Vannini: Michigan State’s public handling of Mel Tucker process doesn’t inspire confidence

Michigan State interim president Teresa Woodruff took the podium Sunday following the suspension without pay of football head coach Mel Tucker and declared, “This morning’s news might sound like the MSU of old. It was not.” She emphasized this was not the old MSU that mishandled past reports of sexual misconduct, and that the active investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by Tucker was being done properly.

Then the New MSU did what the Old MSU would do: deflect and dodge. At the news conference, athletic director Alan Haller answered just three questions before it was ended by MSU public relations staff after 10 minutes. Reporters briefly threw out a couple more questions with little to no response after Haller left the podium. People watching left the news conference assuming Michigan State suspended Tucker only because of public backlash to Saturday night’s explosive USA Today report about the investigation, because Michigan State gave no details to refute that.

It wasn’t until four hours later that the school confirmed to The Athletic and others that Haller and MSU leaders actually didn’t know all the details of the sexual harassment complaint against Tucker until the USA Today story. A spokesperson told ESPN that Tucker was suspended for “unprofessional behavior and not living up to the core values of the department and university.”

It is proper Title IX protocol to keep a complaint’s details confidential, and that fact was extremely relevant to and important for the message MSU wanted to send. Yet MSU didn’t address that aspect of the situation until pressed to do so. The news was apparently enough to take action Sunday but not enough to say why until late at night when reporters asked again.

How hard would it have been to stay at the news conference and answer what you can and not answer what you can’t? To show that this was a New MSU? Whoever is running MSU’s crisis communications on this made a bad situation look even worse.

USA Today’s report published Saturday night detailed an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Tucker, including that Tucker masturbated during a phone conversation with Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and sexual assault advocate, in April 2022. Tucker claimed it was part of a consensual personal relationship that expanded from their professional relationship.

So MSU called a news conference Sunday and said it was doing all the right things, without really explaining how. Reporters got less than two hours of notice about the news conference, vague statements about confidentiality and new information, and then the event didn’t clear up why Tucker was suspended on Sunday and not earlier, which was the entire point.

If this was an attempt to rebuild trust in the process, MSU messed it up. Haller said in his opening statement that the decision to suspend Tucker was made “based on developments that may have a potential impact on the ongoing investigation,” because “there have been new developments before the hearing.” He didn’t say what the developments were, allowing speculation to grow that it was just about public backlash.

Haller did confirm he was made aware of the complaint in December 2022, the month it was filed. The report from an outside investigation was completed in July 2023, recommending a hearing as the next step of the investigation, which will take place the week of Oct. 5. Haller also said “interim measures” were in place regarding Tucker and the program following the complaint, such as no contact with the complainant, and that those measures have been updated. An MSU spokesperson said late Sunday that Haller had “some additional information” about the complaint in order to determine those interim measures. We don’t know what that was, why it wasn’t enough to suspend Tucker then or whether those measures were violated.

To MSU’s credit, it appears thus far that the school has done things by the book. It didn’t ignore the complaint. It immediately hired an outside investigator, who later filed a report and recommended the hearing. USA Today reported that Tucker and his lawyer tried to stop the investigation and urged the school to drop it, saying it was a private personal matter. The school did not drop it, concluding the relationship took place in the context of Tracy working as a vendor for the school.

It is proper that Haller and other MSU leaders not be made aware of all the details of the complaint, so as to not get involved in the process until the end and to keep the victim’s confidentiality safe. Tracy going public with USA Today about the details changed the dynamic.

This isn’t an adjudication of whose side is right or what the disputed facts are. The situation is clearly complicated. The initial investigation reported in USA Today’s story and the upcoming hearing will make a better judgment of that.

But the way MSU handled things publicly on Sunday was a mess. You can’t blame people for coming in skeptical, given MSU’s recent history with these kinds of complaints. The school’s fight against public records and the short news conference did not reflect an institution that is trying to be as transparent as it can. If not for Tracy and USA Today, the public wouldn’t know an investigation was ongoing. We’ll see how transparent MSU is when this is all over.

MSU was never going to fire Tucker on Sunday, despite an initial erroneous report that was later retracted. Even if it eventually makes the determination to do so, the school has to wait for the entire process to play out before making a decision. Otherwise, MSU wouldn’t be able to fire Tucker for cause, and it would owe him upwards of $70 million (subject to offset from another job).

The college sports world just went through this with Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern in July. Fitzgerald was initially suspended following an investigation but then fired in response to the public backlash to a Daily Northwestern report on the details, with the university saying it was for cause. The school had changed its mind and admitted nothing had materially changed. Fitzgerald immediately lawyered up, and he may get a chunk of that $40 million owed to him if he’s able to prove he was fired without cause. These things always involve a lot of lawyers.

Unlike Northwestern, Michigan State is still in its investigative process. It declared Sunday that things were different in East Lansing. Then it forgot the most important detail to make that point.

At a minimum, Tucker’s own admissions in the investigation paint someone with horrible judgment, someone who makes far too much money and is in charge of far too many people to make decisions like that. At worst, he sexually harassed a rape victim. Coaches almost never keep their jobs in this kind of situation.

There are still too many unanswered questions with this Tucker investigation to know how it will turn out and to know whether MSU ultimately made the proper decisions throughout.

And so far, the New MSU isn’t very good at answering them.

(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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