Larry Nassar scandal: Michigan State interim president John Engler just doesn't get it

Eric Adelson
Michigan State University Interim President John Engler speaks during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on “Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes,” on Capitol Hill. (AP)

The president of Michigan State … still … doesn’t … get it.

The university had planned a powerful cover of its alumni magazine in the wake of the sentencing of convicted serial molester Larry Nassar, with the image of a woman wearing teal lipstick – the color showing support for survivors of sexual assault.

Instead, according to the Detroit Free Press, interim president John Engler scrapped the plan and replaced it with a green cover bragging about how the school “faced the most difficult challenge in its history, has emerged and is going to be stronger, safer and more competitive than ever.”

Who were the victims again?

This decision came before American gold medal gymnasts Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian chose to come forward with their personal stories of survivorship. Both are only 21. Both are suing Michigan State.

“There are still people at the top that I feel have overseen this issue for a long time and I think that needs to be changed as well as the whole culture around everything,” Kocian told the Associated Press on Thursday. “I don’t think enough has been changed from the coaching standpoint. There are still coaches under that abusive style of coaching, whether it’s verbal abuse, that’s what enables all of this.”

The trauma for Kocian and Ross and the dozens and dozens of other survivors has hardly abated. And yet Mr. Engler has decided his school “has emerged.” Michigan State will not only be safer, but “more competitive than ever.”

Maybe stop competing for just this one issue of the magazine? For a couple of weeks before football season starts? Is that too much to ask?

This is the same interim president who wrote an email attacking the survivors as “being manipulated by trial lawyers.” As if it was all about the money. (He later apologized.)

What Mr. Engler fails to realize is that an alumni magazine that allows the entire community to soberly reflect on what happened could be very healthy for the future. Spinning the tragedy into something the school had to deal with and get past only sends the message that the green and white of school defiance is still more important than the teal of real life.

“Alumni consistently communicate to the magazine team that they want to know what is happening on campus, so striking a balance between addressing the problems of the past but also showing the positive impact Spartans are having across a variety of fields was the desired outcome,” is what an MSU spokesperson told the Free Press.

Engler had a model for this decision in Penn State. After the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the editor of The Penn Stater put together an issue in 2012 that directly faced what had happened, with a black cover and the label “Our Darkest Days.” There were sections including “How could this happen?” as well as “Understanding child sexual abuse.”

The reaction was intense, and mostly favorable.

(Michigan State University)

Maryland is also facing its darkest days this week, with the death of 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair from heat illness sustained during a May practice. On Tuesday, school president Wallace Loh stood before the press and took full responsibility for the tragedy and outlined specific steps to make sure this never happens again. His comments were public-facing, blunt and unvarnished. Yes, they were only words, and weeks late at that. However, accountability starts at the very top of the university, and Loh showed he understands that.

Meanwhile, Mr. Engler is meddling with magazines. There are some shorter critiques of the school’s handling of the Nassar abuse in the alumni issue, but the centerpiece of this latest issue is a four-page interview with – John Engler.

“Pride comes before the fall,” is one of the sayings that endeared football coach Mark Dantonio to his legions of Spartans fans. He was talking about the arrogance of the football rival in Ann Arbor.

Well, there’s clearly plenty of pride in the office of the Michigan State school president these days. Too much pride, and too soon.

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