Sex, lies, and Michigan State

Apr 19, 2017 at 1:00 am

Want to talk nutty, out-of-control, political correctness?

Here's the best example I know: Two Michigan State University college students made a date — initiated by the woman — and set about having enthusiastic sex one weekend in May, 2014. They are going at it when they get interrupted.

Later, he reaches under her shirt to touch her breast. She tells him to stop. He immediately does. Neither disputes this.

Yet more than a year later, she formally complains — and MSU lowers the boom on the poor young man. He was found to have violated the university's sexual harassment policy, and will forever bear this stigma on his official record.

Deborah Gordon — an attorney well-known for defending sexually harassed women — is this time representing the man, and calls MSU's labeling of this as harassment "beyond ridiculous."

The whole story — which is in fact even more bizarre than this summary — was brilliantly told by former Detroit News columnist Laura Berman in the online magazine Bridge.

Now consider what the university does when faced with a case of real sexual harassment. In fact, it could be the worst case of sexual abuse in college sports history.

While MSU was dragging one young man through hell for touching the breast of a woman who earlier had texted him that she wanted sex, Larry Nassar, a sports medicine doctor on the school's payroll, was sticking his hand into young women's vaginas and anuses, without using a glove or any lubrication.

Nor did he give them any warning. Some of the young women say they saw him get sexually aroused. If they said anything, as three women say they did to gymnastics coach Kathie Klages, they were told not to complain.

When one courageous young athlete finally complained to MSU police that same summer of 2014, all that happened was that Nassar was told he should have a third party in the room before "doing anything close to a sensitive area."

Naturally, he paid no attention. The next year, US Gymnastics, a group that had repeatedly taken Nassar to various Olympics as a team doctor, fired him.

Michigan State apparently never raised questions why. The scandal finally blew up in the university's face when one courageous woman, Rachael Denhollander, filed another police report saying Nassar had molested her back in 2000, when she was a 15-year-old gymnast from Kalamazoo who had been sent to MSU's sports medicine clinic. That got publicity, and a boatload of other women were soon filing charges.

Forced at last to do something, Michigan State finally fired Nassar last September — not for the monstrous things he'd done, but for breaking the rules against doing his "intervaginal treatments" without another member of the medical staff in the room. The details can all be found in "MSU doctor's alleged victims talked for 20 years — was anyone listening?" a solid investigative piece by MLive's Julie Mack and Emily Lawler.

This is likely to be the worst thing that has ever happened to Michigan State University since the first class of farm boys showed up and built their own dorm in the 1850s.

So far, more dozens of women have come forward. This is likely to cost MSU hundreds of millions.

As of this writing, at least 78 women have joined a federal lawsuit against Nassar, MSU, and US Gymnastics. More suits are likely to follow. Doctor Feelbad himself is now in prison; the feds found child porn on his computer, and he has been charged with sexually abusing a 6-year-old neighbor.

Lots and lots of people knew something, and it was hushed up, and the women were told to keep quiet.

Which brings us to the Watergate question: What did MSU officials know, and when did they know it? Three other doctors and a dean have been added as defendants in the Nassar lawsuit; more are likely to follow.

Though nobody is (publicly) talking about this yet, there's a troubling question about why MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon hasn't shown any leadership here.

And as the weeks drag on, it seems less and less likely that she can survive. Nassar, as a lawyer for some of the women has said, now has more alleged victims than Jerry Sandusky — the assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State convicted five years ago of sexually abusing little boys.

But even before he was convicted, Penn State President Graham Spanier was fired. So was legendary football coach Joe Paterno, and other staffers. Penn State has had to pay nearly $200 million in fines and to settle lawsuits.

What will the final cost be for MSU?

You would think Lou Anna K. Simon would have been out in front of this from day one. But she has been virtually invisible. When the scandal broke, she sent an email to the university saying MSU was taking a "proactive approach."

Two months ago, on Feb. 17, she told a Board of Trustees meeting that while the public "may be frustrated or confused by recent developments ... there is no culture of tolerance of sexual assault or harassment."

But in fact, there was a culture of tolerance; ask the MSU cross-country runner with an injured hamstring who wondered why Dr. Nassar was sticking his fingers in her vagina. According to her lawsuit, college officials told her he was an "Olympic doctor" who "knew what he was doing." Other women were told similar things, including that they should be grateful to be touched by the important man.

Nor is "frustrated and confused" how anyone paying attention feels; "sickened and outraged" is more like it.

Simon is an odd anomaly among university presidents. She is older than most (70 this year) and has served twice the average time a college president normally lasts.

She took over as interim in 2003; then got the full job. Prior to that, she was provost for a decade. Somewhat shy and self-effacing, she tends to reject pay increases and gives the money back to the school. She has been popular, even loved.

But the oddest thing about her is that she has never worked anywhere else, something unheard of in modern academia. She came to MSU as a new grad student in 1970, earned a doctorate, and proceeded up the ladder of administrative jobs. Her board has always been supportive.

Nobody at MSU wants her career to end this way. But as the lawsuits and the scandal drag on in, you have to wonder at what point the board may decide it needs a new vision.

Recognizing a dinosaur

If you are reading this on Wednesday, April 19, I am honored to tell you that I will be getting a Lifetime Achievement Award this evening from the Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I've done a lot of things in my career, but would like to think that this is at least partly for my work with this column, the first of which appeared 24 years ago this month.

I wrote it every other week until September 1996, and have written it every single week since then — 1,167 columns so far, through four presidencies and many other atrocities.

Of course, the fact that I've paid my SPJ dues consistently since 1977 could have been a greater factor. I don't have plans to quit anytime soon. However, I was present when George Puscas and George Cantor, revered newspaper figures, got similar awards — and then died within months.

If they are trying to tell me something, I'm not listening.