in federal court.

Blackwell is set to be deposed by university lawyers Monday, Aug. 12, in Birmingham.

The following day, Aug. 13, Dantonio, Hollis and Simon, plus Blackwell and a series of lawyers, are scheduled to participate in a mediation session in Grand Rapids.

Blackwell is seeking more than $75,000 in damages.

"In cases like this, there's economic damages from his loss of income, through his position at Michigan State, and related benefits," said Blackwell's lawyer, Thomas R. Warnicke, who is based in Beverly Hills. "Even more significant is the emotional and distress damage, and the harm to his reputation, both personally and professionally, which is nearly impossible to put a price tag on."

If the parties don't come to a resolution on the case, things could get significantly ugly and out in the open — with Warnicke saying a second suit, alleging racial discrimination, will be filed in Ingham County Circuit Court in mid-Michigan. Warnicke attempted in February to add an amendment to the original case, to add racial discrimination, but the motion was denied by a federal judge, who said that complaint must be filed in state court, not federal court, because it invokes the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Mark Dantonio is in his 13th season as Michigan State coach.

Officials from Michigan State haven't commented on the case, which first was filed in November in United States District Court's Western District of Michigan Southern Division, in Grand Rapids. A spokesperson for Michigan State told The News this week, "Given there's still pending litigation, the university does not have a comment." A spokesperson for the MSU Police Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

Dantonio declined to comment during Michigan State’s media day on Monday.

Later, a team spokesman said Dantonio was unable to comment because of pending litigation. The Spartans began preseason camp last Thursday in preparation for the season opener on Aug. 30, signifying the start of Dantonio’s 13th season as MSU’s head coach.

Sexual-assault investigation

The case stems from January 2017, when three members of the football team — wide receiver Donnie Corley and defensive back Demetric Vance from Detroit, and defensive end Josh King from Chicago — were alleged to have participated in a sexual assault of a female at an off-campus party in East Lansing.

According to Blackwell's court filing, the parent of a player contacted him to inquire what he had heard about a "wild off-campus party," and to investigate if "anyone was in trouble." Blackwell said he talked to then-player Auston Robertson, a defensive end, who allegedly told Blackwell he already had spoken to Dantonio and the Title IX office.

Robertson allegedly told Blackwell that nobody got in trouble at the party, and Blackwell said he told Robertson, "If you didn't do anything, you know, why are you concerned? You know, just go in there and tell the truth."

Blackwell said he didn't interfere with the investigation into the Jan. 15 party, but rather was "mentoring the student athletes."

Weeks later, on Feb. 8, two members of the MSU Police Department — Det. Chad Davis and Det. Sam Miller — visited the football building to interview multiple coaches and staff members, including Blackwell, according to the lawsuit and police report. Blackwell alleges in the lawsuit that the detectives abruptly stopped his interview and arrested him, seizing his two cell phones while leading him to the parking lot. A third member of the MSU Police Department, Officer Cody Kovacic, arrived and placed Blackwell in handcuffs.

Davis and Miller are named in the lawsuit.

At the police station, Blackwell was told he was arrested for violating a "university ordinance." He chose not to speak to police officers during what he said was 30 minutes in custody; in answering the lawsuit claims, police officers say Blackwell was in custody for closer to 15 minutes.

The following day, Blackwell was suspended with pay pending an investigation.

During the investigation, Michigan State extended Blackwell's contract on a month-to-month basis until May 22, 2017, when Dantonio told Blackwell his contract was not being renewed. According to court filings, Dantonio told Blackwell he "had to move in a different direction with the position." In later discussions with reporters, Dantonio said Blackwell's dismissal was due to philosophical differences.

Blackwell said he never received a meeting with then-athletic director Hollis before his termination, despite a contract clause calling for such.

Michigan State University Police, in its report, said Blackwell interfered with its investigation.

Blackwell is suing the department for illegal search and seizure, and no probable cause for an arrest.

Meanwhile, the university-ordered Jones Day report, which investigated the university's handling of the alleged sexual-assault incident, found that Blackwell violated university policy. Blackwell wasn't interviewed for the report; the university said he declined, Blackwell said he wasn't asked to be interviewed.

Former Michigan State University football players, from left, Demetric Vance, with defense attorney Mary Chartier, Donnie Corley, with defense attorney John Shea, and Josh King, with defense attorney Shannon Smith, appear for their sentencing in June 2018 at Ingham County 30th Circuit Court in Lansing.

Meanwhile, the three players in question were kicked off the team, and in June 2018 each were sentenced to 36 months probation in return for a guilty plea to seduction, which means they do not have to register as sex offenders.

Blackwell never was charged with a crime, and wasn't called by prosecutors regarding the case against the three players.

Program 'difference-maker'

Blackwell was hired by Dantonio in August 2013, on a one-year contract with a salary of $80,000, after Dantonio had visited one of Blackwell's Sound Mind Sound Body camps, which were launched by Blackwell in 2004 and became a hot spot for top Metro Detroit players seeking scholarships, as well as a must-visit from big-time college coaches.

Blackwell's contract was extended every year through 2017, and included raises along the way, including a significant bump to $129,000 in April 2016, after the University of Michigan had approached Blackwell about a possible position.

Blackwell claimed he never received a poor annual performance review until he was fired; Dantonio, in court filings, denies that.

A review of Blackwell's personnel file, obtained by The Detroit News, reveals almost universal praise from supervisors.

In a June 2015 performance review, Dantonio wrote that Blackwell was "innovative," "fully engaged," "well connected across U.S.," and "organized," as well as "takes responsibility," "loyal" and "has been a difference-maker in program."

In the lawsuit, Blackwell alleges he was made the "scapegoat" by the university, which at the time also was dealing with the immense fallout of the case surrounding Larry Nassar, the former renowned gymnastics trainer and physician who was sentenced to life in prison after years of molesting hundreds of women and girls — actions that allegedly were ignored for years by university officials.

Former Michigan State University president Lou Anna K Simon is facing criminal charges for allegedly lying to police in the investigation into Dr. Larry Nassar.

Simon, university president since 2005, resigned in disgrace in 2018, and is facing criminal charges for allegedly lying to police. She officially retired last week and will receive $2.45 million.

Hollis, athletic director since 2008, retired in 2018.

'Complicated' case

Blackwell's attorney, Warnicke, said he had no opinion of if he thinks a settlement could be reached.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State law professor who examined the court filings at the request of The News, said it might be in the defendants' best interest to do so.

"I don't think Dantonio and Hollis want to be deposed, because in a deposition under federal rules, it's pretty wide open, so it might be in their best interest to settle," Henning said.

"Then, you don't have all the negative information coming out, and that of course would be a positive for the defendants.

"But they also might well think, 'Why should we settle with this person?'"

When it comes to Simon, however, that's a different situation, entirely, because she's currently facing criminal charges in the Nassar case.

Simon's preliminary hearing in Eaton County District Court in Charlotte ended last month, and is expected to learn within a month or so if she will held over for trial.

"Dr. Simon, I think she's got much bigger issues," Henning said. "She's facing criminal charges. If I'm her lawyer, I'm going to tell her, 'You're not getting deposed.'

"If I'm her lawyers, I'm saying, 'Let's wait and see if you're bound over. If you're not, go testify. If you are, I don't want you talking.'"

Henning said adding to the complexity of the case is the fact Blackwell, like many college coaches, was on a year-to-year contract, and thus theoretically could be dismissed at any time if the head coach has a change of heart.

"Boy," said Henning, "is this gonna be complicated."

Trying to move on

Meanwhile, Corley, Vance and King — all four-star recruits from Michigan State's recruiting class of 2016, which was ranked 17th in the nation and third in the Big Ten — continued their college football careers at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss.

All three saw significant playing time during the 2018 season. 

Corley, 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds and from Detroit King, played in six games, leading the team with 40 receptions and 459 yards, while posting six receiving touchdowns. He transferred recently to Texas Southern.

Vance, 6-2 and 200 pounds and from Detroit Cass Tech, played in six games, and King, 6-7 and 260 pounds, played in seven games, recording two sacks.

Coahoma Community College football coach Steven Miller declined to comment on the three players, through a college spokesperson.

The fourth player involved in the case, the so-called whistleblower, was Robertson, a four-star recruit from Fort Wayne who also was part of that 2016 recruiting class. A 6-5, 230-pound defensive end, he attempted to resurrect his career at Garden City Community College in Kansas, but after a successful first season in which he recorded 73 tackles, he was met with numerous legal issues, including alleged aggravated robbery and sexual assault. In December in Lansing, he was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison after pleading down from rape to a lesser charge.

Meanwhile, Blackwell, despite attempts, hasn't been able to land another job on a coaching staff. Kansas had significant interest, his attorney said, but backed off, because of the case.

He's back to running Sound Mind Sound Body, telling The News in 2018, "Everything was pretty good (at Michigan State), I had a good time, but this is my passion, what I love to do, work with young people in the City of Detroit."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984