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Should the Michigan State Athletic Program Be Given the Death Penalty?

Larry Nassar and Michigan State: A Tale of a Corrupt Culture, Ethical Blindness, and Institutional Indifference 

I always believed the NCAA was relatively even-handed with its punishment of Penn State University in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. The football program scandal led to a $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban on participation in postseason play in football, a four-year reduction in grants-in-aid, five years of probation, and vacating the wins between 1998 and 2001. My one complaint is that the NCAA agreed to restore 111 of the wins of football coach Joe Paterno making him the winningest college coach in history. It sent the wrong message that the sanctions imposed on Penn State were too severe and/or that the NCAA felt Paterno should reclaim the crown as the winningest coach.

Now to the story of Michigan State. Unless you’ve been asleep for the past month or so, allegations have been leveled against USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University former sports doctor, Larry Nasser, for alleged sexual abuse by some 88 women and girls who claim they were sexually abused under the guise of treatment.

We’re not talking about the Hollywood sexual harassment debacle where most women were silent. Many of the abused Olympians reported the abuse to Michigan State employees, including the head women’s gymnastics coach and athletic trainers, among others.

MSU lawyers are trying to defend the institution by claiming telling these people doesn’t count because the person told has to “have the authority to terminate or suspend the offending individual” in order to qualify as an “appropriate person” under Title IX. So long as these victims didn’t tell a supervisor of Nassar’s, the brief argues, their claims won’t hold up in court. Talk about ignoring one’s ethical obligations to the victims under the guise of not violating the rules. It’s the spirit of the rule that counts, not technical compliance with it – at least with respect to acting responsibly.

This statement by Michigan State illustrates how tone deaf they were to reported sexual abuse as far back as 1997. Much like the Penn State case, the Michigan State officials were blind to the ethical issues and put the reputation of Michigan State athletics over the needs of the abused athletes. It took a ground swell of disgust to get the President, Lou Ann Simon, to resign. Even then, her self-serving statement about not making it about her belies the fact she mishandled the scandal for 13 years. Her meaningless expression of sympathy for Nassar’s many victims is way too much, way too late. She can claim a lack of knowledge about these events, but nothing like this happens on a University campus without it getting back to the Provost, at least, who would then tell the President. 

A great deal of blame goes to USA Gymnastics for lax oversight and an abusive culture of unconditioned compliance that allowed Nassar to assault gymnasts at the Karolyi Ranch outside Houston and at competitions around the globe. The U.S. Olympic Committee did the right thing in applying pressure on USA Gymnastics so that the group resigned in the waked of the Nassar scandal. Olympics

What about the NCAA? What should be the punishment? Should Michigan State be given the “death penalty?” The death penalty in inter-collegiate sports means that the NCAA bans a school from competing in a sport for at least one year. Penn State wasn’t given the death penalty. In fact, it’s only been used five times. I don’t think the death penalty is appropriate because Michigan State athletes were not abused. To kill the program for one year with serious ramifications for future years seems excessive in the sense that those who would suffer had nothing to do with the scandal – except Nassar, of course.

What I do believe is a thorough investigation should be made of Michigan State’s basketball and football programs to determine if there have been any unreported violations. Some news stories have claimed that the University has shown little interest in pursuing sexual abuse allegations against student-athletes and staff members that occurred under the watch of head football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo. According to the reports, both coaches either delayed or failed to act when staff members or students under their charge were accused of assault. It was also revealed that Michigan State did not notify federal authorities it was investigating Nassar in 2014, back when the feds were on campus.

A full and thorough investigation of all sports programs at Michigan State should be done by the University and the NCAA. If violations are determined, similar to the sexual abuse charges leveled against Nassar, and/or other unreported violations are uncovered, then the coaches who covered up the crimes and failed to report and follow-up on the reports should be forced to resign. To me that was Joe Paterno’s biggest crime – failing to follow-up on abuse charges against Sandusky.

There appears to be a culture of indifference at Michigan State whereby protecting the image of the University crowded out any ethical, responsible actions by University officials. The sad thing is this kind of behavior goes on in most universities because the powers that be see it as a reflection on their own actions when reports of abuses surface.

I am disgusted by what Nassar did, as are all fair-minded people. The sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison for 10 sexual assault counts is too light. He should have been given a life sentence with no possibility of parole. My hope is the child-pornography crimes alleged to have occurred by him will leads to another 60-years federal prison term.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 30, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He blogs about workplace ethics issues and answers confidential workplace ethics questions. Visit his website to find out more about his services and sign up for his newsletter.

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