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NCAA Mess On The Horizon: NCAA probing sexual assault allegations against USA Gymnastics team doctor

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You wouldn’t want to be an administrator with the NCAA when this mess landed on your desk

News: Larry Nassar Sentencing Hearing

140 victim impact stories over six days: That’s what the NCAA will have to listen to before deciding to act on Larry Nassar.

Lansing State Journal-USA TODAY NETWORK

In some ways, the Dr. Larry Nassar/USA Gymnastics/Michigan State story is one of the most underreported in the nation. Coverage has appeared far more on broadcast news than in sports publications, despite it being a Big Deal with a capital “B”. Blame it on the complexity and the dozens of different actors, all with various degrees of culpability.

To get you up to speed:

Nassar, who attended the Summer Olympics with USA Gymnastics from 1996 through 2008, has already been found guilty of possession of child pornography and criminal sexual assault, with a civil suit still pending.

The facade of decency surrounding Nassar, one maintained in part by institutions like USAG and MSU, which missed or outright disregarded multiple opportunities to investigate claims of misconduct, began to fall apart in late 2016 when the Indianapolis Star published a piece on USAG’s mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse by coaches.

In the months that followed, more than 140 women, including prominent Olympic medal-winning gymnasts such as Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles, would share harrowing accounts describing abuse, or file lawsuits against Nassar and the institutions that they say enabled him for so many years.

A complete timeline of the allegations and actions to date are above. And, there’s a lot of fire behind the smoke too — bodies are hitting the floor everywhere. In addition to Nassar almost certainly dying in prison, USAG has disassociated the iconic Dream Team coach Bela Karolyi and his Karolyi Ranch from the national team. May as well call the former US training facility the Hungarian Rape, Starvation and Torture Shack -- it was a ghastly environment, rife with nearly every form of abuse and manipulation and neglect you can imagine. The Ranch and its staff have now become the subject of criminal investigations as well. Senior leadership at USAG have all “resigned,” and you have to think inquiries are about to land on some desks as well. The Karolyis aren’t the only Gold Medal-winning coaches to be disassociated either: USAG cut ties with 2012 coach John Geddert yesterday for fostering an environment with the Karolyis where “abusers can thrive.”

Gymnastics: U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Womens Gymnastics

USAG Team Trials 2016

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the NCAA, a la Penn State, is taking an interest, opening a preliminary inquiry into Michigan State’s handling of the allegations against Nasser, where he was both a Spartan faculty member and the team physician:

Officials at the NCAA have sent a “letter of inquiry” to Michigan State about the university’s handling of Larry Nassar, the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who has been convicted of serial sexual abuse.

“The NCAA has sent a letter of inquiry to Michigan State University regarding potential NCAA rules violations related to the assaults Larry Nassar perpetrated against girls and young women, including some student-athletes at Michigan State,” the organization wrote in a statement when reached for comment by SB Nation. “We will have no further comment at this time.”

An NCAA inquiry is preliminary to any formal investigation the organization may prosecute, but the wheels have begun to spin. Like Penn State before it, the NCAA has a convenient punching bag too — a convicted molester with incredibly sympathetic victims. And not just sympathetic, perhaps the most telegenic, sympathetic you’ll ever find: America’s Sweethearts.

Still, there are a few questions that NCAA inquiries into criminality implicate. First, does the NCAA even have the legislative purview to self-regulate for these offenses? And, even if it does, is it even prudent for the organization to pursue them? And, specifically, is this a fight the NCAA wants to have?

As to the first, we simply don’t know: The NCAA has settled out complaints before they can be litigated, in essence bribing Penn State with eligibility and removal of sanctions. So, whether they technically have the power, the NCAA has nevertheless previously delegated the power unto itself. As for the wisdom of taking action, you can make compelling cases both for and against.

I would suggest that as far-reaching as this is — hundreds of victims, from all across the nation, with allegations that cross international boundaries, that implicate things as political as the US Olympic team, that this is probably a fight into which the NCAA shouldn’t interject itself. It simply does not have the manpower, the resources, the expertise (or arguably the jurisdiction) to take an additional bite out of Michigan State, no matter how disgusting the offenses. This case instead seems like it is one best served through the justice systems, and then let complex Title IX litigation sort out any culpability the school bears, if any.

Still, if the NCAA does act, as they did with Penn State, it not only would be another confused instance of alleged plenary power, but it would again bring to light its most shockingly hypocritical action to-date, the failure to pursue the Baylor case — an instance where there was a clear nexus between covering up sexual assault to maintain football player eligibility. It really did not get any clearer than that one. But, if the NCAA didn’t want to tangle with a super-wealthy Baptist private school, then you can’t imagine that they should embroil themselves in something as treacherous, political, and complex, as this sad saga.

My best guess is that this is public hand-wringing, where the NCAA is making a minimal effort to show willing before it drops the entire affair: Window-dressing, as it were. The organization will be criticized in either event. If the NCAA does not make at least a perfunctory inquiry, then it will be accused of ignoring allegations against female student-athletes, a charge that would be especially damning given the free pass it gave to Baylor. But, if the NCAA does act, then it will again be accused of overstepping its authority and much messy litigation will ensue -- litigation, by the way, that I don’t think the NCAA has a prayer of winning or the stomach to fight.

In either case, I wouldn’t want to be Mark Emmert this week.

This is far too complicated a series of issues for a poll. So, generally, should the NCAA act in cases of criminality, even if it has the power? Does it even have the power to act? Even if it does have the power in this case, is this the right matter for the NCAA to step into? Doesn’t the NCAA risk losing credibility either way? How should they respond to a seemingly no-win situation?