Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis announced his retirement Friday as the school becomes further engulfed in the scandal surrounding Larry Nassar, a former sports medicine doctor for the school and USA Gymnastics who was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing female athletes under his care.
Hollis, a Michigan State graduate, had been the Spartans’ athletic director since Jan. 1, 2008 and was regarded by his peers and some in the media as one of the top sports administrators in the country.
“Our campus and beyond have been attacked by evil,” Hollis said at a news conference announcing his decision. “We must listen and learn lessons. Only then can we truly begin the process of healing.”
He added that he was not forced into retirement and will “fully cooperate” with investigations into Michigan State by the NCAA and the state attorney general’s office. Hollis claims he did not know about the Nassar situation until 2016, when the Indianapolis Star began publishing a series of reports about USA Gymnastics’ handling of sexual abuse. He said Friday that he did not believe he had ever actually met Nassar, which is the same thing he told law-enforcement officials in March 2017 when they interviewed him regarding what he knew about physician.
“I am not running away from anything, I am running toward something,” Hollis said at his news conference.
But the reasons for Hollis’s retirement may extend far beyond the Nassar situation and into Michigan State’s athletic culture as a whole. In a story published after Hollis’s resignation Friday, ESPN’s Paula Lavigne reported on an “Outside the Lines” investigation that “found a pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression of [sexual assault, violence and gender discrimination] allegations by officials ranging from campus police to the Spartan athletic department.”
Among Lavigne’s findings:
— Michigan State has gone to great lengths to keep athletes’ names out of campus police reports, unsuccessfully going to court three times in the past three years to ask that the names be withheld and hindering internal investigations.
— At least 16 Spartans football players have been accused of sexual assault or violence toward women since Coach Mark Dantonio took over in 2007. Despite this, Dantonio told reporters that such investigations are “new ground for us” and that “it has never happened previously” in June when asked about one such incident involving four of his players. A Michigan State sexual assault counselor told Lavigne that she once had been informed by a school attorney that Dantonio had personally dealt with a sexual assault allegation against one of his players by having that player “talk to his mother about what he had done.”
— That “never-before-publicized reports of sexual or violent incidents” have been filed against Michigan State men’s basketball players. Plus, a student-assistant coach on Tom Izzo’s staff — a former player on Izzo’s team named Travis Walton — was allowed to keep his job after being criminally charged for punching a female Michigan State student in 2010, giving her a concussion. The misdemeanor assault charge eventually was dismissed and he pleaded guilty to a civil infraction for littering.
Walton and two of Izzo’s players then were accused of raping a different female student a few months later, after the Spartans had advanced to the Final Four.
According to Lavigne, the woman told Hollis personally about the incident and he said he would “conduct his own investigation.” Walton was fired, according to the sexual assault counselor, but the players were not reprimanded. The incident was not reported to the university departments that handle student conduct or judicial affairs, remaining within the athletic department.
Walton, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers’ NBA G League affiliate, denied the first incident and said he had no recollection of the second when contacted by “Outside the Lines.” He has since been put on administrative leave by the Clippers “pending further investigation,” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that Michigan State had violated procedural aspects of the Title IX gender-discrimination law over its handling of sexual assault cases involving both athletes and non-athletes. But the office’s report devoted special attention to the Spartans’ athletes, as Lavigne notes:
The report states students told investigators that Michigan State athletes “have a reputation for engaging in sexual harassment and sexual assault and not being punished for it, because athletes are held in such high regard at the university.” It also states that athletes received more training on sexual harassment and sexual assault than other students but noted possible mixed messages. It cites a program called “Branded a Spartan” about upholding the Spartan name. Some male athletes told investigators that “making a report about sexual assault might tarnish the Spartan brand,” and at least one said he might not report an incident involving a fellow athlete to the Title IX office, according to the report.
Nassar had worked at Michigan State since 1997, under three athletic directors. At least a dozen former Spartans athletes gave victim-impact statements during the sentencing phase of Nassar’s plea deal on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County Circuit Court. According to ESPN, at least six female Michigan State athletes dating back to 1997 have said they alerted an athletic trainer, coach or staff psychologist about Nassar’s behavior, with no action taken.
The school’s former gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, allegedly deterred two teenage girls from reporting Nassar in the late 1990s. Hollis suspended Klages in February of last year and she retired one day later.
On Tuesday, the NCAA informed the school that it would be conducting an investigation into the athletic department’s handling of Nassar, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than 160 women and girls. The next day, school president Lou Anna K. Simon resigned in the face of mounting criticism over the school’s failure to take action against Nassar.
Last week, Michigan State asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed against the school by 140 women and girls who said Nassar sexually abused them. Its attorneys claim the school is immune from such lawsuits under state law.
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