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There was only one way Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo could have come across well when he addressed reporters on Friday night.
He needed to be transparent and accountable about how he handled the sexual assault allegations against Spartans players that were the focus of an explosive ESPN “Outside the Lines” report earlier in the day.
Izzo didn’t come close to achieving that goal during an 11-minute news conference that provided few answers. Clearly fearful of saying anything that could come across tone-deaf or inflammatory and stir up more controversy, Izzo struck a somber, respectful tone, said next to nothing and did his best to stay on message.
In his opening statement, Izzo reiterated his sympathy for the survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse and pledged to be part of the “healing process” at Michigan State. He also promised to cooperate with any investigations into how his program has dealt with allegations of sexual assault in the past.
“That’s about all I have to say about it,” Izzo said. “I understand you may have a million questions. I’m probably not going to answer them. I’m going to stick to what I said.”
Izzo largely lived up to that vow of silence, declining further comment on the alleged sexual assaults mentioned in the “Outside the Lines” piece and attempting to steer the conversation back to the Nassar survivors whenever possible. The only question that inspired an answer from Izzo that didn’t sound well-rehearsed was one about whether he intended to retire at the end of the season.
“I’m not going anywhere in my mind,” he said. “I’m definitely not retiring.”
Izzo’s news conference capped a trying week at Michigan State during which the university has come under fire for how it has handled sexual abuse allegations.
Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor also employed by Michigan State, was sentenced to decades in prison Wednesday for sexually abusing more than 150 girls under his care. Some of his victims alleged that Michigan State did not properly investigate complaints about Nassar and could have done more to end his reign of terror sooner.
Izzo was first drawn into that hurricane of negative publicity when he offered a well-meaning yet poorly worded defense of Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon last Friday. He later apologized for saying “I hope the right person was convicted” and clarified that Nassar “deserves all the punishment he receives.”
One week later, following the resignations of Simon and Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, Izzo was once again thrown into the maelstrom. The “OTL” piece attempted to tie Nassar’s atrocities to physical and sexual violence allegations against the Michigan State football and men’s basketball programs.
The most damning part of the story for Izzo involved Travis Walton, an ex-Michigan State player who was allegedly allowed to remain a student-assistant coach in 2010 despite misdemeanor assault charges for punching a female student in the face at a bar. A few months later, Walton and two other players were reportedly accused of raping a different female student after the Spartans had advanced to the Final Four.
Izzo then fired Walton, according to “Outside the Lines”, but the investigation into the alleged rape was handled internally by the athletic department.
Also in ESPN’s story was a detailed account of a previously reported incident involving former Michigan State basketball players Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. A female Michigan State student accused them of raping her in their dorm room in September 2010, but no charges were filed and neither player was suspended.
The common denominator with these incidents and so many recent college sports scandals is that the folks in charge of alerting the police, being transparent with the public or handing out discipline have an incentive to bury information. Sometimes it’s to protect a friend or colleague. Other times it’s out of fear of how it will affect their team, their brand or their job.
Until disciplinary power is in the hands of someone besides coaches and university administrators, expect problems to continue. Recent high-profile scandals at Penn State and Baylor are proof there’s too big a conflict of interest, as are less publicized instances at other schools of key players being allowed to keep playing while under investigation for rape.
A reckoning is underway in this country regarding sexual violence against women, a tidal wave of change that has engulfed Hollywood and now sports. Atrocious behavior that was once tolerated is no longer permissible anymore.
Izzo has a significant enough platform that he could speak out against culture of covering up sexual violence in college athletics and push for meaningful reform. He could be open and honest about how he has handled sexual assault allegations in the past in hopes others can learn from the choices he has made.
At the very least, Izzo owes his university a more honest, forthright explanation of his actions than what he offered during Friday’s news conference.
Sooner or later he’ll have to provide one.
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