Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford talk about the Spartans' 76-68 victory. Matt Charboneau
East Lansing – Briefly, the silence was broken. The crowd roared, the coach fist-pumped, the players exulted. And then, back to an uncomfortable, unsettling reality.
This is Michigan State’s only respite right now, and Tom Izzo’s only form of expression. He says he’s sorry he can’t say more, or won’t say more, while the games go on, as they should. Izzo isn’t breaking down or opening up, and it has created the most-complex mix of emotions, with no resolution in sight.
“I think there will be a time when I’ll be able to speak, but it isn’t right now,” Izzo said after Michigan State beat Penn State 76-68 Wednesday night at the Breslin Center. “There’s too many things going on with the survivors and everything. So, I’m going to just stick to my guns and tell you I still have great support for the survivors, but I’m just not going to have any comment on this whole situation.”
It sounds empty and incomplete, because it is. Apparently, it will remain that way for a while, as the attorney general’s office and the NCAA conduct investigations into accusations and insinuations of a long-standing culture of sexual abuse in Michigan State athletics, beyond the Larry Nassar scandal.
Of course, you want to hear more from Izzo. If you’re a Michigan State fan, you desperately want to hear him stamp and shout and declare the nasty charges wrong, or overblown. Maybe he can’t. Maybe they aren’t.
An uneasy hush
Silence is unsettling, but it’s important to remember, silence isn’t necessarily damning. There are things Izzo can’t answer with investigations ongoing. There’s probably little he can say that wouldn’t lead to more questions, or appear insensitive to the hundreds of girls and women still describing Nassar’s horrific crimes. Those acts are unconnected to basketball and football, yet Nassar’s sinister presence contributed to a chilling effect on Title IX enforcement.
If we’re allowed to draw any conclusions based on how his team plays, there appears to be some galvanizing going on, as the No. 5 Spartans rallied from a 12-point deficit and won their third straight since the scandal blew up. Players says Izzo has been emotional and amped up, as the scrutiny has risen.
After the game, Izzo was more composed and prepared. He didn’t stray from the script once, didn’t flash anger once. Out of necessity, he is settling into a new normal, and until we learn more about what he did or didn’t know about past incidents, it’s all he can do.
“A lot of eyes are on him, a lot of people are bashing him, a lot of people are supporting him,” guard Cassius Winston said. “He’s using all that emotion to motivate us. A lot of things people are saying about him, they definitely don’t know him, but that’s OK. For him to just take the blows to the chest -- all that pressure that’s trying to bring him down, he’s using that to lift us up. And we’re using it to help lift him up also.”
It’s the only approach the Spartans can take right now. In the absence of many words from Izzo, the few words get highlighted, and he has misspoken a couple times.
Dantonio adamantly refuted part of the ESPN report that he mishandled cases of sexual assault involving his players. People crave a similar strong response from Izzo, but get polite refusals to talk, while pledging support for the victims. At some point, he must say more to restore confidence.
Given the chance after the victory at Maryland to respond to allegations against former player Travis Walton of violence and sexual abuse — which Walton since has strongly denied — Izzo shed no light. I asked him Wednesday night if he yearned to stand up for his program, but couldn’t based on legal advice.
“I don’t know if I can’t, I can do whatever I want to do,” Izzo said. “But I just don’t think it’s the right time right now. And again, I apologize, but I’m just going to stick to that.”
Games go on
So we have this void of truth and evidence, and in this void, the team must play. Izzo has said he feels guilty trying to focus on basketball, yet he has one of his best teams in 23 seasons, and it deserves to be led and coached. The current players have nothing to do with the scandal, and maybe fans are rallying behind them because of that.
Players wore teal ribbons on their warm-up shirts before the game to support the survivors and spoke with emotion and empathy. The students in the Izzone still swayed and cheered, and Izzo still popped out of his chair to argue with refs or implore his team. And the question nags: When can the games matter as deeply again, played without reference to the allegations?
This is uncharted territory, and will remain so for an undetermined time, as the attorney general’s office and the NCAA do their jobs – finally, I might add. No one’s discomfort or frustration matters more than the victims’, let’s make that abundantly clear. But it’s also fair to step back from every detail and wait for the full picture to form.
It took way, way too long for judgment in Nassar’s case, but it shouldn’t be countered with a rush to judgment on Izzo and Dantonio. If either mishandled charges of sexual abuse by their players, or worse, actively tried to hide or minimize them, they’ll ultimately pay with their jobs. Now is not the time, not based on the information uncovered by ESPN and others.
So the basketball season goes on, football recruiting goes on, and away from the arena, the litigating and investigating goes on. All the while, Izzo must be fighting mightily to suppress his fighter’s instinct, to fire back at perceptions his well-earned reputation wasn’t as pristine as portrayed.
It would be too bad, if proven true, because Izzo is more than a basketball icon and a Hall of Fame coach. He’s the face of a university, and years of integrity and openness in an often-dirty business earn him an initial benefit of the doubt.
Eventually, preferably soon, we’ll need to see and hear more. Doubt has seeped in, and it will not be easily erased. Yes, let’s wait for more conclusive evidence, one way or another. But sadly, nobody is coming out of this the same person they went in.