Michigan State: Vigilance trumped again in high-stakes `amateur' sports world

After watching and reading ESPN’s comprehensive report on the alleged sexual misconduct within Michigan State the football and basketball programs, my first thought was compassion for the victims.

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How could these misdeeds take place? And how could the system protect the perpetrators so unblinkingly? The behavior that was tolerated in those men’s programs, combined with the unspeakable crimes of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar paint an appalling picture of Michigan State athletics.

My second thought? Is this worse than the Penn State scandal?

Before I could decide, I caught myself saying, ``Has it really come to this? That the worst possible behavior, protected by the highest authorities at major universities, is so common that it’s time to rank scandals?’’

So let’s not focus on which is the worst. Let’s simply agree that they both are unacceptable. And yearn for simpler times when academic fraud or recruiting improprieties seemed like the worst things.

The real questions are: How do these things happen? How do we not have safeguards in place that nip this kind of depravity in the bud, rather than let it fester and grow for years.

The answer I come back to is this: We love our sports so much that we have created a monster. Or monsters, if you will.

The money is so huge, the stakes are so high, that anything that stands in the way of success—of winning, and the dollars that come with winning—is swept under the rug, ignored, covered up. Choose your phrase.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

A predatory coach or doctor whose depraved acts might hurt recruiting or funding, or tarnish a program? Athletes engaged in criminal activity? Talented recruits who have checkered resumes?

What comes first is success. The money is too huge, the glory is too wonderful to let anything or anyone stand in its way.

Get used to it. We love our sports too much. More safeguards will be put in place, as if the ones we already have aren’t enough. But the risk-reward will grow with the money and attention. Coaches will downplay the criminal acts of their athletes. Predators will worm their way into the system and be tolerated, because the cover-ups will be more expedient than the truth.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, who both have—or had—reputations for doing things the right way.

They both sound like they sincerely believe they have been on top of their players’ crimes and punishments. But the top-notch ESPN reporting, which includes interviews with brave victims and a former compliance officer, provides compelling evidence that points the other way.

I was never around Dantonio in a meaningful way. That’s the shrinking newspaper world. By the time he arrived, my changing workload was such that I didn’t do one-on-ones with coaches from around the league. I’m guessing that didn’t disappoint the coaches, either.

In hindsight, if local newspapers had remained robust, they might have been digging in on the stories that ESPN has brought to light. Enhanced coverage of small early misdeeds might have prevented the cover-ups and stonewalling that allowed the abuse to get out of hand.

But that ship has sailed.

With Tom Izzo, I don’t know what to think. I’ve known him since he was an assistant to Jud Heathcote, and I’ve always thought he was everything you wanted in a coach.

I’m sure there are rationalizations for what happened on the watches of Dantonio and Izzo. But it’s pretty tough to go there.

Their situations might be different if the Nassar prosecution hadn’t put such an unblinking spotlight on Michigan State athletics.

But that's the way it is. It's difficult to see how the new Michigan State president and athletic director, when they are chosen, can sell sweeping change if Dantonio and Izzo remain. In a sense, they could wind up as `victims,' too.

And when, by the way, will Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany weigh in on the troubles in East Lansing? His view, from a conference that prides itself in doing things the right way, ought to give an indication of where the Big Ten intends to go from here.

I also wonder what the direct response will be in terms of preventing future misbehavior. A big problem is that it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are established if they’re ignored.

The place we come back to is that the stakes are so high.

I would vote for going back to simpler times, when head coaches didn’t make $5 million a year, when commissioners didn’t receive $20 million bonuses after negotiating television contracts that paid each athletic department $40 million.

A simpler time when a coach who declined to recruit miscreants could have a bad year or two and not lose his job. A time when games were played when students were on campus, rather than when television networks needed programming.

In other words, a time when college sports were more about sports and less about money.

But you know what? That’s not gonna happen.

And so, we need to keep making rules designed to prevent abuses, and keep depending on good watchdogs—while knowing that there will always be bad apples. Because the already-high stakes keep getting higher.[/membership]