It ended where it began, sadly, horrifically, nearly two decades too late. It ended with the first publicly identified victim eviscerating pedophile Larry Nassar in an Ingham County courtroom, delivering with stinging poignancy the last of 156 victim statements.
From a criminal-prosecution standpoint, it ended when Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting girls and women. But in many ways, it’s just starting for Michigan State, where the awful crimes went unchecked for 20 years.
The first major repercussion came later Wednesday, when school president Lou Anna Simon resigned under immense pressure. There was no other option, and you can expect the ugly toll to mount.
These are Nassar’s crimes but this is Michigan State’s stain and shame, for its astounding lack of leadership and sensitivity. We’ve heard too much from some — trustee Joel Ferguson — and not enough from others — athletic director Mark Hollis. The school’s response has been outrageously dismissive, and in a couple cases the past week, despicable. It’s a short distance from denying to enabling, and the school’s bunker mentality has infuriated those rightly seeking answers.
Simon set the tone with a cold, detached posture. She showed up briefly one day to listen to victims and declined to return, claiming she’d be a distraction and she had a busy schedule. She probably wouldn’t have survived the volume of the victims’ complaints, but she made the ouster easier by acting as if there was little Michigan State could have done to stop the tragedy.
Worse than Sandusky
We don’t know the depths of the school’s culpability, but in a time of staggering crisis, amid the biggest sexual-assault scandal in sports history, Simon failed miserably. She’s not alone. Ferguson apologized for his comments to a Lansing radio station, but his disdainful reference to “this Nassar thing” was nauseating. So was the sound of his laughter when asked if the NCAA would get involved. “This is not Penn State,” he said, as if that’s some sort of credible defense.
Based on the sheer number of victims, it’s worse than the Jerry Sandusky football scandal at Penn State, unless you somehow think abuse of young females is less heinous than abuse of young males. The NCAA announced it indeed is getting involved, and will explore whether Michigan State violated rules by not protecting girls and young women.
Thanks to the words and actions of strong survivors, there’s finally an effort to learn more. A Detroit News investigation found at least eight women notified 14 different Michigan State officials of assaults by Nassar that began in 1997. The IndyStar already laid a damning foundation when it began reporting on the case in the summer of 2016.
The Michigan State Board of Trustees said last Friday it welcomed an investigation by the state’s attorney general, although lamentably, it issued support for Simon at the same time. Speaking to the trustees last April, Simon said, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.” It sounded like a tone-deaf attempt to shirk responsibility.
Ferguson and the trustees need to be evaluated and replaced as the system allows. Hollis, who has not been a primary focus, will be now, as the school prepares a response to the NCAA. He’s a highly respected athletic director, celebrated for successes in football and basketball with Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo. That’s generally how athletic departments are measured, by how the money-makers perform, but that’s not where accountability ends.
Anyone proven connected to the scandal should be fired, and as obvious as that sounds, consider this: No one at Michigan State has been fired yet, as far as we know. Even USA Gymnastics, which should be torn apart for its indifference, has pushed out three board members and suspended coach John Geddert.
One monster, Nassar, is going away for the rest of his godawful life. Yet somehow, in its lack of empathy or explanation, Michigan State pulled off a remarkable feat the past seven days. It turned the victims’ anger, and the nation’s attention, away from the pathetic perpetrator and trained it on the school.
The victims kept lining up to tell their graphic stories, some shaking, some sturdy, all pleading for justice and a chance to be heard. But by the end, it was as if they no longer only needed Nassar to hear them. The focus sharpened — to be heard by the alleged enablers and deniers, the people in power who could’ve stopped it so many different times.
They need to know how Nassar was still working at Michigan State until September 2016, two years after the school first investigated claims against him. They need to know how gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was allowed to quietly retire in February, years after athletes reportedly told her of Nassar’s abuse.
Rachael Denhollander was the courageous gymnast who first went public to the IndyStar, and fittingly was the final speaker Wednesday. Her eloquence was astonishing and chilling, and should petrify Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Denhollander, the first of Larry Nassar's victims to speak out about him publicly, gives her victim impact statement during the sentencing on January 24, 2018. Sarah Rahal / The Detroit News
“At Michigan State, you need to realize you are greatly compounding the damage done to these abuse victims by the way you are responding,” said Denhollander, who was assaulted in 2000 when she was 15. “We have been telling our stories for more than 18 months, and you have yet to answer a single question I have asked. Every time I repeat these facts about the number of women who reported to employees at Michigan State and were silenced, you respond the exact same way. You issue a press statement saying there’s no coverup because no one who heard the reports of assault believed that Larry was committing abuse.”
‘Island by himself’
Michigan State officials maintained it was difficult to know if Nassar was committing crimes because he was a celebrated Olympic doctor whose techniques were widely endorsed. Simon apologized for the victims’ pain, but never gave a heartfelt acknowledgement that something tragic happened and would be thoroughly investigated, not until she posted her resignation notice Wednesday night.
Michigan State cleared Nassar in a 2014 Title IX investigation, which Simon admitted came to her attention. The Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office also declined to file charges. Later, the school conducted an internal investigation that reportedly didn’t include interviews with alleged victims, and didn’t even yield a written report.
Maybe callousness is a necessary component of legal issues, with civil lawsuits pending. But if that was Michigan State’s strategy — deny and dismiss — it blew up horribly, the damage incalculable. I doubt the NCAA came knocking specifically because of what Ferguson said, but you can bet it’s seeking answers because of what Michigan State hasn’t said, or done.
Ferguson claimed Nassar was “an island by himself,” but based on the testimony, it wasn’t true. Numerous Michigan State officials – trainers, assistant coaches – were told of Nassar’s disturbing ways by gymnasts, volleyball players, softball players and others.
“Because of this willful ignorance, victim-silencing and mishandling of sexual assault reports against Larry in 1997, ’98, and ’99, I walked through Larry’s door in 2000 and never walked out the same,” Denhollander said. “This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid and unabated.”
The survivors’ stories were riveting and revolting, almost impossible to comprehend. Maybe that’s Michigan State’s defense, as feeble as it would be. Maybe the school simply couldn’t comprehend such unprecedented crimes began on its campus and continued for two decades.
Any lesson extracted here sounds trite, and there’s much still to uncover. But at the very least, Michigan State now knows that words matter, empathy matters, actions matter. And when the worst human behavior is revealed, or suspected, inaction matters most.