Earlier this week, over 150 survivors of sexual assault at the hands of former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar wrote an open letter to the MSU Board of Trustees, urging them to fire interim president John Engler.
The letter — which was timed to coincide with a scheduled Board of Trustees meeting on Friday morning, where a motion to fire Engler failed 6-2 despite the pleas of Nassar survivors and supporters during the public comment portion of the agenda — was incredibly powerful, but it also served to highlight just how much of the work towards remedying the culture of abuse at MSU has rested squarely on the shoulders of the ones who were victimized by it. They’re not just the loudest voices; often, they’ve been the only voices.
It begs the question: Why has there been so much silence from the people in the MSU community who have the most power — mainly, corporate sponsors, wealthy donors, and influential alumni? Money talks, but only if the ones who have it actually speak up.
When Michigan Live reached out to MSU’s main sponsors in early February, most of them said they were continuing their partnership with the school, but were “closely monitoring” the situation, with the expectation that MSU would cooperate with any investigation. Since then, pretty much every move that Engler and his precessor Lou Anna K. Simon has made has further torpedoed the school’s relationship with survivors. As for the school’s cooperation, Michigan’s Attorney General threatened to seek a search warrant against MSU because the school has been obstructing their probe into their handling of allegations against Nassar.
With that in mind, ThinkProgress reached out to Nike — MSU’s athletics apparel sponsor, which has a 10-year, $33 million deal with the school — and asked a simple question: As a major sponsor of MSU athletics, do you support the survivors’ request for the firing of Engler? `
Through a spokeswoman, Nike provided the following response: “We stand behind all survivors and support their voices being heard. We continue to closely monitor events at Michigan State University.”
Nike wasn’t the only MSU sponsor to provide a non-answer — in truth, they were one of only two sponsors who provided any answer at all. Huntington Bank, Farm Bureau Insurance, Michigan State University Credit Union, and McLaren Health Care all didn’t respond to inquiries. Sparrow Health System did respond, only to say it had made “no decisions” regarding the future of its sponsorship with MSU. This is the exact same thing Sparrow said back in February. (ThinkProgress will update with responses if they come in after publication.)
Also deafeningly silent in all of this? Notable MSU alumni, such as Magic Johnson, Draymond Green, Steve Smith, and Kirk Cousins, all who carry an immense amount of clout in the Spartan community. Crickets.
Remember, nobody is expecting or even asking these companies and stars to go out on a limb or make a controversial statement. The message they are being asked to send is simply: Sexual assault is bad, and those who enable it should be held accountable. Nike’s reluctance is particularly notable given who else they sponsor: Gabby Douglas, one of the young women victimized by Michigan State’s doctor. Nike outfits both a victim of sexual assault and her tormenters, and for now, the company is standing by her abusers.
As for Engler, he is hardly a beloved figure. In fact, when you look at his actions over the past five months, supporting his presidency seems like a far more controversial choice than calling for his ouster. Engler has only been the interim President at Michigan State University for five months, and he’s already done a lifetimes worth of damage.
In March, Engler actively campaigned against a bipartisan package of bills crafted by Michigan lawmakers and Nassar survivors that would expand the rights of sexual assault victims. When Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to publicly come forward with sexual assault allegations against Nassar, condemned Engler for his lobbying, Engler proceeded to insult Denhollander through his spokesman, John Truscott.
“I think it would be inappropriate for somebody to try to cast an opinion on something they know nothing about,” Truscott told ESPN. “Here you have people who don’t have experience in legislative process making comment about legislative process.”
Denhollander, it must be noted, is an attorney and used to work in the Michigan legislature. And Engler’s rhetoric ignited a new wave of hate-fueled trolling directed at Denhollander and other Nassar survivors.
MSU Pres. Engler's choice to lie about survivors, legislation, and mediation yesterday – instead of blaming MSU leaders who covered up the abuse – means survivors and parents getting harassing, blaming messages today. WRONG. #MSUShameonyou
— Rachael Denhollander (@R_Denhollander) March 17, 2018
In April, MSU revealed identifying information about a Jane Doe who filed a Title IX lawsuit alleging that she was gang raped by MSU basketball players; Engler publicly threatened 18-year-old Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz at a Board of Trustees meeting after she revealed that Engler had privately approached her, without the presence of her lawyer, and offered her hush money.
“Be careful,” Engler told Lorincz at the board meeting. Through it all, he kept his job.
Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Detroit Free Press reported that after that trustees meeting, Engler sent an email to other members of the board accusing Denhollander of taking kickbacks from her attorney. Engler apologized for those emails a full eight days after they were made public, and only after he went on a two-day retreat with trustees, who likely had to coach him through the act of contrition.
While two trustees have called for Engler to be fired, the other trustees felt that Engler’s eight-days-late mea culpa was enough to save his job.
Every day reveals a new layer of awfulness. This week, the Free Press revealed that Engler intervened and killed stories in MSU’s alumni magazine that addressed MSU’s cultural problems, and instead forced the magazine to focus on the “positive” ways the university was responding. The planned issue was supposed to showcase the color teal often, which is the color Nassar survivors and their allies wear to show solidarity. But when Engler saw it, he reportedly said, “Get that teal shit out of here.”
— RJ Wolcott (@WolcottR) June 22, 2018
Also this week? The Detroit News reported that the Michigan attorney general’s office said MSU is “wrongfully withholding information” and not cooperating with its investigation.
It’s more understandable why Nassar survivors are calling for Engler to be fired. It’s completely inexcusable why powerful stakeholders aren’t joining them.
Sure, a search for a permanent president is underway, but it’s still staggering that anyone could look at Engler’s actions over the past few months and feel like he’s the right person to lead the university in the wake of the largest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
The survivors are leading the way, but they shouldn’t have to be the leaders, followers, and everyone in between. At this point, financial pressure might be the only way to truly hold those in power accountable. The time for “monitoring” is up.
Organizations like Nike are saying that they stand with survivors, but in reality, they’re taking a seat and shutting their mouths when it matters the most.