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Fear and Loathing in East Lansing

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NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sparta wasn’t built in a year, but if current trends continue, it could easily collapse in a bit more than one.

The most-noticed aspect of the ongoing Title IX investigations (plural) currently underway in the MSU Athletic Department is probably the unresolved criminal complaint, filed in January of this year, against 3 unidentified members of the football team, and that’s not hard to understand. Football is king of collegiate athletics, and especially in present company, is what will draw the headlines.

For context, though, it is important to note that MSU football’s sexual assault investigation broke in the midst of another atrocious story, that of the revelations around Dr. Larry Nassar. This story came to light after the Indianapolis Star’s August 2016 expose surrounding sexual abuse of gymnasts in USA Gymnastics; two of the accusers then named Dr. Nassar as their abuser in a follow-up story in September.

You wouldn’t know it from the short-lived and somewhat cursory coverage it got, but this story is every bit as appalling as the Jerry Sandusky saga. Nassar was the Olympic team’s doctor for 4 Olympics, and was a highly-regarded physician for over 20 years. Since September, over 50 gymnasts have come forward alleging sexual abuse.

MSU suspended Nassar as soon as it received the criminal complaint filed against him by one of these victims in September 2016; what, if anything, the athletic department knew of the allegations against Nassar before then is unclear.

Against this horrendous backdrop, the football program has seen the following events unfold:

  • January 17, 2017: Criminal complaint for sexual assault filed against 3 unidentified football players
  • January 30, 2017: Verbal commit Donovan Winter arrested for armed burglary and felony theft of a firearm, having allegedly broken into his girlfriend’s house and stolen her father’s gun; Winter did not sign with MSU
  • February 9, 2017: MSU announces both an internal Title IX investigation and an independent investigation by a law firm into compliance with university policy by the football program
  • February 14, 2017: MSU confirms indefinite suspension of Curtis Blackwell, though no reason for the suspension has been confirmed
  • February 24, 2017: LB Jon Reschke confirms his transfer from the program, saying only that he made "an insensitive and totally regrettable comment involving a former teammate."
  • March 28, 2017: Dantonio addresses the media for the first time since the sexual assault complaint was filed, but does not offer specifics beyond noting that additional players have also been suspended for unspecified reasons
  • April 1, 2017: Spring game occurs with a total of 15 players on the active roster not participating. Dantonio indicates that L.J. Scott and Messiah deWeaver are both out due to injuries, but will not elaborate on the reasons for any other nonparticipants.
  • April 21, 2017: Former DE Auston Robertson charged with criminal sexual conduct; his dismissal from the team is confirmed the same day
  • DE Demetrius Cooper ordered to show cause for violating a plea agreement from a November 2016 assault charge

All of this, of course, follows an out-of-left-field 3-9 season, throughout which everyone claimed that everything was fine. There were no chemistry or leadership problems, the team was close to figuring everything out, they just needed to find those ever-so-elusive inches.

Since the season ended and the parade of criminality has begun, we have generally heard more of the same. Vote of confidence from AD Mark Hollis. Vote of confidence from university President Lou Anna K. Simon. Perhaps minus the suspended Blackwell, MSU’s primary football staff is identical to what it was against Furman at the beginning of last season.

This attitude would perhaps be justified if certain of these events were the only things to have occurred. Cooper’s violation of his plea agreement consisted of drinking alcohol when he wasn’t supposed to. Winter was not and never became a player under Dantonio’s supervision.

Within the somewhat narrow question of whether MSU football has a systemic control problem, though (putting aside the heinousness of the sexual assault for the time being), the answer cannot be anything but yes.

Isn’t there a team meeting on or about January 18? Hell, shouldn’t there have been one in early September after the Nassar story broke?

Doesn’t that team meeting impress upon everyone from the starting quarterback to 4th string jockstrap wrangler that 1) more is expected of them if they intend to be part of this program; 2) the eyes of the world are focused on us for a very, very bad reason, and 3) you will therefore behave yourselves in every possible meaning of the word?

There are two possibilities relating to this hypothetical meeting and as a fan of the program, I honestly cannot decide which I dislike more: either it did not happen, or it had no effect.

If it didn’t happen, it’s coaching and administrative malfeasance of the first order. The arrogance it would take to assume everything is still under control and operating normally after the nightmarish season the program had just endured, followed by serious criminal charges being leveled against 3 players, would be incomprehensible.

The more likely possibility is that this meeting or some version of it happened and was paid no mind by the subsequent offenders. There’s some hint of what went wrong on the field over the course of the season in this article, where the central theme appears to be a lack of effective leadership. One expects that with different players stepping into those roles, the same debacle won’t repeat itself on Saturdays this fall. The players are, at least, saying the right things about knowing where they went wrong and moving proactively to fix it.

But leadership cannot be derived entirely from the players. Keeping guys out of trouble has and should fall upon the coaches first, and it is a duty at which Dantonio and his staff have miserably failed this offseason. Perhaps as troubling - although it’s not clear to what extent they would ever talk about this if they felt at liberty to do so - the administration at MSU, from the very top on down, does not appear to see any need to do anything differently.

That is distressing, to put it mildly. That is relying on this offseason’s nightmare being a fluke, when the number of infractions is starting to defy random statistical distributions. But, to all appearances, it is the wager Dantonio has decided to make with his program’s reputation and his own legacy. He’s generally been right about how to manage his program before. But if he’s wrong this time, his empire falls with him.