When Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis announced his retirement Friday, he said this in a statement: “This was not an easy decision for my family, and you should not jump to any conclusions based on our decision—listen to facts. I am not running away from anything, I am running toward something. Comfort, compassion and understanding for the survivors and our community; togetherness, time and love for my family.”
The “not running away” line was a foolish one to put in a statement, because Hollis had to know the very thing he was running away from was going to appear on ESPN’s website only hours later. Hollis advised listening to facts, and the meticulously reported investigation by Paula Lavigne and Nicole Noren provided a set of facts that cast Hollis and his administration in a terrible light. An athletic department that had bungled its handling of accusations against university-employed physician Larry Nassar—who was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting more than 100 young female patients over two decades—apparently was terrible at handling accusations of sexual violence in general. Cases involving accusations against football and basketball players appear to suffer from some of the same flaws as the response to the accusations against Nassar. And when anyone tried to look into how the department dealt with such cases, the school stalled, obscured and held back records. Michigan State even went so far as to sue ESPN for requesting records which are obviously public under Michigan's open records law. Fortunately, a judge dismissed that lawsuit, knowing it would set a terrible precedent if a public institution could effectively duck legitimate records requests by saddling requestors with legal fees.
Officials at the school and the athletic department acted like people with something to hide, probably because some of them were hiding something.
But now a reckoning is coming. The public charge is being led by the 156 survivors who spoke at Nassar’s sentencing hearing, and they’re insisting on real action. The question now is who will remain employed at Michigan State once more facts come to light. Rocks are about to get turned over in East Lansing. Michigan’s attorney general plans to investigate the school’s role in the Nassar case, and it only makes sense that the attorney general and the U.S. government’s Office of Civil Rights also would—and should—want to examine how Michigan State and its athletic department handle these cases in general. Because it’s possible the Nassar accusations were botched for years because Michigan State established a culture guaranteed to mishandle such issues.
A few months ago, the triumvirate of Hollis, football coach Mark Dantonio and men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo seemed like one of the safest, most stable groups in college sports. Few schools could boast such an accomplished combination of athletic director, football coach and men’s basketball coach. Now Hollis is out along with Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon, and Dantonio and Izzo are about to get grilled about their handling of various cases through the years. And given the information coming to light, Dantonio and Izzo also need to answer some hard questions. The most obvious investigative target is former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, who resigned last year shortly after she was suspended by Michigan State once school officials began to realize the seriousness of the Nassar case. Trainers accused of ignoring reports from former Nassar patients also need to be examined. But so should staffers in sports whose athletes had no contact with Nassar, because the entire department needs to be examined at this point to determine whether the issues with the Nassar accusations were the biggest problem or symptoms of a larger one.
ESPN’s report is thorough and included as much information from accuser and accused as the reporters can gather, but it isn’t definitive. No decisions need to be made yet. But people with subpoena power need to re-examine each of these cases individually—not only the Nassar cases, but all of them—and determine whether Michigan State officials handled them appropriately. The Nassar case and the ESPN report suggest systemic issues with the way the school and athletic department handled these situations. If that’s the case, the people causing these problems need to be removed and school and athletic department policies need to be rewritten to allow for more thorough and transparent investigations. If some of those people happen to be highly successful football or basketball coaches, so be it.
The NCAA, which has promised its own investigation, needs to sit this one out and let the grown-ups handle it. The NCAA doesn’t have the relevant bylaws or mechanisms to properly punish the guilty. Its response to something like this would probably be to take scholarships away. That affects people who are currently in high school, not adults who bungled, ignored or deliberately cast aside reports of sexual violence. The people who handled these situations properly need to be retained and probably promoted. Those who handled them improperly need to be fired and possibly prosecuted and jailed.
Now, it's time for people with the power to do the prosecuting and jailing to start asking a lot of questions of a lot of people. And those people need to stop worrying about protecting Michigan State’s reputation. Michigan State’s reputation is already in tatters. The only way to rebuild it is to find the truth—however ugly it may be—root out everyone whose actions or inaction contributed to evil and start anew.