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East Lansing — Mark Dantonio spoke purposefully and sternly, a tough tone for tough times. As the leader of the program, he said he needed to “step out into the light a little bit,” and so he did, if only a little bit.

It was awkward and not overly revealing, with mixed messages and motivations. In the midst of crisis, it’s important for leadership to be seen, and in that regard, Dantonio handled Tuesday’s news conference well. He said Michigan State is treating the sexual-assault investigation of three football players “extremely seriously,” and he would not trivialize it by talking about spring football.

The problem is, the motives don’t match the actions. Dantonio’s primary motive — and you can bet it was pushed from the highest offices at Michigan State — was to show Title IX investigators how seriously the school treats the federal law. It’s especially important to make that point as sordid charges pile up against former Michigan State sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar, who allegedly sexually abused young female athletes for years.

Yes, that’s unrelated to football. But with Title IX investigators around, any sense of indifference toward sexual assault could draw additional scrutiny. Dantonio dealt with those questions appropriately, but it would have carried more weight if he followed up with one strong announcement.

Based on his own parameters, Dantonio should cancel the spring game. He said the school considered it briefly, but there’s a youth clinic attached to it and obligations to other players and fans. I imagine there also are recruiting implications, and a cancellation would spawn more questions about damage to the Spartans’ reputation.

Back to football

Instead, in four days, Dantonio indeed will talk about spring football and trivial position battles, and the Big Ten Network is scheduled to air the intrasquad game at 3 p.m. Saturday. He said it’s not “business as usual” in the program, and it hasn’t been. Players have been off-limits to the media. Dantonio hasn’t spoken since National Signing Day Feb. 1.

But the Spartans will try to make it business as usual on Saturday.

CLOSE

Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio met with the media for the first time since national signing day (Feb. 1) to acknowledge the seriousness of allegations of sexual assault against three players on the Spartans football team.

“What I can comment on, I will comment on,” Dantonio said during a half-hour news conference. “What I won’t do right now is talk about football, because I don’t think that’s important enough, quite honestly, to talk about at this time. I think by doing that, I hope everybody understands how serious we are taking this.”

In the grand scheme, Michigan State’s response to the situation will not be judged by whether it held a spring game. Dantonio figured he wouldn’t have to face such a decision because, like almost everyone else, he thought the investigation would be done by now. That was the early indication, but after the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office received additional evidence from Michigan State Police two weeks ago, there’s been no word on possible charges.

That makes a bad situation even more uncomfortable, because the three players under investigation are not the only ones suspended from the team. Dantonio confirmed there are others, for unrelated reasons.

So when fans and media watch the game Saturday, they can see who’s missing and draw their own conclusions. You don’t have to dig very deep on social media to gather possible names, but the media has responsibly not published them.

This is what I don’t get — why would Dantonio go so far to protect the identity of three players, then fuel the speculation with multiple absences Saturday? Players who miss the game will (and should) be noted. You can’t put on a public event attended by thousands of fans and expect pertinent information to be ignored.

Dantonio’s response to that was disconcerting.

“You’ll be the person lumping them in, if you write about it,” Dantonio said. “No, I don’t think it’s fair. But you’ll be writing about it.”

Writing about it, yes. Speculating about reasons, no.

Why play the game?

This is on Dantonio, not the media. If he was concerned about the fairness of lumping all absent players together, he could hold a private scrimmage instead of a public game. Having more suspended players – there’s no indication how many — muddies it. And consider this: What if the three players under investigation were the only ones suspended? Could Dantonio still have held the spring game knowing the players would be easily identified?

There’s no blueprint for such a delicate situation, and no one’s pretending to know exactly how it should be handled. The Spartans went through a tumultuous 3-9 season, and several players left for various reasons. After years of success, Dantonio is dealing with an uncommon crisis, with no easy way out.

“I’ve stood up here for the highs and the lows,” he said. “That’s never going to change. That’s the hat I wear. … But I also think this is an opportunity to reset ourselves as a program.”

Before the Spartans can fully reset, they need resolution. Until that happens, everything else is trivial.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

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