Lack of institutional control. A failure to protect its athletes from harm. The so-called NCAA death penalty.
That punishment and more are being suggested by critics as apt sanctions for Michigan State, where disgraced doctor Larry Nassar was employed as he sexually abused girls and young women for years under the pretense of treating their injuries.
In the wake of the scandal, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon announced her resignation Wednesday night.
“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she said in a statement. “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”
Many of Nassar’s victims accused the university of mishandling past complaints about him.
The NCAA sent a letter to Michigan State earlier this week asking for any potential rules violations related to Nassar, the first indication an investigation by the governing body might be next. But the NCAA could be wading back into territory where its authority is unclear and its track record is marred by memories of trying to punish Penn State for what assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky did in another horrific case involving child sex abuse.
“It’s Penn State all over again,” said Scott Tompsett, a veteran attorney who has represented coaches, athletic directors, athletes and schools in more than 100 NCAA infraction cases.
Tompsett said the NCAA’s authority over recruiting, eligibility, financial aid, practice and competition doesn’t mean it should be involved in high-profile cases like Sandusky or Nassar, who was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison for abusing seven women.
Many victims said they reported Nassar’s abuse to various members of Michigan State’s staff. Campus police got its first report regarding Nassar in 2014, but the Ingham County prosecutor declined to file charges. The school continued to employ him after he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation in 2014. Former Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages resigned last year after she was suspended for defending Nassar over the years.
The Michigan attorney general and the U.S. Olympic Committee are among those announcing plans to investigate how the Nassar allegations were handled. Attorneys handling civil cases against Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, among others, are also looking into those details.
And now the NCAA could be in the mix. Tompsett and other NCAA experts interviewed Wednesday said that could prove problematic.
“I think what Nassar did was egregious, terrible, awful, worse than paying a prospect to come to your school, worse than a shoe company paying a player to come to your school, worse than academic fraud,” said Josephine Potuto, a law professor at Nebraska and a former chair of the NCAA infractions committee. “But I don’t believe it belongs in the NCAA enforcement area. I just think the NCAA enforcement staff is not set up to investigate this. I don’t think there are bylaws set up for it. Nassar is being prosecuted, Michigan State is being sued.”
Michigan State’s Board of Trustees will gather Friday for a “work session,” according to school spokesman Jason Cody. The status of the school’s search for a new president will likely be a hot topic, if not the only one discussed behind closed doors along with perhaps a the future of athletic director Mark Hollis.
At Penn State , leaders lost their job and ended up in jail.
The NCAA sanctioned Penn State in 2012 for the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. Sandusky, a longtime assistant under coach Joe Paterno, had been convicted on 45 accounts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 10-year period after he retired from coaching. The NCAA did not investigate the case or go through its usual infractions process to punish Penn State.
Instead, the governing body used its executive committee comprised of university presidents to decide to sanction Penn State using the findings of an investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh into how much school officials knew about the accusations against Sandusky during and after his tenure as a coach.
Penn State officials agreed to the NCAA’s consent decree and was handed a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships. The school was also fined $60 million dollars and 112 of Paterno’s victories were vacated. In the settlement of a lawsuit against the NCAA, Paterno’s victories were restored. The postseason ban and scholarship restrictions were rolled back by the NCAA as the school implemented reforms recommended in the Freeh report.
“Penn State backfired on them,” said David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor and former NCAA compliance officer who is part of the NCAA watchdog Drake Group. “I think this will backfire on them, too. But they kind of shamed themselves into it. How could they not at least attempt to do something after Penn State, right? Then you’re essentially saying gymnastics and little girls aren’t as important.”
“NCAA legislation never was intended to subject member institutions to NCAA oversight and penalties for every injury or harm that might occur on an institution’s campus,” Tompsett said. “And it’s no answer to say, ‘Well, there’s never been anything this heinous before.’ Either NCAA rules apply to sexual assaults or they don’t. And if they do, it should be because the membership has clearly and unequivocally stated that they want the rules to apply to sexual assaults and schools are told in advance the expectations and standards. Not because administrators in Indianapolis decide on ad hoc basis that they apply.”
Michigan State’s Board of Trustees voiced their support of Simon last week only to have one of them, Mitch Lyons, issue a statement the next day saying she should resign. On Wednesday, a second trustee, Dianne Byrum, and U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters joined the chorus calling for Simon to step down.
The fallout includes Michigan State professor Sue Carter stepping down as the faculty’s athletic representative.
“I’m continually concerned about what appears to be the lack of genuine sadness not only about what the women experienced, but what the university’s role was with the person who did these deeds,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “I’ve raised these concerns. I had an exchange recently with President Simon that persuaded me to know my voice and the concerns of others are not being heard. I could no longer be part of an administration that was not in full grasp of the damage that has been done to the girls and women and to the institution itself.”
Adding to the misery at Michigan State, trustee Joel Ferguson laughed when asked if he feared the NCAA may get involved in a radio interview with radio station WVFN.
“To do what?” Ferguson asked. “This is not Penn State. And, they were dealing with their football program.”