Photo: Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Lansing State Journal, overall, has done a fantastic job covering the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, as well as Michigan State’s basketball and football teams’ problems with reporting sexual assault and violence against women. Their editorial board was calling for MSU president Lou Anna Simon to resign more than a month before she actually did so, while criminal justice reporter Matt Mencarini has provided essential day-to-day work on Nassar’s cases.

Unfortunately, the LSJ also features columnist Graham Couch, who spends a lot of his days getting ratioed for poor or useless analysis but occasionally finds time to cover MSU athletics with all the toughness of the school’s own PR department. His latest, from Thursday, is titled “Tom Izzo has chosen a standoff with ESPN – one he might win”:

EAST LANSING – This much became clear Wednesday night: Tom Izzo is not going to let ESPN dictate the terms of how and when he answers their allegations.

Great, yeah. Why should a public employee have to answer journalists’ questions at a press conference? That’s pretty much where we’re all at as a country, right?

In an age when big media stories move fast, intensifying as they steamroll their subjects, Izzo isn’t playing by the rules. He isn’t defiantly defending himself, as Mark Dantonio did on Friday. Nor is he admitting anything. He’s chosen Option C: A standoff by stonewalling.

Well, considering that everyone’s main concern with MSU is that its lack of transparency enables predators, stonewalling seems like the exact wrong tactic, doesn’t it?

On one hand, he owes his community answers and assurances that, over time, he hasn’t treated accusations of sexual assault or abuse toward women by his players with callous disregard.

Advertisement

Oh, yeah. That’s actually 100 percent correct.

This is a core question facing the university right now — does it listen and respond to sexual assault victims? And it’s the argument ESPN makes for coupling these two storylines. If the state attorney general’s investigation shows that Izzo and his program were dismissive or ignored appropriate steps, he’s in trouble and should be.

Cool, you get it.

On the other hand,

God fucking damnit.

I don’t blame him for not giving ESPN easy material for a story that it has turned into a television drama.

Advertisement

This whole “rape” thing has turned into such a soap opera! Just like the media to sensationalize, uh, an alleged systematic cover-up that had the potential to endanger thousands of female students.

Not with how ESPN has behaved, including irresponsibly plastering the faces of Izzo and Dantonio next to a picture of convicted serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar — on the same television backdrop — not-so-subtly conflating those two stories behind the headline, “Crisis at Michigan State.”

Even if you think the worst of Izzo and Dantonio, they sure as hell don’t deserve that.

Advertisement

Obviously, people are idiots, but one graphic is not going to trick anyone into thinking that Mark Dantonio or Tom Izzo did anything even remotely on the scale of Larry Nassar’s heinousness. They didn’t. The reason that there is a “crisis at Michigan State,” however, is that reporting indicates that Nassar wasn’t some lone evil genius; he was a product of a system that includes both the university and local law enforcement, who appear to have ignored women who were reporting sexual assault and abuse. Seems like it’s worth connecting the dots to other instances of sexual assault on campus to paint a larger picture.

I don’t think Izzo is enjoying this fight. But it’s one he’s willing to have. This is his legacy at stake.

You misspelled “plausible deniability.”

Coaches don’t usually survive an onslaught like this from big media and the mob that follows. Not in 2018. Certainly not on this subject.

Advertisement

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s absolutely that no one dogged with allegations of sexual assault can ascend to or keep a position of power.

But I wouldn’t bet against Izzo. He has a few things in his favor: Loads of goodwill, a doting fan base that doesn’t want its hero to fall and an ESPN story that isn’t airtight.

Advertisement

Have no fear, Spartans. The journalism knower is here to explain that the real bad guys are the ones hurting Tom’s reputation.

And because of the hearsay in ESPN’s reporting and effort to place Izzo, Dantonio and Nassar characters in the same story, ESPN stands somewhat alone. There are voices elsewhere calling for Izzo to answer the questions raised by the network. But you don’t see other large media outlets pouncing on this story with the same sort of prosecutorial zeal.

Or ... maybe it’s because ESPN, for most people, is the only national source of sports-related news, and their closest competitor is in the middle of a $150 million deal for Michigan State’s multimedia rights.

ESPN has put Izzo and Dantonio the center of this story without any direct allegations of wrongdoing. Izzo and Dantonio aren’t being accused of the misdeed themselves. They’re being accused of perhaps mishandling or covering up the misdeed. That’s harder to prove, as evidenced by ESPN’s lack of evidence that Izzo and Dantonio were directly involved.

Advertisement

They’re at the center of the story because they’ve run their programs for a combined total of nearly 35 years, and they’re the school’s most visible and listened-to leaders.

If victims of sexual abuse weren’t heard because their assailants were prominent MSU athletes, that can’t be lost in ESPN’s missteps.

But ESPN is hard to respect right now. Beyond the secondhand hearsay and flimsy sourcing in places, there are lines in the initial report that reek of an agenda and sentences that mislead or needlessly build drama.

Advertisement

Heaven forbid a story about sexual assault cover-ups be dramatic.

Here is one example:

“Even more, Dantonio was said to be involved in handling the discipline in at least one of the cases several years ago.”

This works if “Even more” is followed by solid evidence, instead of “was said to be involved” by someone who, it turns out, doesn’t have direct knowledge of whether or not he was. If ESPN has that more firmly, it wasn’t in the report.

Weaving the story between the Nassar case — one of the largest sex abuse scandals in this country’s history — and allegations against the football and basketball programs is grotesque, and I struggle to believe that it’s entirely well-intended.

Advertisement

ESPN started this reporting on sexual assault cases involving athletes at major universities in 2014, with most of its findings laid out in an article from June 2015. The only reason it took so long for this specific story to come out is that MSU sued ESPN to prevent the release of its own records. It’s MSU’s own obstructionist fault that the Nassar sentencing and the ESPN report happened around the same time.

To be fair to ESPN, the scope of that investigation might not have included MSU’s men’s basketball and football programs if not for the Outside the Lines report.

“To be fair to ESPN, their reporting has forced a closed-off public university to potentially become more transparent.” Graham, that’s a great thing.

But you can’t fight lack of governmental transparency with incremental reporting that lacks transparency.

Advertisement

Maybe Couch wrote this literally right after he saw The Post, but “incremental reporting” is pretty much the only kind of reporting there is. Unless there’s a public email from Tom Izzo telling Lou Anna Simon “Hey, let’s ignore this Appling/Payne situation,” all ESPN can do is explain as many facts as they can based on whatever interviews and public documents they can get. They’re doing a solid job of that so far, and the rush from certain MSU alums to attack their journalists as villains for daring to question Izzo is, frankly, very scary.

Izzo has long been on a one-man crusade against social media, unfair media and the effects of an increasingly impatient and venomous culture. That world has, for the first time, turned on him. I’m sure he’d love to defeat it.

“I’m going to do what I think is right,” Izzo said later Wednesday, making it clear that he is no lawyer’s puppet. “But, I just, I’m sorry, I really am, because I watch a lot of TV and I see on shows that everybody thinks everybody has the right to ask a question and I’ve always believed that. I’ve always been a fan of the media. But I’ve got to have my rights, too. When the time comes, I’ll be able to speak out. I know it might be frustrating, but that’s just what I’ve got to do.”

He might die on this hill. But it’s clear he’s not going to give in until he’s ready. Not when he thinks he’s being wronged. And not when he’s still unsure what to say.

Advertisement

Graham Couch cannot wait until coach Izzo picks him for his grand apology exclusive.