Where the hell do you start?
We thought the lessons were finally learned after the Penn State scandal.
Then we thought the lessons were learned once and for all in the Baylor scandal.
Now we have a mess at Michigan State.
This much we know:
**--A monster named Larry Nassar will never see the outside of a prison cell after being convicted of the sexual assaulting over 160 women as a team doctor of USA Gymnastics.
**--Nassar had been employed as a sports physician at Michigan State since 1997 and some of the assaults took place in the school’s facilities.
**--Reporting from ESPN last week charged that Michigan State had improperly handled charges of sexual assault and domestic violence against members of its football and men’s basketball teams. Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis resigned. The university president, Lou Anna Simon, has also resigned.
Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo have said they have no intention of resigning. Ultimately, that may not be their decision to make. An investigation by the state attorney general is ongoing.
It all comes back to two recurring issues:
**--A lack of transparency in the way SOME schools handle accusations of sexual and physical assault, particularly when the charges are against an athlete.
**--The fact that the instinct of big institutions is to protect the brand first and then protect the students second—or third.
That’s gotta change.
I’m not a lawyer. But based on a layman’s knowledge of the system, here are five things that need to happen right now:
1—Coaches must be entirely removed from the process: If a report of an alleged sexual assault comes to a coach, that coach must walk immediately to the school’s Title IX office and report it. There must be documentation of this report and that document must be available under the Freedom of Information Act. The names of the accused and the victim can be redacted to protect due process. Then the coach must stay out of the way and no longer be involved.
In short, when Dantonio, one of the most respected coaches in the country, says he reported every accusation of sexual assault that came to his attention to the proper authority, the public is not going to—and shouldn’t--simply take his word on it.
2—The media must be even more diligent on this issue: There was great reporting by The Indianapolis Star which ultimately led to the critical mass that brought down Larry Nassar. More reporting by Paula Lavigne and others at ESPN brought forward the problems with the football and men’s basketball program at Michigan State. If not for great reporting by Lavigne and Mark Schlabach the depth of the Baylor story would never have been exposed. It is the media’s job to consistently demand that all records dealing with sexual assault on college campuses be made public . And if the institution pushes back on releasing the records, which many will do, then the media should report on that and take the schools to court.
The public—which includes the parents of other students at the institution—have a right to know if there is a problem on campus with sexual assault, the depth of the problem, and how those cases are ultimately resolved.
3—Schools can’t be allowed to investigate themselves: This is such a no-brainer. As we mentioned earlier, a university’s first job, even before educating its students, is to protect the university. So when a school like Michigan State hires someone to conduct an internal investigation, that person is working for the university. It is clear conflict of interest.
Now in some cases, like the Pepper Hamilton investigation at Baylor, it works. The Pepper Hamilton report hammered Baylor and the school went to court trying to fight its release. It failed.
According to the New York Times, Michigan State hired the same person, well-known prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, to investigate how the school handled accusations about Nassar while also formulating ways to handle potential lawsuits against Michigan State. It is a classic conflict of interest, which is why the state attorney general of Michigan is now involved.
In the New York Times' report, Fitzgerald said his group was never asked to file a public report on what happened at Michigan State.
But a Michigan State Board of Trustees member, Joel I. Ferguson ain’t buying it, telling The Times: “We have the person defending us investigating us.”
Bottom line: Investigations into sexual assault on campus—whether or not athletes are involved--should be conducted by independent agencies with no connection to the school. The attorney general's office is a good place to start.
4—Charges of sexual assault against college athletes should bypass the school’s athletics department entirely: When possible, those charges should be made directly to the Title IX office at each school or to local law enforcement. A record of the charge should be kept and, with names redacted, be available through the Freedom of Information Act. The goal is to increase the transparency of the process while protecting the rights of the victim and the accused.
If a victim who has filed a sexual assault charge gets any push back from someone representing the university, that victim and her parents/guardian should get a lawyer and file an immediate complaint with the Office For Civil Rights. Here’s how you do it:
5—Local and state law enforcement has to step up: In some sexual assault cases the victim later withdraws her charges due to external pressures or fear that she will have to testify in public. Those cases, however, can still be prosecuted and they should be if there is ample evidence.
Finally there is this: If I’m a president of an institution with big-time athletics I’m asking: “Could we withstand this kind of scrutiny? Do we have the systems in place keep this from happening to us? What if a ton of reporters armed with the Freedom of Information Act showed up on our door?"
The presidents at Penn State, Baylor, and Michigan State all lost their jobs.
The bottom line on this topic comes from Maria Taylor, my colleague at the SEC Network, who tweeted:
“Silence empowers sexual predators. Transparency empowers victims. I hope the reporting on Michigan State athletics makes more universities choose the right side.”