Michigan State Can't Bury Its Role in the Largest Sex Abuse Scandal in Sports History
By Dvora Meyers
December 14, 2017
|Photo via msu.edu|
This past March, Michigan State University trustee Joel Ferguson told Michigan’s WXYZ-TV that “MSU is going to look great” after an internal investigation into how the school handled sexual assault allegations against Larry Nassar. For all that we still do not know about Nassar’s crimes or the institutional cover-ups that allowed them to continue, we do know this: Nassar will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in jail for decades of offenses against hundreds of athletes, most of them young gymnasts. He was sentenced to 60 years for federal child pornography charges last week and will be sentenced on state level criminal sexual conduct charges next month. The former physician for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics is the most prolific sex criminal in sports history.
But, as of now, there is no way to know how MSU and their actions appear in that internal Michigan State review on how the school handled sexual abuse allegations against Nassar. If the report even exists—and a letter released this week by Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who is representing the school, suggests that it does not—the university has no plans to release it. MSU spokesperson Jason Cody has repeatedly asserted that the findings of the review were “never designed to end in a report.”
Until very recently, USA Gymnastics has received most of the critical coverage when it came to Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. And deservedly so: journalists and victims have cited the national governing body’s failure to properly supervise how Nassar provided medical “treatment” at the national team training center and on the road at competitions, the complicity of its board of directors, the prioritization of medals ahead of athlete well-being. In the year and change since the Indianapolis Star first broke the Nassar story back in September 2016, Steve Penny was forced to resign as CEO of USA Gymnastics in March. Former Olympic gymnasts and national team members testified before a Senate committee about their experiences as young athletes. (USA Gymnastics did not send a representative to this hearing.) And Olympic stars like Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney have recently come forward and said that they were abused by Nassar and denounced how USA Gymnastics looked after them when they were minor gymnasts competing on the national team. None of this criticism is disproportionate. But there is another, much larger institution that has, until now, mostly escaped repercussions in the Nassar case—Michigan State.
Like USA Gymnastics, MSU is a party to most of the lawsuits that have been filed by Nassar victims—more than 140 women and girls thus far. (On Thursday, USA Gymnastics filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuits.) As the Lansing State Journal has reported, MSU has spent more than $2.5 million on legal fees to date, and the school—or, to be more accurate, Michigan taxpayers—will likely shell out considerably more since the arbitration period has ended without settlement and the civil cases appear to be headed to trial.
But beyond that financial damage, there have been few visible consequences for the massive public university. Almost no one has lost their job as a result. Not Lou Anna K. Simon, the president of MSU, who said to university board trustees at a meeting, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator.” Not Dr. William Strampel, the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at MSU and Nassar’s boss. In an early September email, Strampel reassured Nassar after Rachael Denhollander filed her complaint with the MSU police. Nassar had forwarded Strampel an email from Tim Evans of the Star asking to speak to him about “important and delicate questions,” and Strampel responded “I am on your side.” It never seemed to dawn on Strampel to wait until more information came to light before offering Nassar his unreserved support.
Which is strange, given that this wasn’t Strampel’s first sexual abuse incident with Nassar—the doctor had been accused by a graduate student patient of sexual assault two years before the Star emailed. A Title IX investigation in 2014 cleared Nassar—more on that later—but Strampel perhaps should’ve been more circumspect after learning of another accusation. Perhaps he should have sensed the emergence of a predatory pattern where his star Olympic doctor was concerned. Perhaps an internal report might shed some light on this, and perhaps it might not have. Perhaps, as the school says, there is no report at all. Your guess is absolutely as good as mine.
But we know this: Strampel still has his job. So far, only three people at MSU have lost their jobs due to their connection with the largest sex abuse scandal in sports history: Kathy Klages, Brooke Lemmen, and, of course, Larry Nassar.
Nassar was the first to go. He had been suspended after Denhollander’s complaint to the police. A couple of weeks later, after news of Nassar’s abuse was made public and more victims started coming forward and Nassar was belatedly dispatched. Next to go was Brooke Lemmen, an osteopathic physician at MSU who removed confidential patient treatment files from Nassar’s office at his request after he was suspended. She also failed to notify her superiors that Nassar had told her, in July of 2015, that USA Gymnastics was investigating him. Lemmen was one of a four-person panel stacked with Nassar allies that cleared the doctor during the 2014 Title IX investigation into claims of sexual assault against him. The student was found to have misunderstood the “nuanced difference” between appropriate medical treatment and sexual assault. Michigan State has declined to reopen that Title IX inquiry. Lemmen resigned from her position at MSU before she could be terminated.
The third MSU employee who stepped down as a result of Nassar was Kathy Klages. Klages had been the head coach of MSU’s gymnastics team for 27 years and was a longtime friend of Nassar. According to two former gymnasts, she waved off accusations against Nassar as far back as 1997, warning of consequences for both the gymnasts and Nassar if she reported them. Klages has also been accused of trying to get the MSU gymnastics team, which included Nassar victims like Lindsey Lemke, to sign a card of support for him after the first reports of abuse were first published last September. She was suspended by MSU and then retired the following day.
Aaron Kemp, Lemmen’s attorney, wrote in a letter to Strampel that Lemmen was “far from the only individual associated with MSU” who was aware of the 2015 USA Gymnastics investigation that led to Nassar being reported to the FBI by the national governing body. (According to Lemmen’s attorney, Nassar had described it as a review.) This was just a year after Nassar was investigated by MSU’s Title IX office and cleared. As with Strampel, Lemmen couldn’t or wouldn’t or at any rate didn’t connect the dots between that graduate student’s accusation and the news that Nassar was being “reviewed” by USA Gymnastics.
As to Lemmen’s assertion about others at MSU being aware of the USA Gymnastics investigation, the question is: Who are they? Were they held accountable in some way for their failure to notify MSU officials and the authorities? Without any comprehensive report, we can only guess.
The Michigan State portion of the Larry Nassar story is filled cynical and self-interested obfuscation. Restrictions were placed on Nassar after he was cleared in the 2014 Title IX investigation: he wasn’t supposed to be alone with a patient while doing procedures that approached sensitive areas of the body—i.e. the genitals—and he was supposed to minimize skin-on-skin contact, meaning that he was supposed to wear gloves or otherwise ensure that he wasn’t directly touching the patient’s skin and supposed to obtain informed consent before performing these sensitive procedures. According to 2014 emails that were obtained from a FOIA request, Nassar wrote to Strampel saying that he spoke “to Jeff Kovan and I am arranging to have athletic training students shadow me in the clinic.” This email was sent during the period when the Office of Institutional Equity was finalizing its report on the 2014 allegations. Nassar, who had been suspended during the investigation, was getting ready to return to patient care. It seems like he reached out to Kovan, a fellow DO and director of Sports Medicine and Performance at MSU, about compliance with the new guidelines.
Nassar, by his own admission, didn’t always comply with the new requirements, which was part what Strampel cited as justification for his swift termination after the Indianapolis Star published its first story. But who had the responsibility to enforce those requirements? Was it Kovan, whose name has been added to the civil actions? Who else at the sports clinic was supposed keep tabs on Nassar after the 2014 investigation? (MSU has declined to comment on the emails.) And did anyone, in all of this time, think to report any of the allegations against Nassar to the state medical and licensing board?
Again, we still don’t have a clear answer. Nassar’s file with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), as it pertains to sexual misconduct, seems to begin with emails sent on September 13, 2016, the day after the Star published its first Nassar story, with officials at LARA sharing the story amongst themselves. “No disciplinary history on this licensee, Lawrence Gerard Nassar, D.O.,” one of the emails started. “We will open an allegation file based on this news article about the conduct described and a criminal allegation file to monitor any criminal conviction that may result. Just a reminder, due to the nature of this conduct (sexual misconduct), Board approval is not required for investigation. The investigation can start ASAP when the allegation file is opened.” Nassar was stripped of his medical license in April.
Does “no disciplinary history on this licensee” mean they had simply never sanctioned him before? Or does it mean that he had never even been reported to the state licensing board, not even when he was under the Title IX investigation in 2014? I reached out to LARA’s office about this and was referred to the attorney general’s office. Ditto for when I asked LARA about whether institutions like MSU or the police had any obligation to report allegations of sexual misconduct against a physician to the state licensing board.
I asked a local Michigan attorney who is representing Nassar victims about what MSU’s legal requirements were when it came to reporting a physician under suspicion of sexual abuse to the state licensing board. He was unable to give a clear answer and suggested that I contact LARA, which I had already tried. (If you are familiar with the statute, please let us know.)
The difficulty in pinning down an answer to this seemingly basic question seems to suggest that maybe there is no legal requirement for institutions like MSU to report physicians who have come under suspicion of abuse to the state licensing board. This is particularly horrifying when you consider that Nassar’s position as a doctor is what allowed him access to so many victims for so many years.
Beyond the 2014 Title IX investigation, which most would agree was grossly mishandled—it took place during the same time period that the U.S. Department of Education reported that MSU poorly handled its Title IX cases—MSU botched other victims’ attempts to alert them to Nassar’s abuse. Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a former MSU softball player, repeatedly tried to tell athletic trainers at MSU in 1999-2000 that Nassar had sexually assaulted her when she sought treatment for back pain. “I was told on multiple occasions that I was crazy, that I was making this up,” Lopez said at a press conference following Nassar’s sentencing on federal child pornography charges. She noted that two of the people she told about Nassar’s abuse are still on staff at MSU. “I’m still in the search for my alma mater to take responsibility.”
She’s not alone in that. John Manly, the lawyer for several of the victims in the civil suits against MSU, USA Gymnastics, and the USOC, pointed out that the Catholic Church, once they started to grasp how large their own sex abuse scandal was, offered free counseling to victims. Neither MSU nor USA Gymnastics has made similar resources available to Nassar’s victims. “None of my clients have been offered counseling. None of them have been offered a kind word,” he said during the post-sentencing press conference. When you’re being compared unfavorably to the Catholic Church on the handling of sex abuse allegations, you know you’re doing something very, very wrong.
It took more than six months after the Nassar story made national headlines for the university to reach out to former female student-athletes who had been treated by Nassar. They didn’t do so willingly; the school only reacted was only after former rower Cate Hannum, who said that Nassar massaged her breasts while treating her for rib pain, posted a widely-read open letter.
Back in March, Hannum wrote:
“Never-the-less, despite all of this, I have not, as a former patient of Dr. Nassar for nearly four years, heard from anyone at the University directly. Many of my peers and fellow patients of Dr. Nassar have not hear from the University either.
It may very well have been nearly impossible to write each one of his patients for the last years, but it should have been done. Acknowledge the situation and offer support to anyone who might have suffered at the hands of Dr. Nassar.”
Denhollander also waited for a call that never came. Though she was the first Nassar victim to speak publicly about what the doctor did to her back when she was a 15-year-old gymnast in 2000, she waited five months before joining the civil actions against MSU and USA Gymnastics. She was certainly not looking for a payday. “I was waiting to see how MSU and USAG [would] respond,” she said at the post-federal sentencing press conference.
It has been 16 months and Nassar’s victims are still waiting for answers. Now that Nassar has pleaded guilty to all the state and federal criminal charges against him, the focus has started to shift to MSU, with the Lansing State Journal calling for Simon’s resignation this last week. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running to be governor of Michigan, had previously asserted that his office had no intention of pursuing criminal charges against anyone other than Nassar, but this week his office requested a copy of the “internal” review that MSU had commissioned.
At a press conference following Nassar’s sentencing, state attorneys fielded questions from the media about what, if anything, it plans to do about MSU. If the tweets of Michigan Radio reporter Kate Wells, who has been covering the Nassar case for months, are any indication, the attorneys did not seem pleased.
On Monday, Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard called for Simon’s resignation. “The best case scenario for Michigan State University is that there was absolutely gross negligence all the way to the top, and worst case scenario, something’s being covered up,” Leonard said.
When asked for comment about the demand for Simon’s resignation, MSU spokesman Jason Cody referred me to the statement released by the board of trustees in response to last week’s editorial in the Lansing State Journal. “Our full confidence in President Lou Anna K. Simon has not wavered. We firmly believe she is the right leader for this university,” the trustees wrote. (You can read the full statement here.)
In response to the increased public and political pressure, MSU instructed Fitzgerald to assist Schuette. Fitzgerald, for his part, wrote a letter explaining that there was, in fact, no existing report to make public. “As to the demands by the plaintiffs’ counsel to produce an ‘investigative report,’ MSU cannot produce an investigative report for a simple reason: as has been stated publicly before, there is no investigative report,” he wrote. Fitzgerald said that if the lawyers had come across any evidence that would’ve implicated anyone on MSU’s staff in criminal conduct, they would’ve turned that information over to law enforcement.
MSU’s response to the Nassar sexual abuse scandal has been poorly handled, even by the standards of another university widely thought to have poorly handled its own child sexual molestation scandal. If an institution in the middle of a sexual abuse scandal does not want to be compared to the Catholic church, they also don’t want to be compared to Penn State.
Penn State, unlike MSU, made their investigation into how they mishandled allegations of sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky available almost immediately to the public after the board trustees had a chance to see it. The Freeh Report did not make Penn State look good, to say the very least, and major figures at Penn State were forced to resign or were fired in the wake of the Sandusky molestation scandal, including legendary football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier. Spanier and two others at Penn State faced criminal charges and were sentenced to prison.
Denhollander was among those who noticed that Michigan State, at least so far, has not lived up even to that standard. Penn State had previously been viewed as the poster child of how not to address a child molestation crisis at your institution, Denhollander pointed out after Nassar’s sentencing. She said, “MSU has eclipsed them by a long shot.”
Update: On Thursday afternoon, the Lansing State Journal’s R.J. Wolcott reported that Dr. William Strampel was stepping down from his position as dean of Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, effective immediately. He was placed on medical leave, but will remain on Michigan State’s faculty.