Expert: MSU football sex assault cases tied to 'broad societal issue'
LANSING -- The press conference is over. The statements were made.
Now experts who work with sexual assault victims say they hope to see Michigan State Football Coach Mark Dantonio and Athletic Director Mark Hollis live up to their promises.
There are several resources on and off-campus, and local groups that could assist with training, advocates say.
"This isn't just an MSU issue," said Erin Roberts, the executive director of Lansing-based End Violent Encounters (EVE). "This is a broad societal issue."
Roberts is willing to provide training at MSU, especially with its football program. The EVE group already works with MSU Safe Place and the school's sexual assault program.
The offer comes after Tuesday's news that Dantonio dismissed three players from his team after they were charged in connection with sexually assaulting a female student. Police said the alleged incident took place at an on-campus apartment during a January party.
The former Spartan players facing charges:
- Donnie Corley, 19, of Detroit
- Josh King, 19, of Darien, Ill.
- Demetric Vance, 20, of Detroit
A fourth player, Auston Robertson, was charged with sexual assault in connection with a separate incident that at an apartment in Meridian Township. Dantonio dismissed Robertson from the team in April.
News of the criminal charges is part of a disturbing trend in the region that shows Ingham County needs "a wakeup call" pertaining to sex assault and sex-related crimes, Roberts said.
Roberts points to the sexual assault charges facing Larry Nassar, a fired MSU physician and gymnastics trainer, and prostitution-related crimes former Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III pleaded guilty to last year as disturbing reminders.
"When we have a spotlight like this we have an opportunity to change the course," Roberts said.
National statistics back up Roberts' position there's a widespread sexual assault crisis that proves no community or college campus is safe.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), billed as the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, says a person is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. It also states only six out of every 1,000 rapists will end up in prison.
Former MSU offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, a father of two daughters ages 19 and 26, is hopeful his alma matter will push forward with reforms and an even more vigorous vetting process for student-athletes.
But no matter what coaches do to try and prevent off-field problems with their players, it's up to the players to hold themselves accountable, Mandarich said. Mandarich admits he didn't always do that during his time at MSU.
"Coaches can only find out so much about a player," Mandarich said. "They might have to go out when they're recruiting someone and flat out ask them 'Have you ever sexually assaulted somebody?'"
Mandarich, 50, was the focus of a steroids scandal when he played for the Spartans in the late 80s. He did steriods and cheated on a drug test before the 1988 Rose Bowl, despite hearing often from former coach George Perles and his staff an "A to Z" list of team rules.
Mandarich describes Dantonio's decision Tuesday to dismiss the three players charged with sexual assault as the the "first step" toward more accountability and discipline in his program.
Football players often have egos that are uncontrollable, but that's no excuse for getting in trouble or pushing legal boundaries, Mandarich said. He admits to feeling "bulletproof" as a player because he was so dominant on the field.
"There are no winners here," Mandarich said of the sex assault charges the former players face. "Everybody loses here. But there’s an opportunity to do something about it. The worst thing to do is to turn your head and ignore it."
In addition to reporting sexual assault, it's crucial for people to think about the long-term effects it can have on victims, said Cindie Alwood, the Women's Center of Greater Lansing's executive director.
Alwood said statistics suggest more women are finding the strength to follow through with complaints.
The RAINN organization says college women, ages 18 to 24, are three times more at risk to be sexually assaulted then women of other ages.
About three years ago, Alwood recalls having three female interns working for the center. They were from various colleges in the area and told Alwood they were rape victims. None of them had reported the incidents, she said.
"One thing so clear to me in talking with all of them is that they didn't think they would be believed," Alwood said. "If we're talking about changing the culture, then we need to believe people when they tell us this is happening."
The Firecracker Foundation, also based in Lansing, provides child survivors of sexual trauma and their families mental health therapy, support groups and even yoga.
Tashmica Torok, founder and executive director, said trying to prevent sexual assault by educating people is frustrating when there's a lack of evidence-based sex education in some schools. She's also concerned that college students, especially men, may not know what "consent" truly means.
Firecracker also works with MSU's sexual assault program and the End Violent Encounters group.
Torok questions how MSU's football program screens it prospective players and the nature of the conversations coaches and staff members have with them once they are on campus.
"As part of the recruiting process, are we asking more of our athletes?" Torok said. "Are we asking if they understand what sexual violence is? Are we asking them what their perception is of sexual assault survivors? I think these conversations are essential."
Organizations like football programs have a wide variety of people who come from different backgrounds and family structures,
MSU is no different with 81 players currently listed on its roster. Dantonio is expected to welcome an additional 24 freshmen this fall. Players come from hometowns ranging from Chicago to Sandy, Utah.
The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, with offices in Okemos and Detroit, has experience working with in-state universities smaller than MSU and their athletic programs.
It is also willing to offer the Spartan football program guidance.
Lisa Winchell-Caldwell, associate director, holds training sessions will male student-athletes that are aimed to challenge their attitudes and perceptions about the opposite sex.
Discussions can range from whether they should buy drinks for females, help them get to their room if they are intoxicated or comment about their appearance.
“What is that behavior about?” said Winchell-Caldwell, repeating a question she often asks. “What are we hoping to get from that?”
Winchell-Caldwell said MSU could benefit from more partnerships between the male and female athletic teams. She’s found such efforts at smaller in-state schools have helped foster trusting, respectful relationships and hold all student-athletes to higher standards.
Efforts could start with male athletes attending more of their female counterparts’ sporting events, she said.
There are also local groups that can help concerned parents educate their children. An organization called Small Talk, based in Delhi Township, teaches children about inappropriate behavior and that it's crucial to report it.
Those with the necessary skills help set a standard for any community, group, program or organization, said Alex Brace, Small Talk's executive director.
Small Talk emphasizes appropriate names for body parts and teaches children how to keep their bodies safe.
"It's one of those things that's never going to be easy to talk about," Brace said of sexual assault. "And there's never going to be an ideal situation to have these conversations. But if you can relay this very harsh, tragic reality with a hopeful message, I think this can be helpful."
Eric Lacy is a reporter for the Lansing State Journal. Contact him at 517-377-1206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricLacy.