Up Next

Commentary

It’s time for Tom Izzo to stop deflecting and start talking

The Michigan State basketball coach needs to know that anything less than complete transparency won’t be good enough

This may be the most difficult column I’ve ever written. Which is saying something since I’ve tackled some of my most personal and difficult issues including my parents’ drug addictions and my survival from a rape attack when I was a preteen.

Through thorough investigative reporting, ESPN’s Outside the Lines has uncovered “a pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression” at Michigan State that extends far beyond the horrific crimes committed by Larry Nassar, the former team and USA Gymnastics doctor who will die in prison after sexually abusing girls and women for decades.

Or, to be completely blunt, Michigan State seems to have invested a considerable amount of time protecting its image and reputation while disregarding the welfare of young women at their most vulnerable and in desperate need of support.

So, let me start with complete transparency. Tom Izzo, Michigan State basketball coach, is a friend. I’ve known him since I was a student at MSU. In my junior year, I took Coaching Basketball taught by former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote. I learned the intricacies of the sport from one of the best basketball minds at the college level. And on the rare occasion that Coach Heathcote, now deceased, had to miss a class, he let Izzo, his most trusted assistant, take his place.

A few years later, I returned to East Lansing to cover Michigan State football and basketball. Izzo was head coach by then. Michigan State became a premier basketball program under his leadership, and Izzo became one of the most prominent people in Michigan.

I am struggling to reconcile a person I’ve known for 20 years with the person I see now — a man awkwardly deflecting questions about how he handled sexual assault and violence allegations against some of his former players.

After his team’s emotional and hard-fought win over Maryland on Sunday, Izzo was asked by ESPN investigative reporter Tisha Thompson the questions many of us have wanted to ask since Outside the Lines released its investigative report.

Thompson inquired why his former assistant Travis Walton, who as a player Izzo had often lauded for his leadership and maturity, was still allowed to coach despite facing criminal charges for punching a female student in the face at a bar. After the case investigation was over, Walton pleaded guilty to an unrelated civil charge of littering. But Walton’s name surfaced again in a gang rape allegation a few months later, and he mysteriously left the program in 2010.

In response to Thompson, Izzo said he couldn’t recall why Walton left the program. He also was asked about two other former players, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, who were accused of raping a woman in her dorm room. No charges were ever filed, but Outside the Lines was able to interview the woman, who accused MSU of mishandling her case. She ultimately filed a complaint with federal authorities about MSU. Then there is the damning video of Payne, also obtained by Outside the Lines, giving a police detective his account of what happened. It is deeply disturbing, to say the absolute least.

“There will be a time for it, but it won’t be right now,” is what Izzo told CBS after the Maryland win when asked whether he wanted to respond to the allegations. “I’m going to try to figure out how to celebrate this win and still pray for the people that have gone through a lot more than I’ve gone through.”

And when Thompson again pressed him in the postgame news conference and again as he made his way to the locker room, Izzo would only say that he’d cooperated with every investigation. It was clear he wasn’t coming off that talking point.

I exchanged text messages with Izzo on Monday because I was selfishly hoping for something — anything — that might give me more clarity.

Izzo declined to elaborate beyond what he’d already said to Thompson. He texted: “I’ve always appreciated our friendship, yet I understand you have a job to do. Someday I will be able to talk. I am sorry.”

I believe real friendship is the ability to tell a friend something she doesn’t necessarily want to hear. And Izzo’s response just isn’t good enough.

Maybe it’s asking too much at this point. I’m sure both Izzo and football coach Mark Dantonio, who has also been accused of burying sexual assault allegations against his players, have likely been warned about what they can and cannot say so as not to expose themselves or Michigan State to further legal action.

But it’s impossible not to be disappointed by Izzo’s non-response to these charges, not just because of our personal relationship but because he is the face of Michigan State University. Even more so now that the university president and athletic director each stepped down within days of each other last week.

Izzo is the most successful coach that Michigan State has ever had and an icon in the state of Michigan. Whenever anyone talks about the good guys in college basketball, Izzo’s name usually comes up. His origin story — the loyal guy from Iron Mountain who scraped and scrapped his way to becoming one of the best college basketball coaches ever — is often used as the exception that proves nice guys do indeed finish first sometimes.

So Izzo owes the public a better explanation — a full explanation. Perhaps the best setting for Izzo to be completely transparent wasn’t after a win over Maryland, but it’s important we hear his perspective and soon. This is a coach who preached to his players that they should own their mistakes, and now may be time for Izzo to own his.

Yes, as Izzo said, the focus should be on supporting and helping to heal the survivors, but the best way he can do that is by holding himself publicly accountable. The survivors need to know that he is more than just another prominent figure trying to save his butt.

If Izzo never comes clean with what he knows or doesn’t know, people will simply make up their own minds about his culpability. He was never much in the business of caring what others think of him. But surely he understands that given the nature of the accusations, he’s on the verge of losing all of the public’s trust.

I don’t know what to think of him anymore. This is the same coach who, when I left the beat, invited me over to his home to raid his worldwide collection of beers. I remember when he adopted his son. I’ve known his daughter since she was a kindergartner. He and his wife, Lupe, have invited me to stay with them whenever I return to East Lansing. After I was suspended, Izzo was one of the first people to reach out with words of encouragement and support. He even told the public I should run for president after I gleefully excoriated Michigan after the Wolverines lost to us on a last-second punt block a few years ago.

I’ve known him long enough that I’m willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt on how he’s addressed these allegations so far, in hopes that he’ll be able to sufficiently explain his actions. But I also understand and respect those who can’t do the same.

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.