Michigan State’s Crisis of Leadership

Dear Loyal Readers,

You probably anticipated this week’s subject: Michigan State’s crisis of leadership over the Larry Nassar scandal. Here it is, the longest audio I’ve ever done for Michigan Radio, and a written piece that also runs on Postgame.com, the long-form sports site that’s linked to Yahoo.

I can’t say you’re going to enjoy this one, but I hope I got it right. I also hope I don’t have to write any such story again.


I’ve been wondering aloud for more than a year why the Larry Nassar case was not getting national attention. Well, it finally did, and it wasn’t pretty.

Dr. Nassar pled guilty to sexually assaulting ten girls and young women, but his victims numbered more than 100, many of them athletes at Michigan State University.

Let’s be clear: Michigan State is not merely a good school, but a world-class research university. It’s one of only 62 in North America – out of thousands – to be admitted to the Association of American Universities, the highest status a university can achieve. Everyone I know who went there loved it.

That’s why it’s so disappointing when the Detroit News reported that at least 14 Michigan State employees, who had been told by the victims what Nassar had done, proceeded to do little or nothing about it. Worse, they almost all claim they can’t even recall those conversations. What feeling person could possibly forget?

That brings us to President Lou Anna Simon, who told The Detroit News she had been informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed doctor.

“I did not receive a copy of the report,” she said. “That’s the truth.”

She must believe this exonerates her, instead of raising questions about why she never asked to see the report, request a follow up, or even ask for the doctor’s name. The university allowed Nassar to continue practicing for 16 months, provided a staffer join him in the examination room. Nassar ignored that suggestion, without consequence, and continued to assault victims. One of them, 15-year old Emma Ann Miller, was abused a week before MSU finally fired Nassar in 2016.

This fits a pattern described by Michigan Radio reporters of the Simon administration’s passivity about other sexual assaults, and its reluctance to make any changes until publicly pressured to do so.

What Simon knew, when she knew it, and what she did about it will be for the courts to decide. But what Michigan State had to determine was straightforward: Did Simon have the confidence of the community to oversee an honest, objective investigation, and enact meaningful reforms?

To its credit, the Michigan State community answered loudly and clearly, from student protests to editorials in the student paper, to the outraged faculty, staff, and alumni – many of whom are doing noble work in the media — to the victims who told their stories in court. Their courage finally brought the national spotlight to the worst pedophile scandal in American history.

Yes, worse than Penn State. Jerry Sandusky left the football program in 1999 to work for a local charity, while preying on the young boys who enrolled there. After the story broke in 2011, the Penn State players I talked to had no idea who Sandusky was.

At the time, in President Simon’s other role as the chair of the NCAA’s Executive Committee, she said, “People make mistakes, and some of those are purposeful and premeditated, and if you just take the Penn State experience, pretty pervasive.”

She sought to restructure the NCAA’s system of violations “to incentivize people doing the right thing, and the right thing is saying something when you see something and doing something after you said something. It’s really that simple.”

Perhaps she regrets saying that now.

Unlike Penn State’s football players, Michigan State’s athletes not only knew Nassar, they were his victims. Yet several Michigan State employees helped keep Nassar on staff until 2016. Michigan State owns this one.

The University’s leaders could have stopped the bleeding several times during this tragedy. Instead, the eight Trustees held an emergency, five-hour meeting last week – even as the victims were telling their stories in a courtroom across town. Instead of demanding President Simon’s departure, most expressed their confidence in her, doubling down on this disaster.

Three days later, longtime Trustee Joel Ferguson dismissed the scandal as, “this Nassar thing,” said Simon was “by far the best president we’ve ever had,” and boldly proclaimed the NCAA would never investigate Michigan State because, “they’re not competent.” If Ferguson was trying to sabotage his alma mater, mission accomplished.

The next day, the NCAA announced it would be investigating MSU. Let’s hope it does a better job than it did with Penn State, although I am not optimistic. This is an organization that ruled athletes could put butter on their bagels but not cream cheese, because cream cheese would make it a meal, and therefore a violation. The NCAA’s leaders have a knack for punishing the innocent while letting the guilty go. They are not equipped to handle felonies.

Two decades ago, former Michigan athletic director Don Canham gave me the smartest take I’ve ever heard on crisis management: Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.

This is not to suggest that Michigan State’s primary problem is public relations. Far from it. It is to say that when leaders are presented with a crisis, their first task is to not make it worse. In that, Michigan State’s leaders have failed almost every time they’ve opened their mouths. They seem determined to turn a two-decade story into a three-decade story.

And that brings us back to the victims, who were uncommonly honest, strong, and courageous – while the leaders they relied on were none of those things.

Finally, on Wednesday night, President Simon gave into the pressure and resigned, but not before releasing a statement that revealed far more than she probably intended.

She opened by stating, “The last year and a half has been very difficult for the victims of Larry Nassar, for the university community, and for me personally.”

She added, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”

And she closed by saying, “I will continue to do whatever I can to help MSU… in whatever role I may play.”

Based on Simon’s resignation letter alone, the smaller her role is, the better for everyone.



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8 comments Leave a comment  

  • Rick January 26, 2018 at 10:34 am

    You are correct, that was not enjoyable. Thank you for your objectivity. A lessor man would have ripped the doors off the hinges and set fire to everything green and white. I was going to say something deep about minds, bodies, souls and scars but it isn’t anything that hasn’t been said before when an animal like this leaves his mark.

  • Brad Thompson January 26, 2018 at 11:08 am

    MSU’s responses from anyone there have been totally tone-deaf and mishandled. Shows complete mismanagement and lack of understanding. They need to clean house top to bottom.

  • Phil January 26, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Hi John, A abysmal story indeed. The class action lawsuits in the planning stages at this moment will be profound, and should be. What baffles me about this debacle on top of all the other tragedies in this matter is that when the athletes joined USA Gymnastics and/or the USA Olympic team as Olympic hopefuls was that they were contractually obligated to see Larry Nasser and ONLY Larry Nasser, for any and all injuries or injury management related to their care, there was no, “second opinion”. They signed a contract that said they had to see Larry Nasser for medical care, it was not a choice. If an athlete presumed to see a different practitioner you were, off the team, no Olympics for you. What other sport, Olympic or otherwise, does anyone know of in this country that has this stipulation?

  • Ned January 26, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    You hit this one out of the park on a very sensitive and tough topic. Insightful and well written. Thank you for that.

  • Barry Gallagher January 27, 2018 at 9:37 am


    A great post on a tragic mess in East Lansing. I don’t know how MSU will ever recover from this total failure of Spartan leadership. Truly a sad state of affairs in our state and nation!

  • the January 27, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Great thanks, Coach. As someone who leads a women’s college team, the right way, that means even more.

  • Your name Mark (Required) January 28, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Message (Required John – I agree with pretty much all of your points. One thing that should be emphasized more though is the role of the county prosecuting attorney (PA) who according to the Lansing State Journal dismissed the warrant and described Nassar’s technique as “a very innovative and helpful manipulation.” The PA didn’t just dismiss the warrant in 2014, they praised and complimented Nassar! The PA office is the leading law enforcement office in the county. This does not excuse MSU. They obviously failed their students by not erring on the side of caution and sidelining Nassar into an administrative role at the very least without access to patients. But the PA’s evaluation of Nassar and their role in this tragedy elucidates how convoluted this mess was going back to 2014 and earlier.

  • GO Blue Bruce January 30, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Excellent points as usual. I enjoy hearing you speak and read your books. Now to MSU. I am interested in your viewpoint about the ESPN E60 expose on MSU’s cover up of the basketball and football programs. Looking forward to reading more.


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