Wojo: Sex assault case puts spotlight on Dantonio
Three more Michigan State football players will face the scrutiny of the law, charged with sexual assault Tuesday, and that’s the overriding tragedy here. Three alleged perpetrators, one alleged victim, another sad tale of how easily young lives can be wrecked.
It’s not the only tale, though. Michigan State’s program faces its own harsh scrutiny, and no matter where the latest charges go, the damage is real. Ultimately, figuratively, three young players — Josh King, Demetric Vance, Donnie Corley Jr. — aren’t the only ones on trial here.
Mark Dantonio reacted swiftly and dismissed all three from the team, an appropriate, unflinching response that shows how troubling the situation is, and how seriously Michigan State must take it. Some will cry about a lack of due process, but Dantonio made the right decision amid the biggest crisis of his coaching career.
If this were one case that led to the dismissal of one staff member, recruiting director Curtis Blackwell, you might suggest it was the type of isolated incident that happens on too many college campuses. But it’s the latest and potentially ugliest in a disturbing spate. The response from Dantonio and athletic director Mark Hollis was genuine and well-delivered; they sounded emotional and determined during their press conference Tuesday, and expressed concern for the alleged victim. Dantonio acknowledged his program needed “re-centering,” and to his credit, didn’t simply slough it off as the nasty nature of the business.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success here, we’ve not had problems, and I would say last year if you came up here to talk, we probably were on the cusp of being exactly what you want in major college football,” Dantonio said. “But one year has changed some of that, a lot of that. So now we have to deal with that aspect of our program and change it back.”
Hollis announced a restructuring in the athletic department to provide more oversight of football, and talked about reassessing recruiting practices. This was the stern response necessary, although let’s be clear: Good crisis management is not the primary goal, and the process is ongoing.
“I feel like today is an end point in some respect, and a new beginning for some of us,” Dantonio said. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people back to point, to re-center yourself, to make everybody drive between the lines or to go the speed limit.”
Dantonio said it was his decision to dismiss Blackwell after “philosophical differences” emerged in the past 4-5 months. He said he was angry but didn’t feel betrayed by the players, and chose to expel them because they’d been educated on the consequences of questionable actions.
“You ask yourself, well, did they break the law?” Dantonio said. “That’s to be discovered at a later time. But you have to ask yourself about the morals involved in this, and from my perspective, the morals were not where they needed to be.”
The allegations are disgusting, and it’s important to note, unproven. If untrue, the players might consider themselves victims. If they turn out to be accurate — including lurid allegations that sex acts were videotaped — the female victim’s well-being is the first priority, and so is her privacy.
In these high-profile cases, the program’s well-being is more publicly examined, to see if a deeper problem exists. A lot of issues with Michigan State football have surfaced in the past year — from legal and disciplinary matters to player attrition. While they’re not technically linked, they could indicate a leadership void, perhaps among older players in a small senior class, or with a coaching staff that loosened its grip on younger, talented players.
Dantonio and Hollis received the full support of the Board of Trustees Monday, and school president Lou Anna Simon praised their handling of the case based on the results of an independent report. Dantonio and his staff followed all university protocol in the aftermath of the Jan. 16 incident, and in fact, Simon noted, “It was above reproach.”
That was good to hear, an indication it’s not a systemic issue, with no evidence of a cover-up, not remotely akin to a Penn State or Baylor situation. But let’s not overstate it, either. The report offered a positive exoneration of the staff, except that Blackwell and the players refused to be interviewed by investigators, and Blackwell was deduced to have violated policy.
But he’s gone, the players are gone, and at some point, you move forward, right? True enough, but that doesn’t necessarily solve whether a culture problem hampers the program right now. You hope justice is served in the criminal cases, and you hope Michigan State isn’t in denial. Sorry, saying these things happen everywhere — a common refrain from fans — is a feeble defense.
Dantonio’s incredible success has earned him justifiable goodwill. You can support the program and also say you’re troubled by what has transpired, without even mentioning the 3-9 record. You can praise the winning atmosphere Dantonio created and also wonder if there’s been an erosion of that culture.
Last fall, two players — Demetrius Cooper and Demetrious Cox — were cited for misdemeanor assaults. Cooper allegedly spit on a parking enforcement officer and pleaded no contest. Cox allegedly punched a taxi driver and later reached a plea agreement.
In February, starting linebacker Jon Reschke abruptly left the team after admitting he made a “totally regrettable comment involving a former teammate.” Last week, defensive backs Kenney Lyke and Kaleel Gaines revealed they were transferring to junior colleges, not notable on its own, except they’re the seventh and eighth underclassmen to depart since the end of last season.
In the midst of it all, defensive lineman Austin Robertson was charged with raping a woman in an April 9 incident in her apartment. Robertson — a highly ranked recruit who faced a misdemeanor assault charge in high school in Indiana — was booted off the team by Dantonio on April 21.
For more than a year, players have left the program with little clarity offered. When 15 sat out the spring game April 1, Dantonio made cryptic references to players being “red-locked.”
In retrospect, perhaps this goes back to the week of the 2014 Rose Bowl, when two-time captain Max Bullough mysteriously was suspended for violating team rules. Bullough was the face of the Spartans’ rise, and was gone without explanation. Last week, it was reported former Spartan receiver Keith Mumphery was expelled from a graduate program in 2016 for violating the school’s Title IX sexual misconduct policy in 2015. And then this irony: The NFL’s Houston Texans just cut Mumphery and Bullough, who was facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Most of this is on the players who commit the indiscretions, but accountability can be shared. If Michigan State wants to pin any program culpability on Blackwell and be done with it, well, who hired Blackwell partly to enhance recruiting? It culminated with a tremendous 2016 class, which included King, Corley, Vance and Robertson.
Wild success has a way of numbing the senses and obscuring flaws. And please, this is no rush to judgment. Michigan State football has gotten every benefit of the doubt for several years, rightly celebrated for all its winning and all its great players and warming stories. They were amazing to watch, and the narrative was accurate — Dantonio was the perfect coach to stoke the passion, give the program a feisty edge, collect highly motivated players and beat its rivals mercilessly.
But just as other big-time programs learned, there’s no permanent shield for the unpredictability of youth, and no easy cure for entitlement. The Spartans need to do some honest self-assessment, and listening to Dantonio and Hollis, I think they are. Did they take chances with higher-profile recruits who altered the culture instead of fitting it? Is Dantonio’s staff too entrenched and comfortable to flesh out problems? Is a shake-up of the staff needed?
Programs at the highest level must be vigilant. Last year, one-time prized recruit Malik McDowell disappeared from games at times, absent ostensibly for injuries. He was ripped by NFL types for a questionable work ethic, and once projected as a top-10 pick, he slid to the second round.
Issues like that aren’t remotely comparable to the criminal allegations, and this is not an attempt to draw a parallel. It’s an attempt to draw a line, to see if it’s fair to connect a series of seemingly unrelated incidents — from lesser to major — that brought the Spartans from a Rose Bowl victory, a Cotton Bowl victory and a playoff berth to here, mired in turmoil.
Where is here? It’s the end point of an idyllic story, and a new starting point for Dantonio and his program. It’s time to stop hoping this is an unfortunate cloud that could pop up anywhere, and determine if there’s a culture that must be cleaned up.