Niyo: Surreal scene at Michigan State won't go quietly

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Demonstrators gather at "The Rock" on MSU's East Lansing campus on Friday to support victims of Larry Nassar and call for more changes in leadership.

East Lansing — The students marched through the Michigan State campus in a column of defiance Friday evening, determined to make their voices heard.

“Silence is compliance,” they chanted as they made their way to a rally at the Hannah Administration Building. Once there, one of the organizers of the demonstration, Siaira Milroy, told the crowd that while it was “heartbreaking” to see Michigan State in the national spotlight for all the horrific reasons it is right now, that’s all the more reason to speak up and “to call out the university we love.”

A couple hours later, inside the Breslin Center, a half-hour before tip-off of sixth-ranked Michigan State’s 76-61 victory over Wisconsin, there was another voice striking a defiant tone in a brief media appearance. One that was held in front of a backdrop suddenly devoid of corporate sponsor logos, by the way.

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It was Mark Dantonio, the Spartans’ football coach, walked to the podium and read a prepared statement, offering support to the scores of survivors who’d spent most of the last two weeks in an Ingham County courtroom shining a spotlight on the crimes committed by former Michigan State sports doctor Larry Nassar.

Then it was Dantonio’s turn to defend himself in the wake of a new ESPN investigative report that raised serious questions about the way Michigan State and its highest-profile figures  Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo  have handled allegations of sexual assault involving their players over the years.

Dantonio called one specific claim in the ESPN story “completely false” and went on to insist, “We have always had high standards in this program, and that will never change.” He talked about following the rules and teaching values and tackling problems head-on, all of which might sound fine in a vacuum.

Burning questions

But that’s not what this Michigan State campus is right now. It’s a furnace, at the moment, not a vacuum. And Friday night, there was no way anyone was going to be able to put out the fires, what with all these serious questions unanswered and investigations to come.

Not Dantonio, less than a month removed from a triumphant finish to another 10-win season that ended him boasting, “We’re not done. We’re just getting started.” Not Izzo, who was asked to dispel wild rumors of a pending retirement announcement shortly after his team improved to 19-3 on the season. And certainly not a university administration that finally held an open meeting earlier Friday to apologize for its myriad failings in the Nassar case.

Not even the students can do it at the moment, though it was heartening Friday night to see the Izzone draped in teal to support sexual abuse victims and, as one organizer explained, to “let them know they're not alone.” In addition to the T-shirts, Izzone leaders also started a fundraising campaign this week that by tip-off had raised more than $6,000 for MSU’s Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention team and the Firecracker Foundation, which provides services for abused children.

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More: Spartan community rallies for victims, change

Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s sophomore point guard, said afterward he wished the players had been aware of the students’ plans, while suggesting the team might wear teal-colored warmups in the future, “just because our hearts go out to the survivors, too.” And yet it had to be jarring for some in the arena to hear a large contingent of that same student section chanting, “We love Iz-zo!” at halftime of Friday’s game, only hours after ESPN’s report dropped.

It was strange as well to listen to Izzo’s subdued postgame press conference, which lasted nearly 12 minutes but lacked the usual frank answers from the Spartans’ fiery coach. A week ago, he’d been pilloried for a stray comment he made in addressing the Nassar case. Friday, he wasn’t about to say anything that would get himself  or his university  in more trouble.

Trying to understand

Izzo began with a statement in support of Nassar’s survivors. And he kept going back to that, even when questioned directly about some of the incidents in the ESPN story, including alleged assaults involving former stars Adreian Payne and Keith Appling and, in a new revelation, former MSU captain Travis Walton, one of Izzo’s beloved leaders who was staying at the coach’s home while finishing his degree and serving as a graduate assistant.

Izzo acknowledged he’d seen the report, but declined to address it, saying, “I’ll hold judgement on that until I really get a chance to sit down and look at everything, to be honest.”

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He said much the same when asked about the retirements of MSU president Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis, though he has been a staunch supporter of both through the years. It wasn’t until he was finally asked to describe his feelings about all of this  the scandal, the continuing fallout, and the uncertain future  that Izzo let down his guard just a little bit.

“You know, you reflect on a lot when you go through these kind of things,” Izzo said. “Like everybody else, you’re looking at who to blame, you blame yourself, you do this and you do that and you blame other people. But I just kept saying to myself, ‘How selfish am I?’”

So instead, the coach said, he reached out to one of the parents of Nassar victims “just to kind of try to understand. … And I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna worry about them and how I can make this a better place.’”

It’s what everyone on this campus needs to do now, in their own way. But if Friday was any indication, the march toward normalcy is going to take some strange turns, and some time. Maybe more time than anyone here is ready  or willing  to admit.