NCAA ill equipped to do anything about Michigan State’s handling of Larry Nassar

In every possible way, and it wouldn’t be hard to think of a few, Michigan State needs to be held accountable for what its leadership knew and what it should have known about Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of hundreds of girls under the guise of medical treatment for the women’s gymnastics and rowing teams, a scandal as horrific as anything that has ever happened on a college campus.

We should all be able to agree on that. Something like this can never happen again, and those who played any role in allowing it to happen in the first place should pay with their jobs, at minimum, and perhaps worse.

But as the dozens upon dozens of first-hand accounts of Nassar’s crimes have reverberated across the country from a courthouse in Lansing where his sentencing hearing has taken place over several days, there is undoubtedly an impulse to do something. And that’s not a bad impulse, particularly given the tone-deaf, cavalier response from Michigan State’s trustees, who not only refused to remove school President Lou Anna Simon but gave her a vote of confidence.

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The NCAA’s decision Tuesday to jump into the fray, however, only muddies the waters. Given the organization’s recent troubled history of trying to get its arms around issues outside its rulebook, dealing with something the magnitude of Michigan State is baffling at best and calculated grandstanding at worst.

The NCAA, after all, is an organization that has rules about conducting its real investigations in secret. Yet on Tuesday night, there was NCAA acknowledging to USA TODAY Sports that it had sent Michigan State a Letter of Inquiry.

More:NCAA sends letter of inquiry to Michigan State over Larry Nassar case.

More:MSU trustee ‘deeply regrets the inadvertent comment’ in Larry Nassar case.

If you’re inclined to view these things through the lens of frontier justice, Michigan State deserves that and much, much more. But so did Penn State and Baylor. And so did North Carolina for the much-less-serious but nonetheless egregious sin of sham classes to systematically keep athletes eligible.

But all of those situations lead us to the same question that will apply to Michigan State: What’s the end game for an organization hamstrung by the narrowness of its own rulebook?

If you’re looking toward the NCAA to be the moral compass for its members or to be powerful like the NFL with the discretion to punish people because it feels like the right thing to do, you’re hopelessly misguided. How many times do we need to prove that?

The NCAA is a wonky organization with a big rulebook that does a good job running championship tournaments and occasionally busting a coach for petty rules violations or a player for taking money from a booster. Expect the NCAA to do anything else, at this point, and you’re only asking for trouble.

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If the conduct of a university doesn’t fit into an NCAA bylaw, it’s just not going to amount to much — no matter how bad that conduct might be. Perhaps there’s something the NCAA can dig up that makes a connection between Nassar getting away with years of assaults and Michigan State gaining some kind of competitive advantage.

Otherwise, this seems to be a story about a school employing a criminal and failing to stop him for whatever reason, which is horrible by any measure but not something an organization that largely deals with petty amateurism issues is equipped to handle.

Even with Penn State, where it seemed likely that Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual abuse of children was ignored or dealt with internally to save a high-profile football program from significant embarrassment, the severe penalties levied (and later walked back) are now largely viewed as an overreach of NCAA power. With North Carolina, when the NCAA’s enforcement staff tried to make a common sense connection by characterizing the fake classes as extra benefits, the case was basically shot down by the Committee on Infractions.

So why would the NCAA go down this road again with Michigan State, when there is even less clarity about which rules were broken?

It might make the NCAA look good for a few news cycles, particularly after NCAA President Mark Emmert gave a clumsy comment late last week, saying he didn’t “have enough information” to offer an opinion on the situation. And given Michigan State trustee Joel Ferguson popping off on a talk radio show Tuesday, laughing when asked if he was concerned the NCAA might get involved, Indianapolis almost had to respond in some way.

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“To do what?” Ferguson said. “This is not Penn State. They were dealing with their football program. They’re smart enough to know they’re not competent to walk in here on this.”.

You can’t blame the NCAA for wanting to show Ferguson up, but there’s a shred of truth in what he said, despite the fact it was crude and ill-considered for him to say it in the first place.

This is tough territory for the NCAA. On one hand, it gets mocked as irrelevant and feckless if Michigan State suffers no institutional punishment for Nassar’s crimes. On the other, it’s hard to find a scenario where the NCAA has much recourse written into its rulebook.

After so many gut-wrenching stories from the survivors and so little remorse from the school, nobody would object to Michigan State being held accountable in some way. It’s just hard to see how the NCAA being involved makes this better for anyone.