EAST LANSING, Michigan — In sports, it’s not uncommon to suggest that victories deliver redemption, healing, closure — a balm for any wound that will not heal.
If only it were that simple. But when Michigan State’s Miles Bridges hit a 3-pointer from NBA range with three seconds left to help the Spartans squeeze out a 68-65 victory over third-ranked Purdue on Feb. 10, it finally gave a scarred community permission to smile, be joyous, release some pent-up frustration.
Consider the backdrop of Bridges’ buzzer-beater game-winner: The school is attempting to atone for its role in the atrocities committed by former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State team doctor Larry Nassar, who will spend the rest of his miserable life in prison for abusing women and girls over decades. Then the stench from the Nassar scandal wafted over to the school’s basketball and football programs, as Nassar’s case prompted foundational questions about how the school adjudicated sexual assault cases overall — especially after an ESPN report put the state’s most popular coach, Tom Izzo, under fire for his program’s handling of previous sexual assault allegations against some of his former players.
Also: Saturday was the day that Michigan State honored coach Jud Heathcote, the brilliant, wonderfully entertaining basketball legend who was best known for winning a title with Magic Johnson and mentoring and grooming Izzo, Heathcote’s successor. Dozens of former players came to pay their respects to Heathcote, who died last August, but it was also a clear show of solidarity and support for Izzo and the program.
This is what I’m not doing here — beating Purdue does not mean everything is good here. It can’t cover the fact that Nassar abused and deeply traumatized women for decades. It’s certainly not enough to keep people from wondering whether Michigan State has an institutional problem when it comes to protecting and supporting women. It won’t stop people from wanting Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio to answer questions about the sexual assault incidents involving their players. But that shot and that win provided a brief respite from the suffocating tension that permeates the campus.
These are emotional times in East Lansing. I was on campus all day Feb. 9, and after conversing with a lot of students, administrators and faculty, it was clear that many of them are struggling to balance contrition and sympathy for the survivors with the love they still feel for the university. A few students mentioned that they receive strange looks sometimes when they wear their Michigan State apparel outside of East Lansing.
It seems some may have already made the decision that they don’t feel comfortable supporting the university anymore. According to The Detroit News, fundraising at Michigan State dropped 25 percent during the latter half of 2017, which coincides with the increased national attention on Nassar’s crimes.
With all this weighing down the air, it makes sense that Saturday’s victory felt like more than just a win over a potential Final Four team.
I’m guessing that’s probably part of the reason Izzo’s eyes welled with tears during his on-court interview with ESPN’s Allison Williams immediately after his team beat Purdue. It’s not like Izzo hasn’t won plenty of meaningful games against incredibly talented opponents at home before. He’s a national championship coach and certainly didn’t need this win to pad his extensive coaching resume.
But when Williams asked Izzo what was going through his mind? “A lot,” he said, choking up. “Jud. The survivors.”
Izzo elaborated a little more when he was more composed in his postgame news conference.
“I hope [the win] wasn’t for me,” he said. “I hope it was for our survivors, our people and our community, our school. But I hope it was for them too.”
Now, I get that no one wants to hear how tough things have been for Izzo these past few weeks, but the truth is that this is the most difficult stretch he has ever faced in his career. Izzo has never before had his integrity questioned like this. Izzo’s name is now being linked to a serial abuser like Nassar — that’s got to take a toll. Nassar is a proven predator and monster. Izzo has yet to answer questions surrounding response to allegations against his players. It has not been proved that Izzo committed any misconduct.
This isn’t to say you should feel sorry for Izzo or Michigan State. As I’ve written before, the university and its leaders have to wear this shame.
But there also is nothing wrong with Michigan State seeking ways to atone, move forward. But it will take much more than a game-winner over a top-five opponent for that to happen for this community to finally feel whole.
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