Wojo: Michigan State mired in full-blown crisis of trust

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo watches the Spartans warm up before Friday night's game against Wisconsin.

The crisis at Michigan State keeps expanding and twisting, no longer only a horrific sexual-abuse scandal, or only a hunt for justice. For the school and whoever is left to lead, it’s a crisis of trust.

Who can be trusted at Michigan State now to uncover more truths, however uncomfortable those truths might be? The president, Lou Anna Simon, is out. The athletic director, Mark Hollis, is out, retiring in an emotional announcement Friday. And now a disturbing report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines is shaking the school’s most-cherished athletic programs.

The report turned the spotlight on football and basketball, led by iconic figures Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, and how those programs dealt with sexual-assault allegations. It framed Michigan State athletics as an insular enterprise, uncooperative and non-transparent when athletes were accused of crimes.

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We’ve long celebrated the air of feisty defiance at Michigan State, and in the competitive arena, it has served Dantonio and Izzo brilliantly. But as a department-wide culture, defiance is a dangerous approach, with sharp consequences. Let’s be very clear and careful here  much more needs to be learned before reputations and legacies are dissected. No one should be hungering for pounds of flesh, but for ounces of truth.

Both Dantonio and Izzo strongly denied rumors Friday night they were considering resigning or retiring. Dantonio adamantly refuted the basis of the ESPN report, speaking briefly before Michigan State played Wisconsin in basketball.

“Any accusations of my handling of any complaints of sexual assault, individually, are completely false,” Dantonio said. “Every incident reported in that article was documented by either police or the Michigan State Title IX office. I’ve always worked with the proper authorities when dealing with cases of sexual assault. We have always had high standards in this program and that will never change.”

Shamed into action

After the game, Izzo was subdued, focusing most of his comments on the survivors of the Larry Nassar crimes. He was far from defiant, and it was the appropriate tone. Asked if he had any plans to retire, his voice didn’t rise or waver.

“I’m not going anywhere, in my mind,” Izzo said. “I’m definitely not retiring.”

This will be the challenge for Izzo and Dantonio now, trying to defend themselves against a rippling wave without appearing defensive or callous or ill-prepared. Some of the cases presented by ESPN never led to charges filed, which brings up a different issue about law-enforcement practices. These issues are not unique to Michigan State, as the #MeToo movement has shown, as previous scandals at Penn State and Baylor have shown. But this is Michigan State’s problem now, and the damage is profound.

The Nassar case shook the school to the core of its humanity and finally shamed people into action. It’s unclear how the university extricates itself, because there have been so many apparent failures, at every level in the system, you don’t know who or what to believe.

At the very least, the athletic department must open itself completely to scrutiny from the attorney general’s office, the NCAA, the FBI, whatever credible investigative arm comes calling. There can be no more suppressing or obscuring. Everyone connected to Michigan State should want this explored and resolved, and that includes Dantonio and Izzo, who should demand (and deliver) renewed transparency.

Few coaches are more open and engaging than Izzo, an admirable quality he’ll need to call on now. Izzo and Dantonio have built a wealth of good will  much of it tied to a wealth of winning  and this doesn’t have to be the ruination of more careers, unless that’s where the evidence leads.

Should the ESPN report serve as the ultimate judgment? Of course not. But it came out barely an hour after Hollis stepped down, and in the wake of the Nassar scandal, the central theme  suppressing information to protect athletics instead of protecting women  is hauntingly familiar.

According to the report, numerous cases of sexual assault and violence against women by Michigan State football and basketball players over the years yielded few repercussions. Investigations were cursory or minimal, often conducted by members of the athletic department, or even coaches, not by outside forces. Just as troubling, Michigan State defied Title IX practices, fostering a culture of leniency for accused athletes.

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ESPN had to fight  and beat  MSU in court three times because the school withheld athletes’ names in incident reports. It was a similar dismiss-and-deny attitude that allowed Nassar to conduct his heinous crimes for 20 years. It’s the attitude that was reflected in Michigan State’s incomplete report of its 2014 Title IX investigation. Unconscionably, the school gave an abbreviated version to the victim, gymnast Amanda Thomashow, omitting the most-disturbing findings.

Former Michigan State sexual-assault counselor Lauren Allswede spoke out extensively in the ESPN article. Allswede said she quit in 2015, frustrated by how school administrators handled the cases.

“None of it was transparent,” she said. “It was very insulated, and people were a lot of times discouraged from seeking resources outside of the athletic department.”

Troubling questions

ESPN delved deeply into sexual-assault claims in 2010 against former basketball players Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. It went even further back, to charges that former player and undergrad assistant Travis Walton knocked a woman unconscious in a bar.

ESPN documented what it said were six previously unreported assaults involving football players, part of 16 assaults during Dantonio’s 11-year tenure. Four football players were accused of sexual assault a year ago, and all were dismissed from the team.

As the leader of the department, Hollis did the right thing by stepping aside, as difficult as it must have been. He accomplished tremendous things in 10 years, and in the end, his failing might have been aiming for loftier heights, instead of monitoring the minor sports and the delicate details.

Hollis said he was never informed of the 2014 Title IX investigation of Nassar, evidence of a fractured chain of communication. The question is, how many at Michigan State didn’t know, didn’t want to know, or didn’t ask enough to know?

“I feel good with every decision I made at the time I made it,” Hollis said, “based on the information that I had available to me.”

Is that plausible deniability, or shirking of duties? These are the troubling questions that now will be asked of Izzo and Dantonio. They again should be asked, far more pointedly, of former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages. They should be harshly asked of the trainers and assistants still employed by Michigan State, the ones who reportedly ignored the complaints of Nassar’s victims.

If there was a common thread of denial and deceit woven through the athletic culture, it should be pulled until all is revealed. Everyone should crave information and truth now more than ever, from the average student on campus to the ultra-successful coaches of the high-profile programs. Someone has to step up and give the public reason to believe Michigan State has the people, and the will, to fix this, or the cracks will spread.