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The End of the Innocence

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a strange place now for Michigan State athletics, and specifically men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo.

Although his Spartans stand alone atop the Big Ten for the first time in almost a decade, with a deep, balanced roster as capable of winning the tournament as any in the country, there have never been more doubts surrounding Izzo’s program.

When happily ever after fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales

This season has unfolded in the eye of the biggest sexual assault scandal to ever hit a major university as disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s crimes were unfurled before the public eye through the testimony of his victims.

Nassar doesn’t have anything to do with MSU basketball, not directly. But the university’s horrendous failure to do anything about it, and the following revelations about exactly how deep those failures ran, mean that there is no longer any benefit of the doubt given for any accusation leveled against anyone affiliated with MSU.

And so, it should have come as no surprise that when ESPN decided that the last day of victim impact statements in the Ingham County sentencing of Nassar was a good time to release its glossy attempt at indictment of MSU athletics, the Twitter mob of the day raised its collective voice to demand both Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio be fired immediately.

In the moment, I wondered if they would ultimately get their way, especially after university president Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis both resigned in disgrace retired with solemn dignity and in a complete coincidence, you understand, within a week of the report. By bailing when they did, those two left their coaches as the only figures who could answer the serious if not entirely factually complete charges brought by ESPN.

Dantonio, in a much better position with his sport in the deepest depths of its offseason, issued a statement that, in sentiment, said ‘kick rocks, I will be vindicated.’ He’s never been one to pontificate in any circumstances.

But Izzo has been. And in the press conference following the team’s next game, he had the look and sound of a man desperately wanting to speak his mind but not feeling able to do it. Eventually, though, the public’s collective attention waned as it became clear he was not going to offer substantive commentary anytime soon.

To be clear, that is not to say this issue is resolved or Izzo won’t ultimately need to be ejected from his position over his handling of sexual assault allegations against his team. But for the time being, it seems there’s nothing to do but wait. Both coaches have staked their legacies on being able to cash the checks they wrote.

But now those skies are threatening

They’re beating plowshares into swords

If there’s any silver lining to being accused of moral turpitude in the context of college athletics, it’s that at any given point, you are likely not alone.

Louisville recently became the first school to have to take down a national championship banner as a result of paying for sex for players and recruits, a scandal which already cost not only Rick Pitino his job, but also Louisville AD Tom Jurich, who secured the school’s current enviable position in the ACC. We’ll circle back to that.

Over the weekend, the latest wave of information from the FBI’s ongoing pursuit of various assistant coaches and player agents oriented the sport’s attention on Sean Miller and Arizona. Reports claim he has been caught, on wiretap, personally overseeing a payment of $100,000 to secure current keystone Deandre Ayton. Miller did not coach Saturday’s game against Oregon, though Ayton did play, and a lot has been made of the curios structure of Miller’s contract, in which his buyout would actually be more if he was fired with cause than without.

Miller’s name came up in a Yahoo! Sports report which named over 20 schools, including many of the sport’s premiere programs - Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas...

And Michigan State.

Specifically, there are two line items in indicted middleman Christian Dawkins’ expense reports relating to Spartan centerpiece Miles Bridges - a loan to his mom for $400, and a dinner Dawkins had with both of Bridges’ parents for about another $70.

For what it’s worth, MSU has stated that they checked with the NCAA on Bridges’ eligibility and got the all-clear, as did a few other programs with players involved.

The issue of paying college players, of course, has a much different bent than accusations of rampant sexual assault within a program. These allegations feel like small potatoes next to the charges leveled by the OTL report. Instead of demanding punishment against the accused programs*, the commentary has been a rising chorus of advocacy for reforming the current system, decrying the NCAA’s hypocrisy in portraying paid meals as cardinal sins while raking almost a billion dollars a year on the work of its athletes.

*Except for this website’s Slack channel, which can scarcely contain its glee at the prospect of Izzo’s demise. And so I am sorry to my colleagues that he beat so many of your teams, so often, so badly, and for so long.

It will be interesting to see how the NCAA proceeds here. Pitino gave them too easy of a decision to make with the depths to which his program had plunged in his pursuit of players. But we’re talking about Roy Williams, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, and none other than Coach K. It’s unlikely any of them, or many of the other coaches implicated in this blowup, were as reckless as Miller. Does Emmert’s righteous fury really continue if it comes to vacating half of the national titles won since the turn of the century?

Offer up your best defense

But this is the end

This is the end of the innocence

So what am I to do with you and your program, Coach Izzo? And how do the rest of you choose to handle this?

I’m sure plenty of you can’t stop chortling because this turn of events supports your preferred worldview - Izzo cheats, he’s always cheated, somehow my program would have done better both relative to him and in general but for said cheating, and because there’s no mention of [YOUR BASKETBALL TEAM] in this report, I stand in a position of moral superiority.

Think that if you like. Everyone’s entitled to their wrong-ass opinion. But before you pull something gloating, take a look further down that list of schools implicated in this investigation.

North Carolina State. Seton Hall. Norfolk State.

This is not the exclusive province of blue-bloods. But no, you’re right, your team is the one that is above such activities. Scholar-poet-warriors, every last one of your players, not only now but ever in the past as well.

My fandom, though, is unaffected by this latest story of gasp wrongdoing in college athletics. I hope I don’t find myself in the unenviable position of Louisville fans watching that title banner come down, where at some point in the future the bad acts my team performed, tolerated, or avoided knowledge of overwhelm or taint the great memories I’m hoping will materialize over the next month.

I don’t think any confirmation that MSU pays players will do that. The outcome of the sexual assault investigations very easily could. But even if it ultimately turns out that Izzo answered the bell on every allegation against him, I’m done arguing his morality, or that of anyone involved in major athletics.

When you spend formative years and vast emotional capital investing in something like college basketball, it starts to feel like more than it is. Your coach isn’t just great at his job, he’s great in general, and anyone who says otherwise can be labeled a hater, a naysayer, the envious fan of another program. And those labels may in some case be correct.

If the revelation of exactly how many major college athletics programs are breaking the rules is really a revelation, you either weren’t paying attention, or you were doing what I tried to do: believing in innocence in a realm that never had it.

Tom Izzo will always be a great coach. We’ll learn through the FBI investigation if he’s also a clean coach. We’ll learn through the sexual assault investigations if he’s great at anything more than coaching.