Did Michigan State Look the Other Way?

As former gymnastics national team doctor pleads guilty to molestation charges, some ask whether university let abuse continue by failing to respond adequately to complaints about his conduct.

November 27, 2017
 
Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty Images
Larry Nassar

Larry Nassar pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that he molested numerous girls as a doctor for the U.S. national gymnastics team. While he pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual assault, he admitted responsibility in many more cases, some of them involving girls who went on to become Olympic stars.

His guilty plea has renewed calls for more information about what Michigan State University knew about the accusations against Nassar, who was director of sports medicine at the university at the same time he worked for the U.S. gymnastics team. Some of the women who were Nassar's victims charge that Michigan State either covered up accusations against him or looked the other way, allowing his abuse of girls to go on longer than it might have otherwise.

Michigan State fired Nassar in September 2016, after a series of articles started to appear in The Indianapolis Star about the sexual abuse of young gymnasts on the U.S. national team. One article, published days before the university fired Nassar, said two longtime gymnasts had accused him of sexual abuse in which he took advantage of his role as doctor to the team. (As the article, since updated, notes, the number now making such accusations about him tops 150).

Since then, some have come forward to say they reported inappropriate conduct by Nassar to Michigan State in 2014. NBC News quoted a former athlete saying she told Michigan State that a physical exam became a sexual assault in 2014, but that the university cleared him, relying in part on backing of other Michigan State employees, one of whom was described as close friend of Nassar. Another former student was quoted as saying that Michigan State discouraged students from talking to reporters looking into the situation.

"I came forward … and I was silenced," said one student.

MLive.com reported that other athletes came forward much earlier, in 1999 or 2000, reporting similar sexual abuse and feeling that the university ignored them. Lawyers for some women suing Michigan State said the university heard complaints as early as 1997. The university has denied receiving such allegations prior to 2014, and said it investigated thoroughly at that time.

The pattern alleged at Michigan State -- a powerful figure in the athletics department engaging in abuse for years without anyone doing anything about it -- has drawn comparisons to the Sandusky scandal at Pennsylvania State University. "Where is the outrage by the MSU Board of Trustees over the alleged actions by Dr. Larry Nassar? How is this different from the Penn State scandal? Why have heads not rolled at MSU?" asked a letter to the editor of The State News, Michigan State's student newspaper.

Michigan State has faced lawsuits and considerable legal costs as the scandal has grown. While the university has condemned Nassar and has been doing so since he was fired, Michigan State is being accused of not being forthright about its responsibilities in the case.

The allegations of a cover-up have extended beyond Nassar. Michigan State in February announced the suspension of Kathie Klages, who was in her 27th year as women's gymnastics coach, and who subsequently retired. The university did not indicate the reason for the suspension, but it followed allegations that a woman on her team reported concerns about treatments by Nassar and that the coach dismissed the concerns as a likely misunderstanding.

Lawyers for the women whom Nassar abused held a press conference after Wednesday's court hearing in which they called on Michigan State to release various internal investigations of Nassar so that people could see what the university knew, and when. At the press conference, they said if Michigan State doesn't release these investigations, Lou Anna K. Simon should be urged to resign as president.

"MSU and its administrators could have prevented the Nassar scandal if they had simply followed Title IX and the mandatory reporting laws. They ignored complaints of his misconduct going back to 1997. When they finally conducted a Title IX investigation of Nassar in 2014, they botched it and allowed him to continue allegedly molesting dozens of women and girls for two more years, including Team U.S.A. gymnasts," said a statement from Stephen Drew, one of the women's lawyers.

The university issued a statement after the press conference in which it said, "Michigan State University continues to be shocked and appalled by Larry Nassar’s now-admitted criminal conduct. Any suggestion that the university covered up this conduct is simply false." The statement added that Michigan State has turned over internal investigations to authorities that have brought criminal charges against Nassar and that the university has cooperated fully with those authorities. "MSU has consistently promised if it were to find any employee knew of and acquiesced in Nassar’s misconduct, the university would immediately report it to law enforcement."

The lawyers representing Nassar's victims have repeatedly called on Michigan State to release findings from investigations done by two prominent law firms, Skadden Arps and Miller Canfield. And lawyers have said Michigan State's refusal to do so compares unfavorably with the way Penn State released the results of outside investigations it commissioned on the Sandusky scandal.

But Michigan State says the investigations are different. The university's investigations have been designed to keep university leaders and appropriate legal authorities informed, a spokesman said. There has never been an intent to produce a report, and the investigations have not led to such a report, he said, so there is nothing to release.

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