David Haugh: Will college athletics be next for the MeToo movement?


By David Haugh - Chicago Tribune



The Notre Dame priest called on Sunday nights, always after 9.

During the first call, the good father shared his account of consoling a female student who alleged sexual misconduct by two football players. The second time he revealed his identity, which I concealed.

After that, his calls sharing damning, credible evidence about the case revolved around the blurry line that separated university police from local law enforcement — a line that still exists in college towns all over the country.

That ambiguity frustrated my anonymous source and shielded those players from the threat of prosecution for reasons that probably sound familiar today at Michigan State, Baylor or the next campus to encounter a similar situation. There are privacy laws or a lack of physical evidence or he said-she said disparities or an underlying pressure to preserve an image, etc.

This was nearly 25 years ago, at my first job with the South Bend Tribune, but apparently not much has changed about the way universities deal with young women who accuse college student-athletes of violence. Apparently, those who have no voice are still the hardest to hear on too many tone-deaf campuses. Can intercollegiate athletics be next for the #MeToo reckoning movement?

The system still discourages women from making allegations, and often they never see the light of day unless someone within the university infrastructure — somebody like my old pal the priest — clears his or her conscience by coming forward. If you see something, say something. Every athletic department employee at every institution in America requires an exercise in introspection to reassure whether they are part of the problem or the solution.

Reading ESPN’s enlightening report that detailed the last decade of allegations of sexual misconduct by MSU football and basketball players sounded all too familiar, triggering memories of stories never written and interviews of alleged victims impossible to forget. Since coming to Chicago in 2003, I have dealt with at least a dozen cases of females accusing highly regarded athletes of criminal sexual behavior. Most of the reporting ran into roadblocks. Their sides of the stories were too easily dismissed by someone along the way.

My biggest regrets in 15 years at the Chicago Tribune involve the failure to publish two separate stories about prominent college athletes at different universities similarly protected despite, in some cases, irrefutable evidence local prosecutors ignored largely because of status. Without criminal charges, there was no story. Without a story, there was no reason for either sports-crazed campus to change the status quo. And the beat goes on.

So my initial reaction to ESPN’sMichigan State expose wasn’t “Why now?” as much as “What took so long?” My experience as a sports journalist and former college football player, sadly, tells me too many disturbing cultures such as the one revealed at Michigan State still remain. Not every campus but enough to warrant concern whether a win-at-all-costs mentality has clouded the judgment of too many coaches or administrators.

Too many scared people continue to look the other way, enabling immaturity that often precedes immorality and excusing unacceptable behavior, in part, because a kid was a prized recruit who runs fast or jumps high. Too many rumors contain elements of truth. Unfortunately, violence against women seems like a college sports epidemic with only one cure: heavy doses of responsibility.

That brings us to Michigan State, where responsible leaders have been hard to find lately. Magic Johnson, the university’s most influential former athlete, summed it up correctly Monday morning on his Twitter account.

“If anyone was aware of the sexual assault happening to women on the Michigan State campus from the office of the President, Board of Trustees, athletic department, faculty & campus police, and didn’t say or do anything about it, they should be fired,” @MagicJohnson tweeted.

That goes for legendary Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose public comments about the allegations have been careful but clumsy. That goes for Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio, whose dismissal of four players last spring after they were charged with criminal sexual conduct now looks like only a good start. That also goes for NCAA President Mark Emmert, whose lax approach in 2010 to 37 reported sexual assaults at Michigan State contributed to the problem. If either Izzo or Dantonio is further implicated, the purge must include them. If Emmert goes down in the name of an NCAA-wide reckoning, so be it. Put all the sacred cows out to pasture if it leads to meaningful progress.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis already vacated their jobs in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, a national tragedy that left an indelible stain on the university. Nassar, the former Michigan State doctor, received a sentence of 40 to 175 years for sexual abuse after a hearing that included testimony from more than 150 young women.

The slow wheels of justice started to turn two years ago when former gymnast Rachael Denhollander bravely decided to go public with accusations against Nassar.

Every revolution starts with a spark. I would like to think the one in East Lansing, Mich., will provide more than a flicker of hope for change in college sports, but history makes me wary.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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By David Haugh

Chicago Tribune