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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

John U. Bacon on Mel Tucker suspension and sexual harassment allegations

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker walks the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Richmond, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 45-14. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Al Goldis/AP
FR11125 AP
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker walks the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Richmond, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 45-14. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Michigan State University suspended head football coach Mel Tucker without pay yesterday. Tucker is accused of sexually harassing a woman who's an activist and sexual assault survivor. MSU brought her to campus to talk to athletes about the problem of sexual violence. It's only the latest high profile sexual misconduct case at a public university in Michigan.

Michigan Radio Sports commentator John U. Bacon talked with Michigan Radio's Tyler Scott to explain the allegations today on Morning Edition.

"He doesn't have to be convicted of a crime here. He's already embarrassed the university. And I'd be very surprised if he's not going to be fired soon."

Tyler Scott: Brenda Tracy is the sexual violence prevention activist that complained Tucker masturbated on a phone call and made sexual comments without her consent, according to USA Today. Tucker described it as consensual phone sex to MSU investigators. There's a hearing in October for MSU to decide if Tucker's behavior violated any policies and if they'll fire him. How's this looking for Tucker?

John U. Bacon: It couldn't look a lot worse, frankly, and the claim boils down not to he said-she said in terms of he did or did not do this. The question is, was it consensual or not? So he's already confessed to sorry, masturbating in the phone sex conversations with her. The question is, was it welcome or not? Either way, the clause in Coach Tucker's contract is very clear and it says he can be fired for cause for conduct, which in the university's reasonable judgment would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule on the university. This is not a legal case, in that case.

TS: MSU hired an outside Title IX attorney to investigate the complaint, and that investigation reportedly wrapped up in July, according to the USA Today story that dropped this weekend. After that story dropped, not even 18 hours later, MSU suspended Tucker. Watching all this unfold pretty quickly this weekend, what were you thinking?

JUB: Well, it looked pretty bad, didn't it? That they'd been sitting on this report for a while and then they didn't take any action well into the season until, of course, it went public because USA Today broke this story. As I've learned more, it's not quite as clear, Tyler, exactly what Michigan State knew and when. Michigan State's leadership has responded. They knew there was a complaint made against Tucker in late December, but due to Title IX process protocols, they did not know any details until last night. A school spokesman confirmed this to Dan Murphy, a friend of mine at ESPN, who's written a great book about the Dr. Nassar situation. Title IX and sexual misconduct experts say this is the proper trauma-informed protocol for how to handle this kind of complaint. Tucker's bosses should not have known the details during an open case. So it boils down to this, Tyler: who knew what and when? And it's not yet clear.

If they knew about it months ago and did nothing, that is going to be a mark not only on Tucker, but on the entire university. If they followed the protocols they should have, and it looks bad but it's what they're supposed to be doing. Well, that's a different case.

TS: That's an important detail. Because at first glance, the timing issue didn't seem like the greatest look for the university, but that, as you spell it out, makes more sense. At the same time, there's a long history here. MSU is worried about the PR aspect of this because it has struggled with these cases historically in terms of taking care of victims and survivors. The Larry Nassar scandal, of course, you well know, John, several years ago was all about women and children whose complaints about sexual assault weren't taken seriously, including at MSU. At a press conference yesterday, interim MSU President Teresa Woodruff said, quote, "This is not the MSU of old." From this point forward, how do they prove that to the public?

JUB: They do the opposite of what they did and the Nassar case, which was stonewall and deny and not listen to the survivors. So in this case, let's see what happens, how they handle it. But one of the first steps is they have still not released the materials of the Nassar investigation, despite repeated Freedom of Information Act requests. Those are FOIA requests to us in the business. They need to be open, transparent, explain the timing, explain what they did and why, not only in the past, but also going forward. And we'll see if that happens.

TS: And by the way, worth mentioning, it's not just at MSU. Lots of institutions have similar scandals in the past. At that press conference last night, Harlon Barnett was named interim MSU head football coach and former Spartan - arguably legend- and football coach Mark Dantonio is helping out with the program too. For them to come into that team right now, what should they and their players focus on?

JUB: Man, all I can say is good luck, because the challenge of focusing on football when the off-field conduct of their head coach is going to eclipse all of it all season long because this is going to be dragged out for a while. I mean, do your best. But it's barely material. What they really need to do is not add to the public relations - as well as reality - problems they already have.

TS: You were a coach, John. What would you tell the guys? And if you don't want to answer that, that's fine.

JUB: It's very simple in this case. Look, in this case, it is isolated to Mel Tucker, the head coach. And I'd say, you know, we're not here to comment on that. That's his situation. This is where we are now. What can we do with this situation? Nobody here is guilty. Nobody in the locker room did anything wrong. Let's focus on what you came here to focus on your academics and your athletics. And let's do our very best and show Michigan State at its best. That's what I would say.

TS: John, thanks for talking again.

JUB: Thank you, Tyler.

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
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