In race-discrimination lawsuit, Blackwell says Dantonio ordered secret taping of foe's practice

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

A former Michigan State football staffer, already suing former coach Mark Dantonio and others in federal court for wrongful termination, has added a second lawsuit, this time in state court — and with additional allegations of NCAA violations by Dantonio.

In a 112-page filing with Wayne County Circuit Court on Monday night, Curtis Blackwell alleges he was a victim of racial discrimination when he was let go as recruiting coordinator in May 2017. He's also suing for breach of contract, among other claims.

Curtis Blackwell

Along with Dantonio, former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon and former athletic director Mark Hollis are named as defendants, like in the federal case. A new defendant in this case: new MSU athletic director Bill Beekman, who, notably, was quick to dismiss Blakwell's previous claims of alleged NCAA violations by Dantonio, before MSU later acknowledged it has begun talking to the NCAA and Big Ten.

Now, Beekman could have more NCAA issues on his plate.

In this latest lawsuit, Blackwell makes the claim that Dantonio ordered staff members to secretly record, either via audio or video, a practice held by an upcoming opponent, without receiving consent from said school. Blackwell also claims Dantonio made contact with players enrolled at other schools to inquire about transferring to MSU.

MSU athletic and university representatives didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from The News on Tuesday night.

It's not clear who will be representing MSU's side on this case. Thomas G. Kienbaum, a defense attorney in the federal case, reviewed the state suit Tuesday afternoon and told The News he's not sure if his firm will be retained.

Blackwell, 42, who is black, "has sustained injuries and damages including, but not limited to, loss of earnings and earning capacity; loss of career opportunities; humiliation and embarrassment; mental and emotional distress; humiliation, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, depression, sadness, indignation, sleeplessness, embarrassment, degradation, shame, nausea, headaches, grief, dejection, misery and physical harm, and loss of the ordinary pleasures of everyday life," Blackwell's lead lawyer, Thomas Warnicke, wrote in the state filing.

SPECIAL REPORT: Recruiting trouble: Inside the sex scandal that threw MSU football for a loss

The case was filed in state court because it cites the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a state provision. Blackwell's lawyers tried to add the discrimination claim onto the federal filing shortly after that case first found its way into court, in November 2018, but were told by a judge to send it to state court.

Blackwell was hired by Dantonio in the summer of 2013, and worked there on a year-to-year contract until May 2017, when Dantonio told him he was being relieved. That decision came after multiple months of Blackwell being suspended, with pay, pending an investigation into how the athletic department handled allegations of a sexual assault by three football players at a January 2017 party.

Blackwell was accused by MSU Police of obstructing the investigation and briefly arrested, but never was charged.

At the time of his dismissal, Dantonio cited "philosophical differences," but since has acknowledged "friction" between Blackwell and other MSU staffers, as well as an NCAA rule change on camps that Dantonio said limited Blackwell's impact as a recruiter. Blackwell is co-founder of the Sound Mind Sound Body camp organization that he continues to run in Detroit.

Mark Dantonio was deposed in January.

He's suing for wrongful termination and wrongful arrest in federal court, seeking more than $5 million.

No specific damage amounts are listed in the state court filing, which also alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

On the racial-discrimination claim, Blackwell makes the case that he was let go shortly after MSU was outed for protecting serial molester Dr. Larry Nassar, who is white, "for years." Blackwell also makes the point MSU never hired investigators to look into the years-long Nassar scandal, but was quick to hire the Jones Day law firm to independently investigate the football program's handling of the investigation into four football players and two alleged sexual assaults.

Jones Day cleared all football staffers except Blackwell, who didn't agree to be interviewed by lawyers — making him the "perfect fall guy," according to this latest filing. Blackwell, meanwhile, alleges Dantonio was incorrectly cleared of wrongdoing because he never reported the January 2017 sexual-assault allegations to MSU Police, and instead only contacted the Office of Institutional Equity. An OIE staffer contacted MSU Police on Dantonio's behalf.

In the latest filing, Blackwell again alleges long-time MSU trustee Joel Ferguson, who is black, told him and other people that Blackwell would eventually take the fall because of his race. Ferguson has adamantly denied that, telling The News, that claim is "bull-****". Ferguson did say he had a problem with how MSU Police handled Blackwell's arrest, including seizure of his cell phones.

Dantonio, who was football coach from 2007 until he stepped down surprisingly in February, hired many and retained many minority coaches during his time in East Lansing, including Don Treadwell (offensive coordinator, 2007-10; defensive backs in 2018; wide receivers in 2019) and Harlon Barnett (defensive backs, 2007-14; co-defensive coordinator, 2015-17). Others included Ron Burton, Terrence Samuel, Paul Haynes and Ted Gill, as well as former NFL executive Sheldon White in multiple roles. White essentially replaced Blackwell when Blackwell was let go.

From left, Curtis Blackwell, Mark Dantonio. Daelin Hayes, Mike Tressel, and Harlon Barnett at Hayes' home taken in December 2015, according to a court affidavit.

On the breach of contract claim, Blackwell alleges he never was given a chance to speak to Hollis before he was suspended, despite his contract calling for that right.

And on defamation, Blackwell targets Dantonio and Beekman, the latter who called allegations of NCAA violations "patently false," effectively calling Blackwell a "liar," according to the filing. The day before Dantonio stepped down, Blackwell's lawyers filed photo evidence and an affidavit showing Dantonio allowed Blackwell to recruit off-campus, despite not being allowed to, and despite Dantonio's claims during his January deposition that he never OK'd Blackwell recruiting off-campus. Beekman rebuked the NCAA claims, though MSU now acknowledges it is talking to the NCAA and Big Ten.

In the previous lawsuit, Blackwell also alleged Dantonio helped secure employment for parents of high-profile recruits. Dantonio, in his deposition, said that anything on that front was cleared by compliance, while Jen Smith, MSU's compliance director, said in her deposition that she didn't recall any such cases coming across her desk.

And now the two latest NCAA claims, including the alleged taping of a practice. The opponent in question hasn't been identified, and Warnicke wouldn't identify the school.

Defense lawyers were incensed that Blackwell's legal team included the NCAA-violation allegations in the federal lawsuit, calling them irrelevant to the case. Blackwell's team says they speak to Dantonio's credibility.

The latest NCAA-violation allegations were filed under the section of the lawsuit where Blackwell claims emotional distress.

Mel Tucker succeeded Dantonio as head coach, and signed a six-year, $33-million contract that also provides him protection if MSU is hit with penalties from the NCAA.

Dantonio, weeks before he retired, collected a $4.3-million retention bonus, and could earn as much as $1 million per year in his new role, helping with "special projects," within the athletic department.

In the federal filing, a West Michigan judge is expected to rule this week on requests by lawyers for Dantonio, etc., to have the case thrown out, and Blackwell's lawyers sanctioned for unethical behavior. If the case moves forward, as legal experts expect it will, a jury trial is expected this spring or early summer, barring any settlement. Settlement talks didn't progress far in late 2018 and early 2019.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984