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MSU football coach Tucker suspended amid sexual harassment investigation

September 10, 2023
Head Coach Mel Tucker during Michigan State’s last game at home against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. Indiana ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31.
Head Coach Mel Tucker during Michigan State’s last game at home against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. Indiana ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Michigan State University suspended head football coach Mel Tucker amid public outcry over his alleged sexual harassment of a rape survivor and advocate who was working with the team.

At a press conference Sunday evening announcing the suspension, MSU Athletic Director Alan Haller said Tucker will be suspended without pay pending the results of the university's investigation into his conduct.

Tucker was revealed to be the subject of a Title IX investigation by a USA Today report published early Sunday morning. Haller said at the conference that he has known about it since December 2022.

When asked what made him take action now rather than when he first found out, Haller said "we're always evaluating what interim measures are in place ... it's an ongoing process and we update interim measures as we receive more information."

Haller said that those measures previously included not allowing contact between Tucker and the accuser.

MSU board chair Rema Vassar released a statement to The State News after the announcement:

"The MSU Board of Trustees has been briefed by the Administration on the suspension of Mel Tucker and supports this action," Vassar said. "We remain committed to a thorough investigation of this matter and to the continued progress needed at MSU for a safer and more supportive university."

She declined to say when the board became aware of the investigation.

Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and advocate who worked with Tucker to educate his team on sexual violence, claims Tucker made a phone call in April 2022 that began with a sexually suggestive comment about her appearance and ended with Tucker masturbating on the line.

In his filings, Tucker admits to masturbating on the call, but denies it was nonconsensual. Tucker, who has a 23-year marriage and two sons, claims he and Tracy had a mutual romantic connection even prior to the phone call, and that they frequently made flirtatious comments towards one another. He alleges Tracy wanted a “sugar daddy” who would regularly pay her money in exchange for sexual and romantic favors.

Tracy claims the relationship was one-sided, and that she had to ward off sexual advances in the past.

"The idea that someone could know me and say they understand my trauma but then re-inflict that trauma on me is so disgusting to me, it's hard for me to even wrap my mind around it," Tracy told USA Today. "It's like he sought me out just to betray me."

In December 2022, eight months after the call, Tracy filed the Title IX report with MSU.

MSU interim president Teresa Woodruff, who also spoke at the press conference, said the news should reflect growth from MSU, alluding to the university's troubled recent past with sexual misconduct. 

"This morning's news might sound like the MSU of old," Woodruff said. "It was not, because an independent investigation is and continues to be conducted. That investigative process is not complete and had not been referred to Haller or the university. That process will not be complete until there is a hearing and a final decision."

Suspension until the investigation finishes is a precedented step for universities, ​​Elizabeth Abdnour, a former MSU Title IX investigator who now advises institutions on their Title IX compliance, said.

She said the decision to do so normally involves evaluation of two factors: the severity of the offense, and the level of authority the accused wields. In Tucker’s case, Abdnour said, his high profile position overseeing a large staff and scores of students made suspension particularly likely.

What’s next for Tucker’s Title IX case?

The investigative portion of the case is complete, but a hearing that will decide whether Tucker violated MSU policy isn’t set until the football team’s by-week on Oct. 5 and 6.

It’s unclear how long it will take for the Resolution Officer to make a decision based on the hearing, as the policies governing MSU’s investigations don’t give a specific time limit.

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After that decision is issued, either party has ten days to file an appeal. The rest of the appellate process must take place within 36 calendar days. The appeal should, for the most part, be the final step in the case.

Parties could file civil lawsuits suing MSU over whatever decision is made, but a case like that actually changing the result is largely unprecedented and highly unlikely, Abdnour said. 

She added that it will be harder to criticize the decision made in Tucker’s case, because MSU has appointed an independent outside Resolution Officer to make the decision, according to USA Today.

“Let’s say there’s some internal pressure at MSU on the resolution officer saying ‘we don’t want Coach Tucker in trouble,” Abdnour said. “That’s not as much of a possibility when the decision maker is some external third-party that isn’t employed by MSU.”

The case is set to bring widespread attention and scrutiny to MSU's Office of Institutional Equity, which is tasked with conducting Title IX investigations.

The most recent external review of the office found that understaffing, leadership turnover, and an inadequate software system have created  backlogs slowing the processing of cases, according to university documents obtained by The State News.

MSU reacts

The report has left students and community members shocked and disgusted. 

“I think it’s really disgusting and upsetting and I hope it isn’t true, but my thoughts go out to the victim,” environmental studies and sustainability junior Kirah Czub said after the news first broke.

An anonymous alumni left a sweatshirt and a note outside of the Hannah Administration Building Sunday morning that reads, “I love MSU, but lately it's hard to love my school. Please do the right thing and and fire Tuck. Let's not have another Nassar."

Shirt and note

Shirt left outside the Hannah Administration Building on Sep. 10, 2023 following news of investigation into Mel Tucker.

Community members and football fans have taken to expressing their opinions on the scandal online. Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, voiced support for Tracy in a post on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

She called Tucker’s alleged conduct “absolutely disgusting,” especially given recent controversial university decisions, like the board’s continued refusal to release documents relating to MSU’s sheltering of Nassar to investigators.

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