Crowley Sullivan: Michigan State, You Broke My Heart

Crowley Sullivan: Michigan State, You Broke My Heart

Week 9

Crowley Sullivan: Michigan State, You Broke My Heart


Crowley Sullivan is a 20-year sports-media veteran having spent ten years at ESPN as a producer, programmer, content creator, business developer, and brand manager.  He now serves as EVP, Planning/GM, Sports for MandtVR, a content creation platform that emphasizes Virtual Reality initiatives.

Bother Crowley at @CrowleySullivan

Michigan State is more than just a school for me.

And now I’m heartbroken.

Even before I set foot on the nation’s most beautiful campus as a freshman in 1989, my mom – a proud 1959 graduate – made it special. She made it the place I had to go.

Which is why – like so many others in Spartan Nation – my mom and I fought back tears as we discussed the heartbreaking disappointment, knowing that our beloved alma mater failed so sadly on every level in order to allow such a nightmare to happen.

My dad is a 1958 graduate of the University of Michigan – and I love him anyway.

He played basketball for the Wolverines and remains a proud member of The M Club.  But – believe me when I say this – my dad loves Michigan State.  He exchanged handwritten letters with the president of the University of Michigan while the scandals of The Fab Five tarnished his beloved alma mater’s traditions and honor.  And when he and I spoke about this the other night, he got choked up and said, “They’ve come so far.  How could they let this happen? …”

For the many people who view Michigan State as just another giant university run amok, it’s not difficult to understand your lack of perspective.  In order to understand just how tragic this is to Spartans, if you didn’t go there, you have to get into the DNA of the university itself.

From the time of the university’s founding in 1855, it’s been fighting an uphill battle.

The nation’s first Land Grant university has a proud defiance that fueled its growth.  Despite facing extreme pushback from dynamics right in the state of Michigan that worked hard to limit every aspect of Michigan State’s growth, the university’s early leaders had a tenacity and a belief system that allowed the school to slowly become recognized as a respected institution that would eventually become a member of the Big Ten.

Entry into the Big Ten served as a springboard for exponential growth over several generations.  Among so many of Michigan State’s contributions to American society, including on the field and court – like Duffy Daugherty’s courageous integration of black student athletes into the Spartan football program – it was an essential in establishing principles of the university that were cultivated by John Hannah, Michigan State’s president from 1941-1969 and the school’s patron saint.

Right now, Hannah looks down on his beloved university with sadness and profound disappointment.

Today’s leaders who were responsible for continuing to grow the school by leading with the hallmarks of Hannah’s legacy – integrity, vision, transparency, strength, and courage – failed to live up to his legacy.

The work that has been done by so many terrific Spartans over the last fifty years certainly hasn’t been diminished. However, the damage that has come as a result of the lack of leadership and irrefutable negligence has stained the university in ways that may be impossible to wash away.

Spartan fans are now are faced with the inevitable firestorm of negativity that will surround the university for years to come.  Stories about alleged misdeeds, negligence, lack of institutional control on many levels, etc.  And with those stories comes the misguided vitriol for those who dare to suggest that Michigan State may have other forms of dysfunction within its walls.

When it comes to light that any place has allowed one of the worst sexual assault scandals in history to be perpetrated by one of the worst pedophiles in history, it stands to reason that people are going to want to look under the hood of the rest of the place.  And here’s what Spartans have to do as this next challenging phase begins: support the examining of the school’s leadership and its possible failings beyond the Larry Nassar tragedy.

As the collateral damage begins to engulf the Spartan community, many of us are tempted to begin to focus on the noise rather than the very tragedy that put us where we all are right now.

What happened?

Over a twenty-year period, one of the worst pedophiles in history perpetrated a horrific nightmare on that campus we all love.  It happened despite as many as 14 Michigan State University employees with varying degrees of influence and responsibility being aware of the complaints of the many Spartan student athletes who were sexually assaulted under the guise of medical treatment.  Nobody at Michigan State did what was necessary.

Those are facts.

We can all quibble about how some people didn’t know, weren’t sufficiently “kept in the loop.”  But the very hard truths are undeniable and irrefutable.

As Flannery O’Connor once said, “The truth doesn’t change according to our ability or inability to stomach it.”

Consider that in 2012, the entire nation – and much of the world – was engrossed in what we thought would be the worst sexual assault scandal in history when we learned of the terrible details pertaining to Jerry Sandusky’s actions taking place right under the nose of the Penn State football program and, indeed, the university.

During that period, the pedophile ruining lives in East Lansing was very much running rampant on the Michigan State campus.  And, again, as many as 14 Michigan State University officials knew of the complaints.

As the entire Penn State scandal played out in gut-wrenching fashion, nobody at Michigan State stopped and said to his/her colleagues during a meeting of any kind and said, “Hey – I know this is a hard thing to bring up – but maybe we need to dig in on those complaints we’ve all heard about regarding Larry Nassar…”

To say nothing of the fact that nobody at Michigan State stood up and did what was right in the fifteen years this was going on prior to the Penn State scandal becoming public knowledge.

How is that possible?

Certainly, nobody at Michigan State University wanted countless girls – and, by the way, it doesn’t matter if the number is 1 or 1000 – to have their lives damaged forever by being violated in the worst ways imaginable.  Nobody at Michigan State University wanted any of this to happen.  But by standing by and doing pretty much nothing, the leaders allowed this to happen and there isn’t any disputing that.

Failures over twenty years were only compounded by the worst show of leadership in the university’s history as the 150 victims of Nassar courageously spoke to the nation over the last week.

Tone deafness.

Astonishing insensitivity.

Unacceptable and embarrassing verbal gaffes at the worst time.

A lack of an appropriate perspective and a lack of a strong, collective voice when it was most necessary.

The challenge now is for Spartans to see that Michigan State University brought this all on itself.  The undeniable failures have led to all of this.  There isn’t any hiding from that.

It’s the responsibility of Spartans to listen to all of the criticisms and perspectives.

It’s the responsibility of Spartans to stand tall and take on all of the coverage head on.

It’s the responsibility of Spartans to recognize that the leaders who are still in East Lansing must face the fair examination that has started and will/should continue.

It’s the responsibility of Spartans to rise to the occasion and not fall to the temptation to close off and howl at the moon while right-minded people take a closer look at the university’s culture.

If Spartans can recognize these responsibilities, the community can, potentially, be an example for all schools on how to handle such a crisis.

Taking all of this into account, here are some open requests.

To Tom Izzo …

Stick to the script Michigan State University has given you.  While this is best for you, it’s more important that it’s best for the university for which you work.  Nobody has ever dared to suggest this but it’s long past time for someone to do so – you’ve gone mostly unchecked for twenty years and your mouth can – unintentionally – lead to an irresponsible tone often times.

This past week, you “misspoke” in a way that caused a mother of a victim to refer to you as a “MORON” and a “LIAR.”  Nobody thinks you wanted any of this to happen.  But nobody has ever really dared to suggest that you are not beyond reproach.  Yes, you’ve been at Michigan State “longer than anyone else.”  That entitles you to nothing.

It’s time to soften the chip on your shoulder that has both been your strength and your weakness.  It’s time for true humility, not the defiance you have demonstrated over the years – sometimes in ways that have been good, sometimes in ways that have been detrimental.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s essential that you recognize that you are not bigger than the university.

You say you want to help with the healing.  Good.  Start by embracing the examination of the way in which you’ve run your program and all of the allegations outlined in the OTL piece.  And listen to those around you who want you to be better.  And know this – this Spartan cannot watch our basketball team now because it feels hollow.

To Mark Dantonio …

You’ve earned our trust.  And that’s not because you’ve established yourself as the school’s most successful coach of all time. As far as we can tell, you’ve run your football program with class and integrity. You inherited a culture that was extraordinarily dysfunctional and you appear to have built one that represents the best of what it means to be a Spartan. The manner in which you’ve addressed adversity within your program appears to have been a primer on how to tackle challenges head on. You are, perhaps, the truest Spartan that represents the university publicly.

However, in the face of various allegations, you must embrace the examinations and the criticisms, realizing that the buck absolutely stops with you. Do it with class and grace, and show transparency at every turn. We are counting on you to get, more than anyone else, that it’s about Michigan State University, and not a football program, or a basketball team. Do not let us down.

To the Michigan State University Board of Trustees …

Act like adults.  Behave like professionals.  Put a gag order on Joel Ferguson and then tell him to resign his post.  Do not stand for anything less than Ferguson’s resignation.

Gather together and work with one another to represent the university in the way it deserves to be represented.  Make smart decisions and, prior to making them, ask yourselves, “Would John Hannah be proud of us for making this decision?”

Put your Iphones away and stop tweeting nonsense.  Recognize the importance of this moment.  Do not let your cabal fall back into its repeated habits that have embarrassed all of us so many times over the years.  Pull up our bootstraps, get to work – and do the right thing.

To ESPN and The Media …

Continue to do your job.  Report what needs to be reported.  Uncover what needs to be uncovered.  Do not let the irrational voices keep you from doing your job.  However, be responsible.  Show integrity.  Represent everything factually and without unnecessary hyperbole.  If you get things wrong, expect to be lambasted.  Hold yourselves to the highest standards possible and get it right.

To former Michigan State head gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages …

Your unconscionable lack of sanity, compassion, common sense, perspective, and leadership is where this all started.  When teen-aged members of the program for which you were responsible came to you for what they thought was unconditional support, we now know that you demonstrated the worst traits of a person.

You failed every Spartan student athlete that was sexually assaulted under your nose.  And you failed a university that is now in the midst of a crisis that strikes at the very core of the institution and its community. Your time will come.

To the various Michigan State trainers who were very much aware of the complaints and the actual sexual assaults being perpetrated by Larry Nassar …

See what I’ve said about Kathie Klages.  For reasons that will forever be a very sad mystery, you protected Kathie Klages and Larry Nassar.  Your job and your moral obligation was to protect to girls who were being sexually assaulted.

To high-profile Spartans such as Magic Johnson, Kirk Cousins, LeVeon Bell, Draymond Green, Steve Smith, Steve Garvey, etc …

Step up.  Speak up.  Get involved.  Start your own organization designed to stamp out sexual assault.  Travel across the nation visiting athletic departments and talking about the need for everyone to understand the evils of sexual assault.  Work with Michigan State’s new leadership to create a program dedicated to talking about sexual assault all the time with the student athletes of Michigan State.

Lead the discussions.  Donate your own money.  Don’t see it as an opportunity for publicity but rather an opportunity to give back to the university that helped you accomplish all you’ve accomplished.  Be a Spartan.  Now is the time.

To the future president and future athletic director …

Do what is right.  Over-communicate with everyone at the university.  Dig in.  Understand as much as you possibly can about every part of the university.  Engage with the student body.  Engage with every coach.  Engage with every trainer.  Engage with proud alumni who want so badly to help.  Engage with every member of the athletic department.  Learn the histories of the university’s proud athletic legacies as well as the university’s proud academic and research legacies.  Study the life of John Hannah.  Study the lives of Biggie Munn, Duffy Daugherty, and Jud Heathcote.  Lead.

To Michigan State Spartans everywhere …

Understand that it is not wrong or disloyal or inappropriate but rather an obligation to acknowledge the facts: Michigan State University and its individual leaders allowed the worst sexual assault scandal in history to be perpetrated by one of the worst pedophiles in history right on the campus we all love.

As difficult as it is, recognize that our leaders made mistakes and we all need to support everything related to trying to make sure nothing like this ever happens again on our campus.

Resist the urge to lash out at the “enemies” and “conspirators” who are trying to “bring down Michigan State.”  No one is out to get us. Even if things do happen at other institution, that doesn’t matter – we have to be better, no matter what.

Understand that our cherished school brought this all on itself and needs to face the music.  That means we’re in for a very tough, very long road ahead.  Buckle up.  Rise above it all and acknowledge that we need to have the right perspective.

And be on the right side of history.

It’s more than discouraging to find leadership voids everywhere we turn in our society.  It’s just as discouraging to see examples of failures to use basic common sense and decency.  It shouldn’t be so hard for people to simply do the right thing.  Idealism is a dangerous principle since human nature flies in the face of it every day in countless ways.

It’s true, however, that each individual person can make things better by just taking their very own approach to doing the right thing.  It’s time for each individual person at Michigan State University and across its community to simply do the right thing.

There aren’t any excuses for anything other than doing the right thing.

At stake – the integrity of a proud university that is much more than a school to far more people than just me.

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