It’s been three days since an ESPN report painted a picture of Michigan State University as a school unable or unwilling to punish sexual abusers or rapists through any kind of accountable system, particularly when the accused were part of the football and men’s basketball teams. The looming publication of that report sparked the resignation of athletic director Mark Hollis, but it’s already clear that any calls for football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo to resign aren’t going to get any traction in East Lansing.
Both coaches spoke to the media over the weekend (Izzo twice), and both took defensive stances, saying that they had cooperated with law enforcement in the proper ways whenever there was a sexual assault investigation involving their players and offering vague (if any) words of support for victims of sexual abuse or assault.
Izzo first spoke on Friday, after a home win for his team over Wisconsin. In the ESPN report, his program is said to have allowed former player and then-undergrad assistant coach Travis Walton to remain a part of the team after punching a woman at a bar in 2010. (Walton pleaded not guilty to the assault charge and eventually pleaded down to a littering infraction, ESPN says. He went to play Europe after the 2009-2010 season.) Walton, along with two unidentified basketball players, was also named in a rape report later that year. Additionally, in 2010, another MSU student accused basketball players Adreian Payne and Keith Appling of raping her in their dorm room, but no charges were ever filed.
“I’m not going to answer any questions,” Izzo said on Friday. “I’m going to stick to worrying about the survivors. I tried saying what I could say last week, and I’m going to stick with the survivors and do my part in helping them heal.” Izzo did, however, confirm that he was “not going anywhere,” and wouldn’t resign.
Following a win against Maryland on Sunday, Izzo had another chance to more clearly address the contents of the report, but continued to be evasive. Izzo was asked multiple questions about Travis Walton by ESPN’s Tisha Thompson, including why Walton was allowed to continue with the team while his assault charges were pending.
“As I said before, we’ll cooperate with any investigation and always have. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it moving forward, and that’s all I’m going to say on it, that we did cooperate with everything,” Izzo said.
He was then asked why Walton left the program in 2010.
“To be honest with you, I don’t remember why he left,” Izzo said.
When asked if he had any regrets about the way he handled sexual assault within his program, Izzo again simply reiterated, “I’ve cooperated with every investigation—every one. And I’ll continue to cooperate with every investigation—every one.”
Mark Dantonio also gave a press conference on Friday night in which he said the reports of his mishandling of sexual assault allegations were “completely false.” ESPN reported that at least 16 Michigan State football players had been accused of sexual assault or violence against women since Dantonio took over as head coach, and their report mentioned that in one case, Dantonio allegedly dealt with a sexual assault accusation by having the player talk to his mother.
“Every incident reported in that article was documented either by police or the Michigan State Title IX office. I’ve always worked with the proper authorities when dealing with sexual assault,” Dantonio said on Friday.
His words, most confusingly, seem to conflict with something he said to media in June 2017 after several players were dismissed when they were charged with sexual assault or misconduct. At the time, Dantonio implied that his team had never had any problems with sexual assault.
“This is new ground for us,” he said in June. “We’ve been here 11 years—it has not happened previously.”
Both Izzo’s and Dantonio’s words sound like they were heavily influenced by conversations with lawyers. Because of that, at a time when the University is trying to change a culture that definitely enabled Larry Nassar to abuse over 100 women, and reportedly enabled over a dozen athletes to commit rape or otherwise assault women, two of the school’s most visible leaders come off as flat and uninspiring at best and in denial at worst. A basketball coach and a football coach are obviously not the two people we need to look to in a critical situation like this, but what Dantonio and Izzo say about MSU’s rape problem could go a long way toward influencing those who put school pride over justice. It’s unfortunate that all they’re doing is covering their asses.