My son Oliver was born in 2010, just before the Michigan State football team finished 11-2 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship – their first of three Big Ten titles in his lifetime after the team hadn’t previously won one since 1990.
That fall, Oliver – approximately the same shape as a football – and I were glued to our rocking chair religiously on Saturdays, watching Michigan State. His wise, gigantic brown eyes, even at just a few months old, were intently focused on the T.V., and that intrigue has only grown as he has become a competitive, sports-obsessed 8-year-old.
I am a graduate of Michigan State. I finished my master’s program in journalism in 2010 – struggling to take the last two classes to finish that degree in the winter, after Oliver was born while also working full-time. I also worked at Michigan State for a year in 2012.
I’ve always had a natural affinity for MSU even before attending and working there. My first exposure was obviously through sports. My dad loved the University of Michigan, but I’ve always found the prestige, the self-importance, the elitism, associated with U of M football to be exhausting, honestly. I’m much more interested in losers, especially losers who lose colorfully. And over the course of my lifetime, Michigan State has certainly delivered unique moments for sports masochists out there.
Oliver, though, has had a much different experience as he’s grown into a sports fan – his only point of reference in his lifetime is Michigan State being a dominant, premiere football program while Michigan has been the program that, despite near-constant hype, can hilariously never get out of its own way.
Over the past eight years, he’s seen Michigan State consistently win rivalry games, win conference championships, compete for national championships and, after a down year, quickly reload and return to form. He has followed players he grew to love as Spartans make it and have success in the NFL and NBA. He has been to Spartan Stadium and the Breslin Center and regularly asks when we will go back. Nearly every chance he gets in school or in his spare time to draw, he draws something Michigan State-focused. He has memorized the fight song (okay … maybe not the words, but he definitely hums the beat correctly). He has talked about wanting to go to college at Michigan State. He dreams of playing college basketball there someday.
He’s done all of this at my encouragement, because of me exposing him to follow this university and this program, literally, from the moment he was born.
And now, the all-consuming thought I have, is how do I undo this? How could I fail him so badly?
* * *
I knew better. I spent six years as a sports journalist. I left that industry, in part, because sports journalism is often complicit in creating unworthy false idols, in trading puff pieces for increased access, in glossing over major character deficiencies in an effort to find the next “redemption” story.
Writing about sports can be really rewarding work. But at the highest levels, the desire to deceive or create a false narrative in the interest of making obscene amounts of money is immense. And the NCAA is the worst offender of that concept, with universities, administrators and coaches making tens of millions of dollars by exploiting an unpaid labor force, often from the most poor and marginalized backgrounds. The incentive to perpetrate or cover up, sometimes with the assistance of friendly media, truly evil acts is extremely high in major sports.
I knew all of this. And I still indoctrinated my son from the moment he was born.
* * *
The evil that Larry Nassar was allowed to perpetrate at Michigan State and with USA Gymnastics is nearly incomprehensible, and yet it happened. It happened systematically, clinically, in a university environment that is supposed to be filled with enlightened people who are the most aware of the needs of victims, of marginalized or vulnerable people who speak up or ask for help, who are the most distrustful of institutional power structures.
Adding to the sheer horror is the fact that, as a current university communications professional, I can’t comprehend the heartless, completely lacking in empathy statements made by two university presidents, two prominent coaches and multiple board members. Resh Strategies already wrote an in-depth piece on the communications failings of the university. All I can do is fully endorse what they stated in their piece.
As a parent, I’ve had to look my son in the face and say in no uncertain terms, “Hey, daddy fucked up badly.” (Okay … so I didn’t say ‘fucked up’ to him).
I checked out on Michigan State athletics somewhere during last basketball season, after Tom Izzo said, among other things, “I hope the right person was convicted.” Which along with being about the most offensive thing anyone can say in response to the Nassar crimes, also makes no sense. As insignificant as quitting watching a team is, it was actually difficult. The team’s star player, Miles Bridges, is a beloved player from my adopted home of Flint. Their other stars, Jaren Jackson Jr., Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward, were all hard-working, easy-to-root-for players. And, purely from an artistic standpoint, I love basketball. It’s beautiful and has resonated with me in a way few other things have in my life have since I was younger than my son currently is.
But as with any parenting fuck-up, it has also provided me with an opportunity to repair mistakes. It has provided the opportunity to talk to him about the overwhelming propensity of violence committed against women in our culture. It has provided me the opportunity to begin (as best as he can understand) conversations about consent, boundaries and respect. It has provided the opportunity to talk about what true leadership means by highlighting tragic, visible examples of failed leadership. I have been able to talk to him about the phony idea that “brands” of any sort – university or otherwise – are worthy of adulation.
He still loves sports, loves Michigan State sports, and I won’t tell him he has to stop. But, if nothing else, I have been able to reinforce that there are far more important things in life than sports. I just hope it’s not too late for it to resonate.
* * *
I have wanted to write about my anger at Michigan State for several months and struggled to find the words (and, truthfully, the time … out-of-nowhere needs of babiez absorb A LOT of intended writing time). I couldn’t summon the combination of rage and words necessary until John Engler, who was about the WORST possible choice for interim president of Michigan State, accused a Nassar survivor of receiving “kickbacks” and then feebly apologized for it.
Predictably, the still-hurt and angry MSU community as well as state legislators called on Engler to resign. Even more predictably, based on the consistent pattern of hubris displayed by MSU leadership throughout the Nassar criminal proceedings, Engler lacked the self-awareness to resign.
As a parent who wants my children to learn to exercise their own judgement, I won’t tell my son he can’t root for MSU sports teams. But I will provide him all relevant information. I will challenge him to think beyond “I like their sports teams.” As a person who will help my children finance their college educations, I would strongly object to them attending Michigan State without significant changes made to the university administration and board.
Ultimately, that sentiment might mean less to Michigan State than whatever their wealthiest donors or whoever they’re taking cues from are telling current administrators. As much as I would like to believe my sentiment is widespread, I am not confident it is. Less than a year after Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting kids for years at Penn State while administrators and the legendary football coach knew, the university boasted of rising applicants. After a sexual assault cover-up scandal at Baylor, the university quickly touted a record number of applicants. Michigan State has already bragged about its, “largest, most diverse freshman class.”
The bleakest outlook is that, even in the face of the absolute most horrifyingly evil circumstances, there is evidence that universities face little pressure to systematically change anything.
I can’t change Michigan State. But I can hope that enough parents with similar feelings about the university are initiating important conversations with their kids.