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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Blameless?

December 15, 2017

Without any doubt, Michigan State University is mired in the biggest sex scandal in the history of college athletics. Former MSU women’s gymnastics physician Larry Nassar may have molested at least 144 women and girls under his care.

He’s already pleaded guilty to federal child pornography and state sexual assault charges. He’s unlikely to ever get out of prison.

But now for the really bad news:

Michigan State is facing a vast number of lawsuits that seem likely to cost the university hundreds of millions – if not more.

The Lansing State Journal is calling for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign or be fired, and when asked their opinions privately, there are few in politics or higher education in Michigan who think the 70-year-old president can long survive.

It’s not yet known how devastating this will be to MSU, the state’s pioneer land grant university – though it is sure to deal a major blow to the university’s finances and reputation.

But what’s also clear – though not yet well understood – is that the scandal may play a role in next year’s race for governor.

And who that hurts –or helps – is anyone’s guess.

This much is not in dispute: For years, Dr. Larry Nassar inappropriately and painfully rammed his hands inside the bodies of the young women athletes under his care. Those who complained said they were told it was legitimate medical treatment.

Some were told that he was an “Olympic doctor,” and not to complain. Nassar, indeed, provided some medical services to both the U.S. Olympic team and USA Gymnastics. But at all three institutions, it seemed that women who complained were not taken seriously.

One MSU investigation cleared him of sexual assault in 2014, but the university failed to take safeguards thereafter.

Finally, one courageous woman, Rachel Denhollander, filed a police report in August 2016, and that prompted a flood of others.

Evidence, including child pornography seized from Nassar’s computer, showed him sexually abusing some very young girls. He was fired in September 2016. Two months later, he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a child in his home. That was soon followed by child pornography charges, and a torrent of lawsuits against Michigan State by present and former athletes.

The school’s response was to hunker down. Kathie Klages, the head coach of women’s gymnastics, retired after several women said she told them to keep quiet about what Nassar did to them.

But otherwise, the university has taken the position that nobody knew anything about what was going on. Patrick Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor, was hired by Michigan State to examine the case.

Last week, he gave the university a clean bill of health, saying “the evidence in this case will show that no one at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior,” and that “it is clear that Nassar fooled everyone around him – patients, friends, colleagues, and fellow doctors at MSU.” But that essentially satisfied no one.

The Lansing State Journal, a newspaper generally supportive of its hometown university, ran a front-page editorial calling for MSU President Simon, to resign or be fired, “due to MSU’s inability to keep women safe from sexual assault and harassment on campus … the time has come to hold her accountable.”

MSU’s Board of Trustees issued a statement saying “we disagree vehemently. Our full confidence in President Lou Anna K. Simon has never wavered. We firmly believe she is the right leader.”

But strong statements from the board will do little to protect the university from being held accountable when the bills for the lawsuits come rolling in. Five years ago, Pennsylvania State University was rocked by a scandal in which Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach, sexually abused young boys.

Eventually, the school, also a public land-grant institution like Michigan State had to pay $93 million in damages—but when legal fees were added in, the cost came to at least $243 million.

Michigan State is potentially facing something far costlier. There were 33 lawsuits against Penn State from Sandusky’s victims. So far, four times that many women have filed charges against MSU.

The scandal also may have a political dimension. Gretchen Whitmer, the front-running candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, was Ingham County prosecutor when the story of Nassar’s crimes broke at MSU – but did not file charges.

When I asked her about this, she said “at that time, we were working with MSU to try to get all the evidence we could against Nassar. His crimes occurred in two counties – Ingham and Eaton, and we felt that we should therefore to work with the (Michigan) attorney general’s office and let him prosecute the case.”

That may make sense – but that attorney general, Bill Schuette, is the likely Republican candidate for governor next year.

Don’t be surprised if the fall campaign features Schuette attacking Whitmer for not filing charges – and she firing back that it was his responsibility and he didn’t move fast enough.

Now, Whitmer is calling on Schuette to get the state police to launch an investigation into MSU’s handling of the scandal.

State Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage), and one of the victims are calling on the legislature to investigate MSU.

Clearly this isn’t going away soon — and few will be satisfied with the university’s claim that it inspected itself and was blameless. Something else might give school officials pause:

Graham Spanier, who was president of Penn State when their scandal happened, lost his job and was sentenced to jail in June after being convicted of child endangerment. He is appealing his sentence.

And no, nobody thought that could ever happen there, either.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

December 14, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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