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Tom Izzo says Michigan State will ‘cooperate with any investigation and always have’

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo is facing questions about mishandling of assault charges involving former players in his program after ESPN report. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The sixth-ranked Michigan State men’s basketball team had just rallied from a double-digit deficit to beat Maryland, 74-68, on Saturday afternoon when Spartans Coach Tom Izzo arrived for his postgame news conference at Xfinity Center.

Weary from off-the-court issues that have painted the school’s athletic department in a most unfavorable light, the architect of one of the most successful programs over the past two decades immediately faced pointed questions about a recent ESPN report revealing an assault on a female student in 2010 by one of Izzo’s former players who at the time was serving on the coaching staff.

“We all know it’s been a time when there’s a lot of distractions, and I think sometimes guys just have to focus in on their jobs, and then deal with the other stuff after, and that’s what they did,” Izzo said in his opening statement, referring to his players.

From there, ESPN’s Tisha Thompson, an investigative reporter for “Outside the Lines,” asked Izzo: “In 2010, Travis Walton was charged with assault and battery for punching a female student in the face. There were witnesses. She was injured. Why was he allowed to continue on the coaching staff and be with the team while charges were pending?”

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Walton was a student-assistant on Izzo’s staff in 2010, the year after he helped Michigan State reach the national championship game. ESPN also reported Walton was accused of sexually assaulting a different woman months later after the Spartans reached the Final Four that season.

“Well, as I said before, we’ll cooperate with any investigation and always have,” Izzo said. “We’ve done it before and we’ll do it moving forward. It’s about all I’m going to say on it that we did cooperate with everything.”

Walton, who has denied making physical contact with the accuser, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment, and assault and battery charges were dropped. He pleaded guilty to a civil infraction for littering, “Outside the Lines” reported.

Thompson then responded by asking: “We want to give you every opportunity to answer questions. There’s a lot of questions. A big one is, ‘Why did Travis leave the program in 2010?’ ”

“I don’t know what you mean. He graduated,” Izzo said.

Thompson countered: “He was on your staff throughout 2010. An allegation came forward later that year from a woman and her family to the athletic department that he and two other players raped her. He then left the program later that year in 2010. Why?”

Izzo said: “To be honest with you, I don’t know why he left. He went to Europe to play, and as you know, I’ll still say I’ll cooperate with any investigation that’s made. I did it then. I did it before, and I’m not going to answer any questions that aren’t pertaining to basketball or things that I am not going to talk about right now.”

Thompson continued to press Izzo.

“Let me ask you this question then,” she said. “Looking back at the way sexual assault allegations have been handled by your basketball program, do you have any regrets?”

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Izzo paused for a lengthy period, at least in terms of answering during a news conference, before he replied: “I’ve cooperated [with] every investigation, every one, and I will continue to cooperate with every investigation, every one.”

Izzo and the program also have been under intense scrutiny for another “Outside the Lines” report revealing former Michigan State players Adreian Payne and Keith Appling were accused of raping a female student following freshman orientation at the school in 2010.

The report links officials at the Michigan State athletic department to “widespread denial, inaction and information suppression of” sexual assault and abuse dating from 1997, when the first complaint against Larry Nassar was brought forward.

Nassar is a former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor who, following a guilty plea to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with children under the age of 16, received a prison sentence of 40 to 175 years on Wednesday.

On the same day, Lou Anna K. Simon resigned as Michigan State president. Two days later, Mark Hollis announced his retirement as the school’s athletic director.

On Saturday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said a special prosecutor would be investigating Michigan State to determine how Nassar could have sexually abused girls and young women for two decades without university action.

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That announcement came two days after Izzo and football Coach Mark Dantonio, whose program also has come under fire for gross mishandling of sexual assault allegations, said they would not step down.

“There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of distractions,” Michigan State sophomore guard-forward Miles Bridges said. “I’m praying for all the survivors. My thoughts are out to them. We just want to continue to win games, just for the campus.”

In her victim impact statement, Emma Ann Miller, 15, referred to Bridges as a player she could “root for” while still holding Michigan State accountable for Nassar’s actions.

Over Nassar’s seven-day sentencing hearing, 156 girls and women spoke about abuse suffered while in the doctor’s care.

“I think there’s been more life lessons learned this year than ever,” Izzo said when asked what he told his players regarding how to handle questions about the issues swirling around the program. “I had to tell them to watch what you say because even your coach mixed up a word, and that was pretty tough.

“I said just continue, and this was my message before the game, at halftime and after the game, continue to realize that there’s people that have gone through a lot, and they get an opportunity to help the healing process a little bit, just a little bit. That’s the only message I gave them.”

Read more:

Michigan State athletic director retires as school’s sexual assault scandal deepens

Doctor at center of USA Gymnastics scandal left warning signs at Michigan State

‘As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger’: Michigan State leader resigns amid Nassar scandal