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MSU gives up controversial Duffy Daugherty book, but concerns remain

September 19, 2023
<p>Charles "Bubba" Smith, right, closes in on an opponent.</p>

Charles "Bubba" Smith, right, closes in on an opponent.

Michigan State University’s academic press has given up the rights to a controversial biography after a review of its accuracy and ethics, but the advocate who began questioning the book over a year ago still wants to know how it was published in the first place.

The book, “Duffy Daugherty: A Man Ahead of His Time,” is a purportedly-historical work chronicling the former head football coach’s groundbreaking recruitment of Black players before widespread integration of college football.

Controversy over the book swelled in May, when The State News first reported that it was published seemingly in violation of the University Press’ ethics and accuracy standards, with MSU saying it lacked any citations because it was a "non-academic work" intended for a “general audience."

It hasn’t been sold by the press since July, when it was pulled from MSU’s online store for a “full content review.”

University spokesperson Dan Olsen said this month that the review is complete and MSU has given the rights to the book back to the author’s estate.

But he would not say what the findings of the review were.

The press’ new decision to give up the rights stops MSU from selling or reprinting the book. But, it doesn't completely remove it from the market, as remaining copies are still available online from third-party sellers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Maya Washington, a historian who's studied the topic and the daughter of Gene Washington, a hall of fame wide receiver written about and featured on the cover of the book, criticized the press’ decision to not release the findings of the review.

She also took issue with the scope of a secretive probe, saying the press shouldn’t have just looked at what was wrong with the book. Instead, she wanted to know what happened in the press that would allow it to get published.

“Obviously I’m glad they (returned the rights)," Washington said. "I agree with that conclusion, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions." 

Washington — who has been asking MSU officials to take action on the book for over a year — said she wishes the university would make further efforts to “really take accountability” in addition to the decision regarding the rights.

“They could show some genuine humanity and actually apologize to my parents, their friends, and all the people whose legacies have been disrupted,” Washington said. “They could give us a clear understanding of how this happened, say ‘here are the steps that led to this publication, and here’s where we see opportunity to do something differently in the future.’”

MSU’s publication of the book became especially concerning for Washington in light of the upcoming film adaption, which a group of former players portrayed in it said is “racist” and “defamatory.”

Washington said the film takes the books “clumsy handling of race” to an extreme.

It includes depictions of the players frequently partying and being promiscuous, dramatic subplots involving wholly fabricated racist white teammates and a historically undocumented conversation between Daugherty and prolific civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, according to a copy of the script obtained by The State News.

The film — currently titled "Black Spartans" — is at a standstill. Shooting wrapped last year, but it’s still without a distributor to get it in front of viewers with a theatrical release or sale to a streaming service.

As for the book, the return of the rights does theoretically allow the author’s estate to republish it under a new publisher, but Washington isn’t all that concerned.

“I don’t think, given what we know about this book and the defamatory film adaptation, that a professional publisher in the United States would acquire this manuscript and publish it in the state that it was published by MSU,” Washington said.

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