- Michigan State's missteps in the Larry Nassar scandal continued Tuesday, when school trustee Joel Ferguson referred to the ongoing investigation as "just this Nassar thing."
Just this Nassar thing. Those four words, spoken by prominent Michigan State trustee Joel Ferguson Tuesday, are appalling but unsurprising. They were completely in character for Ferguson, and absolutely indicative of how the school has viewed the Larry Nassar scandal.
There have been an astounding number of victim-impact statements (more than 150 as of Tuesday) in the Nassar case, and how much impact have they really had at Michigan State? The school still doesn’t get it. MSU keeps acting like this is a public-relations problem instead of a tragic failure of leadership.
The case against Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon is not as simple as her harshest critics have made it out to be, but it is damning. Do you know the old saying about how it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you? We need to divide this case into three parts: the crime, the cover-up, and the response.
The crimes are why Judge Rosemarie Aquilina will surely send Nassar to prison for the rest of his life. The cover-up started with those who ignored the pleas from survivors: that includes former Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, who was told repeatedly about Nassar’s crimes, a few other MSU employees, and the leadership at USA Gymnastics. USAG had plenty of evidence that Nassar was a monster. Executives there authorized a seven-figure hush payment to star McKayla Maroney. Star Aly Raisman told ESPN that USAG told her to stay quiet. Their cover-up wrecked lives.
Simon’s failure—and Michigan State’s failure—has come after Nassar was exposed. The failure has been egregious and fundamental, and it continues to this day.
There is very little evidence that Simon knew Nassar was sexually assaulting his patients. Sure, Simon was informed in 2014 that the university was investigating Nassar. But there are 50,000 students at Michigan State. It’s not reasonable to expect Simon to know everything about every investigation—and in 2014, the breadth and scope of Nassar’s crimes was still a secret.
But in the last two years, where has Michigan State been? The school failed to show much empathy. It failed to properly investigate. Where are the quotes from Simon expressing disgust that this happened on her watch? Where is the fury at Klages? Why isn’t she outraged that her school botched its 2014 investigation?
In 2014, Michigan State conducted its Title IX investigation of Nassar—and allowed him to choose one of the doctors who would ultimately clear him. It let him practice for 16 months while he was being investigated—and of course, he kept assaulting at that time. In the end, Nassar was cleared to return to work, but he was told he needed to have a chaperone in the room during "sensitive" treatments, which itself is disgusting. Would you see a doctor if you knew he needed a chaperone in the room?
Simon should have led the charge on this more than a year ago. She didn’t.
Instead of acknowledging Michigan State’s failures, she claimed it was “virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile.” Instead of moral leadership, the Michigan State community gets Simon showing up in court for part of one day—and then, only after survivors and the media called her out. They get the MSU board of trustees publicly supporting her in the hopes that this will fade.
And of course, they get Ferguson, the vice chairman of the board, proudly telling radio host Tim Staudt that the board only talked about Simon’s status for “10 minutes” and that “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”
It got worse. Ferguson called Nassar “this pervert,” and referred to “the young ladies who have been wronged,” which severely understates his behavior and their pain. He also said, “When people find out that this person was on an island by himself, they’ll move on.”
Of course, Nassar wasn’t on an island by himself. That is an absolutely idiotic statement. Klages was on that island. The dean of MSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine, William Stampel—who has been named in several lawsuits and who failed to enforce the little discipline that Nassar was supposed to receive—was on that island. Athletic trainers were on that island. The people who botched the 2014 investigation walked around that island.
If you tried to wager on “Joel Ferguson says something asinine,” we have bad news: Nobody would take that bet. People who have followed Michigan State for a long time understand who Ferguson is: ridiculously tone-deaf on his best day, and generally happy as long as Michigan State wins sporting events. Like many university trustees around the country, he is a power broker, not an educator, and his interest in sports is as a booster and a fan.
Die-hard MSU fans remember how he publicly opposed the hiring of John L. Smith as football coach, then undermined Smith for most of his tenure. They may not remember what he said when Smith was finally fired:
“Let's get really real here. People don't get fired for off-the-field incidents. That's not why people get fired. Wins and losses are why people get fired …
“And the other thing, let's get real, too. People talk about grade-point (averages). Anytime you hear people talking about grade-points, you know they're not winning. We can dance around all these things, but just be real."
It sounds like Ferguson examined the Nassar situation and concluded that his football team went 10-3. But if you expect somebody to stand on principle at Michigan State, it won’t be Ferguson. Ever.
Larry Nassar would have been a pedophile anywhere. That does not excuse Michigan State’s actions here. The school has been alternately callous and clueless. To the rest of the country, what happened in a Lansing courtroom in the past week was heartbreaking and inspiring. To Michigan State, it’s just this Nassar thing. What a disgrace.