EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State missed an opportunity to provide some clarity about who was aware of sexual harassment allegations against Mel Tucker and what school leaders knew about them when its athletic director and interim president announced the football coach was being suspended without pay.
It was just the latest misstep in a long line of them.
The institution has stumbled from scandal to scandal in recent years, none bigger or more devastating than the one it enabled with disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar. After a female Michigan State graduate filed a complaint about Nassar's abuse in 2014, a school investigation found he didn't violate school policy.
Nassar went on to shatter more lives and it cost the school priceless damage to its reputation along with more than $500 million, including a $4.5 million fine from the Education Department for failing to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints.
And now, Michigan State has another mess.
“It's a repeat of 2014,” Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly identify herself as a victim of Nassar, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “One of the biggest questions back then was what did the school president and board know.”
Brenda Tracy, an activist and rape survivor, alleged Tucker sexually harassed her during a phone call in April 2022. Tracy filed a complaint with the school's Title IX office eight months later and that is when athletic director Alan Haller was informed an allegation sexual misconduct had been made against Tucker, school spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said Tuesday.
While the investigation into the allegations was completed July 25, Michigan State interim President Teresa Woodruff and the school's board of trustees did not know the details until Sunday, when USA Today published its report, Guerrant said.
“They're either lying or grossly ignorant,” Denhollander told the AP. “They're using victim protection to cover their own ignorance and that's nonsense.”
Johanna Kononen, the law and policy director with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, said Michigan State’s Title IX procedures are confidential and the only people privy to information in the report and investigation are the parties themselves, their advisers and the finder of fact.
Still, Kononen said the process is not completely confidential.
“It seems unlikely, in a case involving such a prominent respondent, that university officials were not aware of the allegations against coach Tucker for the last 10 months,” she told the AP. “This defensive posture is disappointing where MSU is very aware of its historical failure to prioritize and protect its community from sexual impropriety.”
The 51-year-old Tucker, who is married and has two children, said the allegations against him are “completely false” and the intimate phone call he had with Tracy was consensual and outside the scope of both Title IX and school policy.
Tracy’s attorney, Karen Truszkowski, said her client’s identity was disclosed by an outside party, leading to the USA Today report that exposed explicit details of the investigation.
“Brenda Tracy had no intention of publicly disclosing her identity,” Truszkowski said Tuesday. “She was and continues to be committed to complying with and concluding the MSU internal investigative process."
Guerrant said the university wanted to ensure a fair and comprehensive process and create a safe environment for individuals to come forward without a fear of institutional retaliation or breach of privacy.
“We are dismayed to learn the confidentiality was broken in this case,” she said.
A hearing is scheduled for the week of Oct. 5 determine if Tucker violated the school’s sexual harassment and exploitation policy.
Tucker is in the third year of a $95 million, 10-year contract and if he is fired for cause, the school would not have to pay him what’s remaining on his deal. Michigan State may fire Tucker for cause if he “engages in any conduct which constitutes moral turpitude or which, in the University’s sole judgement, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule upon the university,” according to his contract.
Officially, the school said “unprofessional behavior and not living up to the core values of the department and university," was the reason Tucker was suspended.
Tracy is known for her work with college teams, educating athletes about sexual violence. Michigan State paid her $10,000 to share her story with the football team.
“By any metric, even if it was consensual, what he did was a violation of the school's ethics policy because he initiated sexual relations with a contracted employee,” Denhollander said. “When he admitted that in March, he could have been immediately fired if the proper processes were in place at Michigan State and if the board was trained — or if they cared about this.”
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Larry Lage, The Associated Press