Another day, another head-scratching move by Michigan State University as it continues to bungle the fallout from Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.
This week, the Lansing State Journal reported that a law firm representing Michigan State sent a letter to the NCAA in March notifying them that Nassar, under the guise of medical treatment, sexually assaulted at least 25 MSU student-athletes between 1997-2016, including six student-athletes since 2014, when MSU botched its Title IX investigation into Nassar’s abuse.
Commendable transparency by Michigan State? Oh no: the letter was sent to make it clear that, despite rampant sexual assaults, “no violations of NCAA rules occurred with regard to the criminal conduct of Dr. Larry Nassar, a former employee at the University.”
Never mind that Nassar is a former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of people — primarily young women and girls — sometimes with their parents in the room. Never mind that a lot of his sexual abuse occurred on MSU’s campus, where he regularly saw patients, including student-athletes from across MSU’s athletics department. Never mind that MSU employees, including athletic department employees, were told about Nassar’s abuse multiple times over the last 20 years, and failed to take the allegations seriously.
Never mind the fact that the Michigan legislature concluded, with “absolutely no doubt,” that MSU failed to adequately protect students and patients — including the school’s NCAA athletes — who visited Nassar on campus. Never mind that former MSU gymnastics head coach Kathy Klages asked her team, which included survivors of Nassar’s abuse, to sign a card of support for him after he was fired from MSU due to the allegations of sexual abuse in 2016.
No, what really matters, according to MSU, is that Nassar refrained from buying lunch for any athletes during recruiting visits. Or that he declined to help pay an electricity bill for a family member of a Spartan athlete. Those, you see, would be clear violations of NCAA bylaws. Nassar isn’t a case that should concern the NCAA, according to Michigan State.
MSU’s letter was in response to an inquiry the NCAA began in January, when Nassar’s crimes gained wide attention thanks to the more than 150 survivors who provided victim impact statements at his sentencing hearings in Michigan.
But the NCAA has not shown urgency in its response to Nassar’s abuse. In fact, in mid January, after days of televised, heart-wrenching testimony by dozens of Nassar’s victims, NCAA president Mark Emmert told reporters he didn’t have an opinion on what occurred at MSU because he didn’t “have enough information on the details of what transpired at the school right now.” At that point, the allegations against Nassar had been public knowledge for 18 months, and Nassar had pleaded guilty to sexual abuse. Ignorance was not an excuse.
We’ll have to wait and see if the NCAA agrees with MSU’s claim that all NCAA guidelines were followed. Their argument hinges on technicalities — that Nassar didn’t provide any benefits to MSU student-athletes that were against NCAA bylaws; that he didn’t commit any recruitment violations; and that he didn’t violate the “unethical conduct legislation” bylaw, which deals specifically with banned substances and medications. MSU says it is “unaware of any evidence that Nassar provided banned substances, impermissible supplements, or medication to student-athletes contrary to approved guidelines and standards.”
MSU also told the NCAA that it could not find a case precedent that showed the “unethical conduct legislation” would apply to “sexually abusive conduct.” And, while there is an NCAA bylaw that “identifies the well-being of student-athletes as an imperative for Division I members,” MSU noted that particular bylaw was meant to serve merely as a guide, and is not subject to enforcement procedures.
“I trust that you will see that the University is in no way attempting to sidestep the issues facing it, and that if the University had any reason to believe the criminal conduct of Nassar also implicated NCAA rules violations, the University would accept responsibility in that area as well,” attorney Mike Glazier, of the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC wrote in the letter.
One thing is certain: if the NCAA agrees with MSU — that the sexual abuse of more than two dozen student-athletes by a team doctor, and multiple mishandled reports and investigations into that doctor’s behavior by MSU officials over an 18-year period, isn’t a violation of NCAA guidelines — then a new set of guidelines are decades overdue.