College Sports

MORRISSEY: Michigan State protects image at all costs — even daughters

Maybe you’ve seen the yard signs reminding motorists to slow down: Drive Like Your Kids Live Here. If only the people in charge at Michigan State had had signs to remind them of their responsibility: Conduct Yourself As If Your Daughter Went to School Here.

How different things would have been today if those officials had made it personal instead of impersonal. There wouldn’t have been more than 150 women who accused a renowned university doctor of molesting them. There wouldn’t have been numerous allegations of sexual assault by Michigan State athletes swept under the rug like so much dust. Fewer people would have chosen a monolith over a woman.

This wouldn’t have happened if higher-ups had reduced the situation to one person: a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. A daughter. Their daughter.

But that’s not how it works at many schools with big-time sports programs. Football and men’s basketball are the financial engines that help drive universities. It’s why college coaches have become bigger than life. And out of this comes the almost maniacal need to protect an institution, an image, a legacy.

Kaylee Lorincz reacts as former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar listens to impact statements during the sentencing phase in Ingham County Circuit Court on Jan 24 in Lansing, Mich. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

There can’t be anyone who thinks Michigan State is an anomaly, an isolated problem. Not after Penn State. Even Notre Dame, which says it holds itself to a higher standard than other schools, has been accused of improper handling of sexual-assault cases. And this kind of thing goes back forever. If there was a star caveman, there was a caveman coach covering up his transgressions.

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But Michigan State stands before us as the latest brutal, brutish example of what happens when so-called adults choose loyalty to a collection of ivy-covered buildings over people in need of protecting.

How could Michigan State have allowed Dr. Larry Nassar to treat any other female athlete after the first one approached the school in the late 1990s saying he had molested her? In the same way that Penn State could have allowed Jerry Sandusky to continue coaching and doing charity work with young boys after the first allegation of perversion was made against him.

The institutional impulse was to believe Nassar, also the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, and Sandusky, a successful defensive coordinator, because of who they were and what they had accomplished. To believe the powerful over the vulnerable. And then, when the depths of their depravity became clear, the objective among officials shifted to protecting the school at all costs. This is human nature at its worst.

It’s what has led so many creepy Penn State fans to continue to complain that the university has been penalized unfairly for the sins of one man. If there’s anything that these scandals teach us, it’s that one sin begets many other sins by many other people. Sins of commission and sins of omission, of acting and not acting.

It’s how a school such as Michigan State initially could let the athletic department investigate sexual-assault claims against athletes, a clear conflict of interest. It’s how, as the New York Times reports, the school could hire Patrick Fitzgerald, the former top federal prosecutor in northern Illinois, to conduct an internal investigation into Nassar’s actions and to protect the school from legal action. Another ridiculous conflict of interest.

I’d like to think that something is changing this time, with the #MeToo movement as the prime mover, but I lack the trust gene when it comes to large organizations. Outraged students at Michigan State are saying, ‘‘Enough.’’ Nassar will be in prison for the rest of his life. The university’s president has resigned, the athletic director has announced his retirement and basketball coach Tom Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio are shaking in their shoes. It’s a start.

But there has to be a culture change among athletes. It takes an incredibly low opinion of women to force yourself on someone. It reduces a woman to a thing. I don’t know how you change that thinking. It has to start well before those men arrive at college. It has something to do with the entitlement of star athletes from a young age. It has to do with universities putting so much emphasis on sports.

When you make the football or basketball coach the highest-paid public employee in the state, as many state schools do, you take one step toward what has happened at Michigan State. When the message in that salary is that winning is everything, then you take a step toward ugliness. It’s built into the equation. Whenever a coach’s continued employment is predicated on his best players being eligible at all costs, you’re asking for trouble.

Creating a minor-league system that would get colleges out of big-time athletics only would push the problem somewhere else. It doesn’t solve the root cause.

The issue before us is the way institutions deal with people who don’t have power, with people whose voices are drowned out by the roar of the crowd. No matter what these institutions might think, women aren’t invisible. They’re standing right there. Sisters. Daughters. Fellow human beings. All it takes is open eyes.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com