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MSU's Mark Dantonio: Depose me on firing, but not on irrelevant criminal recruit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio says he's long been willing to be deposed in the lawsuit filed by a fired staff member, but his lawyers want to limit the time he's to be made available, as well as the scope of the questions.

Dantonio's lawyers filed a motion for a protective order Friday, alleging the fired staffer, Curtis Blackwell, is bringing up issues irrelevant to his lawsuit — which alleges wrongful termination as well as unlawful arrest. Blackwell, who was on Michigan State's staff from 2013 through 2017, is suing Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis, former president Lou Anna K. Simon and two Michigan State University police officers.

Blackwell's deposition, which was taken in August and lasted more than six hours, was made public Thursday, and was explosive, particularly Blackwell's detailed claims that Dantonio green-lighted the signing of troubled recruit Auston Robertson, over the objections of two of his most trusted assistant coaches.

Robertson lasted only one season at Michigan State and eventually was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in mid-Michigan. He's serving up to 10 years in prison at Newberry Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula.

Dantonio's legal team, in its filing Friday, insists Robertson has nothing to do with Blackwell's case, and thus shouldn't be part of the deposition questioning.

Blackwell, 41, was fired in May 2017, and alleges he was made the scapegoat following a January 2017 party attended by several Michigan State football players at which there was an alleged sexual assault. Three players, each former highly touted recruits, were kicked off the team, then took plea deals on seduction charges, and were given 36 months probation. Each now plays at another school.

Blackwell was arrested but not charged.

Robertson was the so-called whistleblower about the party, telling Dantonio about it in one of their weekly one-on-one meetings the Monday afterward.

All of this took place under the dark cloud of the Larry Nassar scandal, another topic Dantonio's lawyers insist not be brought up in the deposition.

Curtis Blackwell

Dantonio released a statement early Friday evening, saying he won't "engage in a public argument with a former staffer."

"The fact that Mr. Blackwell’s contract was not renewed has nothing to do with Auston Robertson," Dantonio said. "Two years ago, I spoke at length about Auston Robertson when he was dismissed from the team in 2017."

At the time, Dantonio said Michigan State took a risk and that Robertson was vetted.

"Further, there have been multiple investigations into the program’s handling of sexual assaults, including (the) Jones Day (report) in 2017 and the NCAA in 2018, and they concluded that the program and myself committed no violations," Dantonio said, in Friday's statement.

"With regard to Mr. Blackwell’s lawsuit, because the litigation is ongoing, I have no further comment on this matter and refer all questions to my counsel.”

The statement comes a day before Michgian State (2-1) attempts to bounce back in a road game against Northwestern. Dantonio was expected to be asked about the Blackwell deposition in his postgame press conference.

In the court filing Friday, Dantonio's lawyers reiterated that the decision to not renew Blackwell's contract was Dantonio's, and Dantonio's alone, and that it had to do with philosophical differences. Blackwell has countered that the timing of the firing, after two months of paid administrative leave before his termination around the same time the Jones Day report came out, disproves the "philosophical differences" excuse.

Dantonio's lawyers said in Friday's filing that Blackwell's lawyers had plenty of opportunities to depose Dantonio, the lawsuit having been filed in November, but they waited until August to start making specific date requests in order to "maximize disruption and inconvenience to Dantonio." In the filing Friday, Dantonio's lawyers accused Blackwell's lawyers of "gamesmanship."

Still, Dantonio offered up 3.5 hours on Aug. 20 or Aug. 21, but both dates were rejected by Blackwell's lawyers. The season now in full swing, Dantonio now requests to be deposed in January.

His lawyers also want to limit the time to 3.5 hours, saying the questioning in relation to the case is narrow in focus.

In Blackwell's deposition, he was asked at length about the Robertson recruitment.

One of Dantonio's lawyers, Tom Kienbaum, issued a statement Friday that read, in part, "While it is the university’s policy to deal with litigation in court, and not the press, the recent publicity efforts by Mr. Blackwell and his attorney warrant a brief response. ... Mr. Blackwell’s publicity seeking efforts to nevertheless inject this and other irrelevancies into this lawsuit seek to deflect from what actually happened."

Neither Hollis nor Simon have been deposed yet, either; Blackwell's lawyers have wanted to depose Dantonio first, according to emails in Thursday's court filings.

They are planning to depose the two MSU Police officers early next week.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984