Michigan State Facing Accusations of Covering Up & Failing to Protect Female Athletes from Alleged Sexual Predator
By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University
In December 2016 former Michigan State University (MSU) softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez brought a civil action seeking damages and a demand for trial on 15 civil rights and negligence violations against former team physician Larry Nassar, the University, and other defendants referred to as Does 1 through 500. The plaintiff alleges that “under the guise of legitimate medical treatment” for a back injury sustained as a player between 1999-2001 she was sexually assaulted by Dr. Nassar on more than 10 occasions. When Lopez (then Thomas) raised concerns regarding the propriety of the treatment she was receiving to members of the MSU training staff, they allegedly dismissed her concerns, defending Nassar’s actions as appropriate and discouraging her from challenging the treatment she was receiving. As a result, and in light of her efforts to retain her athletic scholarship, she believes she was coerced and intimidated into returning to Dr. Nassar for treatment, thus perpetuating her sexual abuse. Lopez seeks to hold MSU and its employees accountable for an orchestrated effort on their part to cover up sexual abuse they were allegedly aware of so as to protect the interests of the institution and athletic program from the public relations and financial repercussions of harboring a known sexual predator. As a consequence of such a cover up, Lopez argues that Nassar was afforded access to prey not only on her but upon minor children, female athletes, and other patients for 15 years following her disclosure to MSU staff.
Plaintiff, Tiffany Thomas Lopez
As a high school player in California, Lopez was arguably one of the finest college softball prospects in the United States, having earned recognition as a First-Team All-America in 1998. Heavily recruited by MSU coaches and offered an athletic scholarship, she arrived at the East Lansing, MI campus as a minor, according to the lawsuit. In her first season at MSU, she started 59 games, was fifth on the team in batting average, and made no fielding errors (MSU Staff, 2000). Between her first and second year, she participated as a member of the USA Junior National Team, a team that posted a 9-2 record in the International Softball Federation Junior Women’s World Championships in Taipei, Taiwan in the summer of 1999. She was one of only four players to start all 11 games, hitting .375 and assisting her team in winning a silver medal (MSU Staff, 2000). In her second season at MSU, she started 47 games but was forced to retire due to a persistent lower back injury. Lopez claims that as a result of her chronic pain and attempts to alert members of MSU’s athletic training staff of Nassar’s abuse, she was “pressured and coerced into designating herself as medically inactive” (Lopez v. Nassar, 2016, p. 3).
Defendant, Larry Nassar
The accused perpetrator, Larry Nassar, was an orthopedic physician of considerable stature within the collegiate and international sport communities. After earning an undergraduate degree in kinesiology and athletic training education from the University of Michigan in 1985, he was awarded his medical degree eight years later from Michigan State University. With a certification as an athletic trainer and medical specialization in orthopedics, his practice was located in the MSU Sports Medicine Clinic, where 80 percent of his patients were in the performing arts, including dancers, gymnasts, and cheerleaders. In 1986, Nassar was appointed as a trainer to work with USA Gymnastics (USAG) and 10 years later became USAG’s National Medical Director and National Team Physician. In those roles he coordinated medical care for the U.S. Gymnastics team at five World Artistic Gymnastic Championships, two Pan American Games, and four Olympic Games. At one time, he held an appointment on the Michigan Board of Athletic Trainers, a board mandated by Public Act 54 of 2006 to ensure that practicing athletic trainers in the state met minimal entry level competencies and ongoing continuing education (Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, 2017).
In 2014, Michigan State received a Title IX sexual harassment complaint regarding Nassar lodged by a female athlete. Following an investigation in which the University found no violation of policy, Nassar was required to comply with restrictions outlined by the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, William Strampel. The emotional distress experienced by the complainant in the case prompted a modification that there was to be limited to no skin-to-skin contact unless absolutely necessary, and only after the procedure was described in detail and in the presence of another person in the room (Connor, 2016). In the summer of 2015, as athlete concerns started to surface within USAG warranting Nassar’s dismissal, Michigan State continued his employment, claiming that it was unaware of his change in status with USAG. USA Gymnastics, however, reported the concerns raised to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). By September 2016, as more purported victims began to emerge and the story reached the level of a public scandal, Michigan State terminated Nassar, pointing to his failure to comply with the restrictions placed on him following the 2014 Title IX complaint and his failure to disclose a police complaint filed against him in 2004 for alleged sexual abuse.
In the same week that Lopez’s lawsuit was filed, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office charged Nassar with the sexual abuse of a girl in his home while also being indicted on federal child-pornography charges. News reports indicate that 50 to 60 women in total have come forward with similar allegations (Hurwitz, 2016; Mack, 2016) that occurred when they were as young as six years old.
Defendant Michigan State University and Its Officers
An institution of higher education ranked within the top 100 universities in the world, Michigan State is a land grant institution founded in 1855 with a general fund estimated to be more than $1 billion, with more than $500 million in external research funding and $50 million derived from international funding sources. As a member of the Big Ten, one of the five most powerful collegiate conferences, the MSU athletic department is recognized as one of the best in the United States. Its cache and well-established high profile athletic reputation offers attractive incentives for recruited prospects seeking to fulfill their athletic promise at the highest possible level. Such standing and prestige, according to the lawsuit, also solidifies in the minds of those who sign athletic scholarship agreements that they can have confidence that the people who run the programs, and are charged with their welfare, will comport themselves in accordance with codes of conduct associated with the medical profession, sports medicine profession, colleges and universities overseen by the state of Michigan, and in compliance with both federal and state laws.
Plaintiff argues that MSU employees abused their power and discretion by attempting to persuade her that the treatment she was being subjected to was not sexual abuse but legitimate treatment and, despite her distress, coerced her to return for further abuse until such time as she could no longer endure it. Upon being unable to endure it any longer, she was then allegedly intimidated into giving up her athletic scholarship, effectively ending her playing career by being denied the opportunity to pursue treatments that might have aided her healing while subjecting her to the pain of continued abuse and physical and mental suffering in the aftermath. Lopez alleges a cover up on the part of MSU as an institution and its individual actors that enabled Nassar to persist in his predatory and sexually abusive conduct against an untold number of potential victims, 15 of whom are poised to join the suit.
In implicating Does 1 through 500, Lopez argues that “…there existed a unity of interest and ownership among Defendants and each of them such that any individuality and separateness between Defendants, and each of them, ceased to exist” (Lopez v. Nassar et al., 2016, p. 7).
Factual Allegations Applicable to All Claims
The complaint for damages is based on 15 causes of action, among them Deprivation of Civil Rights (42 U.S.C. Section 1983), Sexual Abuse and Harassment in the Educational Setting (Education Code Section 220), Title IX (20 U.S.C. Section 1681), and numerous negligence and sexual violence laws. Lopez puts forward a position that there is a set of facts that accrue across all claims.
She begins by situating her allegations within a historical and systemic pattern at MSU of mishandling sexual harassment and sexual abuse complaints that distilled into a culture of “…ignoring, minimizing, and sanitizing complaints from sexual abuse victims.” Lopez references an investigation initiated by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (2015) of MSU’s record in this area that found fault with the timely resolution of complaints and policy deficiencies (including failure to document the details of a complaint) that resulted in a hostile environment (Simon, 2015).
Flowing from that, she alleges that Defendants worked to obscure Nassar’s conduct, thereby fostering a set of circumstances and conditions under which “minors, athletes, and/or patients…would be sexually abused” (Lopez v. Nassar et al., 2016, p. 13). Specifically, the Defendant allowed Nassar to remain in a position of authority and trust where he was permitted to operate in isolated and secluded environments often without chaperones while characterizing his conduct, when questioned, as normal. Nassar’s prior record of sexual misconduct was not shared with children, parents, and patients nor with individuals in law enforcement or more generally the public at large. Pertinent to Lopezherself, Nassar was permitted to attend to her in unsupervised and uncontrolled settings, even after her complaints were allegedly expressed to athletic training staff members. Defendants persisted in presenting Nassar as a trustworthy and accomplished professional even after they knew or should have known about his alleged propensity for sexual abuse. Defendants are further accused of failing to investigate or verify information about Nassar, including prior arrests and other charges of sexual abuse; failing to inform or concealing from law enforcement and Lopez’s parents information about Nassar that they knew or should have known led to furthering the harm done to her; failing to take reasonable steps to safeguard the children, athletes, and/or patients in his care; and failing to create and implement a system whereby physicians, athletic trainers, and agents received monitoring and supervision to prevent sexual abuse.
Among other factual allegations, Defendants are believed to have violated numerous mandatory reporting requirements as set forth in state and federal law, as well as their own institutional policies, including a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect others from known or foreseeable dangers; duty to enact policies that uphold obligations under the Federal Civil Rights Act, Section 1983, Title IX, and the 14th Amendment; duty to provide adequate supervision; duty to properly train staff; duty to review criminal history of applicants and current employees; duty to act promptly and diligently and not ignore or minimize problems, and duty to report suspected incidents of sexual abuse.
Potential Damages & Parallels With Sandusky Case
Should Lopez prevail, her pain and suffering along with interruptions and intrusions into her professional life causing past, present, and future lost income will need to be determined. An open question to be answered in calculating those damages is who among MSU staff were aware of Nassar’s misconduct and Lopez’s plight, when they knew, and what they did after knowing about it.
In establishing damages, a referent case could potentially be that of former Penn State football defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty on 45 counts of child sex abuse and predatory behavior and is serving a minimum sentence of at least 30 years in prison, with an expectation that he is likely to remain in prison for the remainder of his life. Western Michigan law professor Chris Hastings notes several parallels between the Nassar and Sandusky cases, pointing out that both served at Big Ten institutions, had high profiles as professionals in their respective fields, and were accused of sexually assaulting children. According to Wolcott (2017), Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney who facilitated settlements on behalf of accusers in the Sandusky case with the Pennsylvania State University and Joe O’Dea, who represented Penn State, suggest “Whether the university [MSU] chooses to fight in court or settle quietly will depend in part on how many alleged victims come forward, the nature of their allegations and whether proof emerges that MSU officials ignored complaints against Nassar…”
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