Lack of institutional control. A failure to protect its athletes from harm. The NCAA’s so-called death penalty.
Those punishments and more are being suggested by critics as apt sanctions for Michigan State, where disgraced doctor Larry Nassar was employed as he sexually abused girls and young women for years under the pretense of treating their injuries.
Many of Nassar’s victims accused the university of mishandling complaints about him and late Wednesday Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon announced her resignation.
“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she said in a statement. “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”
Authority unclear: The NCAA sent a letter to Michigan State this week asking for any potential rules violations related to Nassar, the first indication an investigation by the governing body might be next. But the NCAA could be wading back into territory where its authority is unclear: Only a few years ago, it wound up in a messy situation for punishing Penn State for what assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky did in another horrific case involving child sex abuse.
“It’s Penn State all over again,” said Scott Tompsett, a veteran attorney who has represented coaches, athletic directors, athletes and schools in more than 100 NCAA infractions cases.
Tompsett said the NCAA’s authority over recruiting, eligibility, financial aid, practice and competition doesn’t mean it should be involved in high-profile cases like Sandusky or Nassar, who was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison for abusing seven women.
Many victims said they reported Nassar’s abuse to various members of Michigan State’s staff. Campus police got their first report regarding Nassar in 2014, but the Ingham County prosecutor declined to file charges. The school continued to employ him after he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation in 2014. Former Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages resigned last year after she was suspended for defending Nassar.
The Michigan attorney general and the U.S. Olympic Committee are among those announcing plans to investigate how the Nassar allegations were handled. Attorneys handling civil cases against Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, among others, are also looking into those details.
Problematic issue: And now the NCAA could be in the mix. Tompsett and other NCAA experts said that could prove problematic.
“I think what Nassar did was egregious, terrible, awful, worse than paying a prospect to come to your school, worse than a shoe company paying a player to come to your school, worse than academic fraud,” said Josephine Potuto, a law professor at Nebraska and a former chair of the NCAA infractions committee. “But I don’t believe it belongs in the NCAA enforcement area. I just think the NCAA enforcement staff is not set up to investigate this. I don’t think there are bylaws set up for it. Nassar is being prosecuted, Michigan State is being sued.”
Michigan State’s Board of Trustees will gather Friday for a “work session,” according to school spokesman Jason Cody. The future of athletic director Mark Hollis could be one of the topics.
PSU fallout: At Penn State , leaders lost their job and ended up in jail.
The NCAA sanctioned Penn State in 2012 for the Sandusky scandal. The longtime assistant under coach Joe Paterno had been convicted on 45 accounts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 10-year period after he retired from coaching. The NCAA did not investigate the case or go through its usual infractions process; instead, its executive committee comprised of university presidents sanctioned Penn State using the findings of an investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh into how much school officials knew about the accusations against Sandusky.
Penn State officials agreed to the NCAA’s consent decree and got a four-year postseason ban and lost 30 scholarships. The school was also fined $60 million dollars and 112 of Paterno’s victories were vacated. However, in the settlement of a lawsuit against the NCAA, Paterno’s victories were restored. The postseason ban and scholarship restrictions were rolled back by the NCAA as the school implemented reforms.
Will it backfire on NCAA? “Penn State backfired on them,” said David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor and former NCAA compliance officer who is part of the NCAA watchdog Drake Group. “I think this will backfire on them, too. But they kind of shamed themselves into it. How could they not at least attempt to do something after Penn State, right? Then you’re essentially saying gymnastics and little girls aren’t as important.”
“NCAA legislation never was intended to subject member institutions to NCAA oversight and penalties for every injury or harm that might occur on an institution’s campus,” Tompsett said. “And it’s no answer to say, ‘Well, there’s never been anything this heinous before.’ Either NCAA rules apply to sexual assaults or they don’t. And if they do, it should be because the membership has clearly and unequivocally stated that they want the rules to apply to sexual assaults and schools are told in advance the expectations and standards. Not because administrators in Indianapolis decide on ad hoc basis that they apply.”
Baylor example: The scandal at Baylor may indicate how the NCAA might proceed with Michigan State.
Last summer, attorneys for Baylor said in a federal court filing that the NCAA was conducting an “ongoing, pending investigation” into the Texas school in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that led to the firing of football coach Art Briles and the departure of the school president. More than a dozen women filed lawsuits alleging the school or mishandled or ignored their rape claims against football players and other students for years.
The Big 12 Conference said it would withhold millions of dollars in revenue from Baylor until an outside review determined the university and athletic department were complying with Title IX guidelines and other regulations. It was unclear whether the Big Ten Conference might take such steps against Michigan State. As for the NCAA, trustee Joel Ferguson laughed when asked if he feared the governing body might get involved.
“To do what?” Ferguson asked during an interview with radio station WVFN. “This is not Penn State. And, they were dealing with their football program.”