The Big Ten's silence on Larry Nassar is problematic

(Photo credit: Cmcnicoll)

Larry Nassar has been convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault which took place during his time in the employment of Michigan State University. Despite this, the Big Ten seems to be operating as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

Less than a decade after one Big Ten institution was embroiled in a sexual assault scandal involving an employee of the athletic department, history has repeated itself. So far it seems the conference has learned nothing from the first incident.

In 2012, Penn State University was the subject of substantial sanctions against its American football program because a former assistant coach had molested multiple children on school property. Those sanctions came from the NCAA, not the Big Ten. The Big Ten conducted no inquiries and took no action against Penn State.

On Jan. 24, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for seven counts of criminal sexual abuse. Not only was Nassar in the employment of the Michigan State University athletic department at the time he committed the crimes, but many of his victims were students at the university. The Detroit News reported that at least 14 officials at Michigan State were alerted to allegations involving Nassar up to two decades prior to his arrest.

Big Ten remains silent

If there wasn't a sufficient reason for the Big Ten to get involved with the Penn State scandal, this situation at Michigan State should attract that attention. The victims at Penn State weren't Nittany Lion student-athletes at the time they were assaulted. These were Spartans who Nassar assaulted.

The biggest reason the Big Ten remaining silent is so important is because the conference holds the most power to place significant sanctions on its member institutions. Disbursements from the Big Ten Network not only reach hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis, but are divided to conference members by the conference.

Payouts for participation in the annual NCAA D1 men's basketball tournament are not paid directly to individual schools. The NCAA pays those monies to the conferences, like the Big Ten. Money from college football's bowl and playoff system is also given to conferences like the Big Ten, which then disburse those funds to their memberships.

When the Big Ten imposed no penalties on Penn State in 2012, it set a precedent that athletic department staff covering up or taking part in sexual assault wouldn't result in a loss of any of the dollars from the conference coffers. It seems the conference will abide by that precedent now at Michigan State.

The question becomes fair to ask: if the Big Ten had levied financial penalties on Penn State in 2012, would staff at Michigan State have been more apt to respond to allegations against Nassar? The answer is largely speculative. It's fair to assume that if such failures by athletic department staff would cause the institution to lose a significant portion of its bowl game, March Madness and media revenues, such allegations would probably be taken seriously.

The Big Ten could state that it's in the business of organizing and promoting intercollegiate athletic competitions, not conducting criminal investigations. Perhaps it's unfair to deprive Michigan State of revenue earned by its athletic staff and athletes in sports which were not involved in the scandal.

The NCAA is in the same business, however, and doesn't really have authority to sanction Michigan State on these grounds either. That's part of why some of Penn State's original sanctions were eventually lifted, and why the University of North Carolina received no sanctions from the NCAA despite massive academic fraud. Despite the limited scope of the NCAA's power, the NCAA is at least investigating.

Just like in the North Carolina situation that investigation may end up in no significant sanctions being levied because Michigan State violated no NCAA by-laws. It could also lead to a situation like with Penn State where the sanctions were originally significant but lifted shortly thereafter.

If all the while the dollars continue to flow in from the Big Ten that further creates an atmosphere where there is little if any actual negative consequence for sheltering a perpetrator of sexual assault who victimized Big Ten student-athletes.

After all the pain that the victims have and will continue to endure because of Nassar's conduct, the next biggest tragedy about this situation is that the one entity most capable of enacting policies which would be a strong deterrent to this behavior is silent on the matter.

Should the Big Ten penalize Michigan State besides any/all sanctions which the NCAA might place upon the Spartans? Let us know in the comments below.

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