Michigan State University must redouble scrutiny of sexual abuse

High-brow credentials and impressive titles don’t give anyone the right to inappropriately touch vulnerable young women. Sadly, it appears Michigan State University gymnasts were lulled into trusting an alleged sexual predator because he bore the imprimatur of the college.

That makes MSU complicit, intentionally or not, in the scandal now engulfing its former gymnastics medical trainer, who has been charged with sexual assault for abusing the young athletes who were sent to him for treatment. The university had a responsibility to adhere to strict protocol and oversight aimed at preventing abuse of student-athletes. And it appears MSU failed at these.

Osteopathic physician Larry Nassar, a 53-year-old father of three, faces first-degree criminal charges in Michigan, child pornography charges at the federal level (investigators found 37,000 images on a hard drive in his trash) and several civil lawsuits filed by dozens of girls and women, as accusations pile up that he sexually assaulted gymnasts. The victims, members of the Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics teams, charge Nassar engaged in unwelcome digital vaginal penetration. He maintains his innocence.

USA Gymnastics suspended Nassar in summer 2015 and reported their internal investigation to the FBI. But Nassar continued to see patients at MSU’s sports-medicine clinic until August 2016 when a former MSU gymnast filed a complaint with the campus police.

MSU is named as a co-defendant in many of the lawsuits amid allegations university officials ignored warning signs. One former MSU gymnast and plaintiff says she complained about Nassar to MSU coach Kathie Klages in 1997, but her concerns were dismissed.

After 27 years as gymnastics coach, Klages retired last week after being suspended by the university for her “passionate defense” of Nassar to gymnasts in September. Athletic Director Mark Hollis said Klages expressed a “highly emotional sense of shock” by the allegations against Nassar, leaving gymnasts confused about who they could speak with about their complaints.

Attorney John Manly is representing several former Olympic gymnasts. He told “60 Minutes” that Nassar is a “serial predator” and believes Nassar sexually abused “hundreds” of women, including women on every single Olympic gymnastics team since the late 1990s.

MSU must advocate for its current and former gymnasts to speak freely. University police and officials should conduct an extensive investigation. Were student-athlete complaints ignored? Why wasn’t there oversight of his treatment practices?

With protesters outside, MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon defended her athletic program Friday, saying at MSU “there is no culture of tolerance of sexual assault or harassment.”

Still, the accusations against Nassar, if true, indicated years of sexual abuse of college athletes went undetected, and complaints were ignored. MSU must examine its practices and commit to scrutinizing everyone involved in its athletic programs, including those with impeccable professional credentials.

— The Detroit News

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