In truth, all eyes seem to be on Michigan State in these troubled days.
There are sharp questions for football coach Mark Dantonio and basketball coach Tom Izzo about allegations of sexual misconduct by their players over the years.
But above all, there is Larry Nassar, the disgraced former sports doctor who is facing the rest of his life in prison for molesting girls and young women under the guise of treatment. Nassar isn’t associated with football or basketball. He stands accused of abusing mostly young gymnasts, some of them stars for Team USA, and he will forever be tied to Michigan State — his former employer.
But on this night, the Spartans tried to celebrate a feel-good moment on a campus in desperate need of one.
“I know everyone sees Larry Nassar and they think of Michigan State gymnastics,” said Sydney Ewing , the only recruit to sign with the program in November during the early signing period. “But the girls didn’t do anything wrong. I think supporting them right now is the best thing they need to get through this.”
The gymnasts left behind are trying to move on with their competitions while honoring the victims — some of whom may be on the team — of Nassar’s abuse. In front of a record crowd for a quad meet at Jenison Field House, where Magic Johnson played basketball four decades ago, the Spartans had a season-high score to beat Eastern Michigan, Rutgers and Pittsburgh.
Lea Mitchell, who won the all-around for the second time in three meets, put on a show. Her teammates along with 2,844 fans in the stands did, too. The crowd, which was about three times larger than usual, included Michigan State athletes from other sports.
Mitchell sprinted down a blue runway, launched off a springboard onto the vault, did a flipping twist, landed on her feet and threw her hands in the air. The freshman was immediately encircled by high-fiving teammates as the fans roared.
Mitchell and her teammates could have bolted by now because of the Nassar scandal. No one would’ve blamed them. The NCAA has indicated it may investigate the athletic department, and the Michigan attorney general will press ahead with an investigation of the university.
“We can’t run,” said Mitchell, who is from Boynton Beach, Florida. “We have to stay together and change the culture. It has to start somewhere.”
Missed opportunities to possibly stop Nassar abound.
Larissa Boyce said she and a fellow teenage teammate, both training with the Spartans youth gymnastics team, complained about him in 1997 to head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages . She retired a year ago, one day after being suspended for what former athletic director Mark Hollis described as her “passionate defense” of Nassar. Some athletes suggested Klages indirectly discouraged them from reporting abuse with her outspoken support of Nassar. Klages has not responded to requests seeking comment.
Mike Rowe, who was a Michigan State assistant the previous three seasons, was promoted in July to guide the program through a storm.
“We’ve been working really hard on focus, keeping our eyes on not being distracted and letting any kind outside influences affect the performance,” said Rowe, who like the team’s gymnasts, wore a teal ribbon last weekend to raise awareness about sexual violence. “In the gym every day, it’s kind of our solitude. It’s kind of our place of peace.”
In the same building where Nassar carried out some of his crimes, the team has had the same athletic trainer, Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, for two decades. She reportedly received at least one complaint about Nassar from a softball player two decades ago, but Teachnor-Hauk told the FBI and campus police during an investigation she never had athletes tell her Nassar made them uncomfortable.
Teachnor-Hauk also said she was aware of Nassar treating one gymnast at his home, but it did not raise any “red flags” for her. Teachnor-Hauk declined comment for this story through a school spokesman.
The crisis on campus has led to Lou Anna Simon resigning as school president and Hollis retiring. Rowe said he hopes the women he coaches don’t lose the athletic trainer “they love to the world and back,” too.
“They probably would be devastated if she had to be replaced or go somewhere else,” Rowe said.
Jessica Ling, a junior on the team, agreed.
“Destiny is a one-of-a-kind person and she honestly cares about all of us — 100 percent,” Ling said. “She’s like our second mom. She has helped me personally immensely in my recovery to come back (from knee surgeries) and I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Ewing made the trip from Texas to watch the Spartans compete and to visit campus again with her father, Steve Ewing, who insisted he has no fear of sending his daughter to Michigan State to be a gymnast and student.
“I’m not scared,” he said. “This is going to be the cleanest, safest program in the country. It’s going to be squeaky clean. They got rid of a bad element that is no longer here.”