The conversation surrounding the way Tom Izzo has answered questions regarding Michigan State’s handling of sexual assault allegations within the athletic department should start and end with this:
Do you think that Tom Izzo believes he did something wrong?
That he made a mistake?
That he erred in the way that he handled accusations against Travis Walton, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling?
Let’s think about this from Izzo’s perspective.
When Walton was accused in February of 2010 of punching a woman in the face at a bar, he had known Izzo — from recruitment through graduation — for upwards of seven years. Izzo thought enough of him as a player to name him captain three times and enough of him as a kid to, reportedly, allow Walton to move into his basement in January of 2010 so Walton can finish his degree.
Think about the people that you know best, that you really, really care about. If they were accused of assaulting a person in a bar and they told you that the accusations were not true, would you believe them? If a judge approved a ruling that would allow that person to travel across state lines, would that reinforce your belief in their innocence? If they eventually plead out to a charge of littering, would that confirm all of the assumptions you had made?
When Adreian Payne and Keith Appling were initially accused and investigated of sexually assaulting a woman in the fall of 2010, it was early in their first semester on campus, before practices were officially allowed to start. On October 1st of that year, before the season started, former Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III released a statement that included this sentence:
“Based on our review of all of the materials, including the police report, actual interviews, and the specific details that were elicited directly from the Complainant, our office reached the conclusion that no crime had been committed.” (My emphasis added.)
I’m not arguing whether or not Izzo messed up. I did that in this column, and spent 2,000 words parsing out all the nuances.
I think he did.
So go read that, then listen to the podcast below:
What I’m asking today is whether or not Izzo thinks he was wrong, and I truly don’t think that he does.
Maybe, in hindsight, he wishes he would have done things differently — especially after Walton was accused of a separate sexual assault just a couple of months after the incident at the bar — but if you caught Izzo in a moment of honesty, with no cameras and no recorders and no witnesses, I would be willing to bet my left thumb that he believes that he made the right decision with the information that he had at the time.
Izzo, more than anything else, is known for his honesty and his accessibility, more so than just about any coach in the country and certainly more than any that are at his level. Part of that is by design. It’s easier to stay in front of a story when a reporter can reach out directly to you, or vice versa; it’s easier to cultivate a blue-collar, one-of-the-guys persona by being willing to talk, on just about any topic that comes up.
That’s what makes the last five days and three press conferences so odd.
Seeing Izzo uncomfortable in front of a microphone is not what we are used to. Seeing him duck a question by sticking to his talking points — call the victims ‘survivors’, say you have and will participate in every investigation, repeat “I have given my comments, I have no additional ones” ad nauseum — is a stark contrast from the Izzo we’ve come to expect.
The thought has been that Izzo’s silence has been a direct result of some high-priced lawyers or PR professionals telling him to be quiet, giving him prepared statements, keeping him from going off-script in the ways that have made him so likable in the past. On Wednesday night, after Michigan State beat Penn State, he hinted that maybe that’s not quite the case.
“I don’t know if I can’t,” Izzo said. “I can do whatever I want to do, I just don’t think that it’s the right time right now.”
“Those of you that know me know that I’m going to do what I think is right,” he added. “I’m sorry. I really am. I watch a lot of TV and I see on shows, everybody thinks everybody has the right to ask a question. I’ve always believed that, I’ve always been a fan of the media. But I gotta have my rights too. I’m just going to, when time comes, I’ll be able to speak out. It might be frustrating, but it’s just what I gotta do.”
So if he doesn’t have to follow the advice of the people Michigan State pays to help them in situations like this, what is keeping him from answering the questions he needs to answer?
Is it what he’s gotta do because he doesn’t want to talk, because the last time he tried to broach a subject similar to this — when he misspoke in regards to Larry Nassar by saying he “hoped the right person was convicted” — he was run through the ringer for it?
Or is it what he’s gotta do because he knows the current climate is not one where it would behoove him to defend himself and his players for what he could very well believe is a witch hunt?
We cannot know.
And we will not know until he lets us know.
Until then, don’t expect these questions to die down, not when he is coaching a team that could win a national title in the one month of the year where college basketball is the single biggest story in sports.