Last week, as students tailgated before Michigan’s game against Michigan State, Psi Upsilon fraternity draped a bedsheet out a window of their house. The banner, ostensibly to offer up a roast of the Spartans, read: “You can’t touch us, @LarryNassar.”
There are a lot of legitimate things to insult Michigan State about, starting with its on-field results against the Wolverines the past two years. But Psi Upsilon’s sign crossed a line, big time.
The Larry Nassar scandal is one of the worst sexual assault scandals in sports history. At Michigan State and later with USA Gymnastics, Nassar, a trainer and team doctor, sexually abused hundreds of people. Multiple administrators at those institutions covered it up for decades. It’s an example of large-scale institutional failure, not an item in a rivalry. There are Nassar survivors at Michigan, and countless more survivors of sexual violence. By casually mentioning Nassar as a reason the Wolverines are better than the Spartans, Psi Upsilon diminished the experiences of all of them.
Even top U.S. gymnast and Nassar survivor Simone Biles commented on the situation, tweeting, “unbelievable…../this is the type of stuff that makes me sick to my stomach/I hope the school is taking the proper measurements in investigating this…”
The larger problem here isn’t what Psi Upsilon did, but the fact that this isn’t an isolated incident. Three of Michigan’s biggest rivals — Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State — have recently had large-scale sexual misconduct scandals. And during rivalry weeks, you don’t have to look far to find examples of this same kind of behavior.
There are the people who sell shirts outside the Union that say, “Liar, liar, Urban Meyer.” The person who commented on a “Michigan State respekt thread” on a popular Michigan blog saying, “+1 for less sexual assault.” The tweets about not letting Ohio State’s record against Michigan distract from the Urban Meyer and Zach Smith scandal, like those two things are remotely equatable.
Turn on any edition of “College GameDay” and you’ll see signs making light of rivals’ scandals. When GameDay was in South Bend last year for Notre Dame’s game against the Wolverines, one fan held up a sign that said, “I had a better sign, but Urban Meyer covered it up.” It’s not just Michigan fans who do this, either.
Those behaviors aren’t as public and perhaps not as immediately repulsive as what Psi Upsilon did. But they’re just as problematic, because in weaponizing these scandals — these failures that hurt hundreds of people — people minimize them.
“It minimizes the actual violence that they’re talking about in turning it into a taunt,” said Jessica Luther, an author and journalist who has covered sexual violence in college athletics extensively. “What we’re actually talking about is violence and harm and often trauma. … It minimizes and even ignores that this is actual violence and that there are people in the stands who are fans that have to hear this stuff and are definitely victims of it and are watching that minimization of it.”
When you hold up a scandal such as Nassar’s alongside rivalry jokes like “94 yards,” the number the Spartans gained against the Wolverines in 2018, this is the message you’re sending: All of this is just a game. Michigan is better than Michigan State, not just because of those on-field results, but because the Wolverines don’t have a public scandal involving a serial sexual abuser.
But here’s the thing: There’s a reason the Spartans and Buckeyes are the Wolverines’ biggest rivals. It’s because, as much as Michigan fans hate to admit it, the three schools are similar in culture and demographic. If it happened at Michigan State and Ohio State, who is to say it won’t happen here?
And, while Michigan’s never had a scandal on the level of those other schools, it was just five years ago that it came out that then-kicker Brendan Gibbons had been expelled from the school in 2014 for a sexual assault that had happened four years earlier. It had taken the university that long to handle the case, and all that time Gibbons had a prominent role on the football team.
“(I feel) just kind of this fear, and maybe this is not justified … but I always think, ‘OK, if this happens at Michigan, or if some horrible, terrible person does this to people at Michigan, how will these same people react?’ ” said Anjuli Shah, a Michigan fan and alum who has volunteered with domestic violence shelters. “I hope they’ll react in the same way. I hope they’ll start admonishing the administration and calling for all of these people to get fired, but there’s fear inside me that maybe they won’t, and maybe this is just another sports thing.”
There’s a reason so many survivors of sexual violence don’t come forward, especially when athletes are involved. Nassar survivors tried to tell Michigan State and USA Gymnastics administrators about their abuse. Those administrators did nothing and kept enabling their abuse, kept valuing the money and medals pouring in above all else.
When ex-Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith’s wife came forward about her abuse, she had her character questioned. It came out that then-coach Urban Meyer had known about the violence, but it was only after public pressure that Smith was fired. Meyer was put on administrative leave but missed just three games — the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
The fact is, something like that could happen here. The Gibbons incident is proof of that.
“I just hate the idea that you’re going to make fun of another institution for this issue without, especially if you think that’s because your institution is flawless and perfect, because it isn’t,” Luther said. “There are absolutely sexual assault survivors at Michigan, just statistically, that’s really true, and it’s statistically true that some of the people who harm are athletes. Some of the people who get harmed are athletes.
“I don’t know if there’s a right way to respond to another school, I just think you should always be thinking about the place that you’re in, that you’re definitely standing near a survivor of sexual assault, almost all the time when you’re in public, and that’s gonna be as true at your school as it is at the other school.”
By making these allegations just another item in the rivalry, what you’re really doing is reinforcing the idea that sports are most important. When horrible, unthinkable things happen to rivals, fans’ first instinct is to turn it into another reason their program is better. Instead of thinking about how to help the victims or — better yet — how to ensure these things don’t happen in the future, they reinforce the very culture that causes this to happen.
Michigan State kept Nassar around for so long because it didn’t want to admit it had hired an abuser. The Spartans covered up sexual assaults by their athletes, and the Buckeyes hired Smith, because those people made their on-field product better and that was the thing fans cared about.
This is a culture problem above all, one that permeates throughout the sports landscape. Fans scamper to weaponize anything that suggests their team is better.
So, the next time you consider bringing up Zach Smith or Larry Nassar to a fan of one of those other schools, think about this: one in five women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Picture Michigan Stadium, packed to the brim, 111,000 fans in maize and blue. Statistically, thousands of women in that stadium — and many men, too — are or will be survivors.
Instead of jumping to the low-hanging fruit, think about them. Then, find another insult.
The Spartans’ 94 yards. The Buckeyes’ 49-20 loss to Purdue. Michigan State’s blown 28-3 lead against Illinois. The fact that Ohio State tried to trademark the word “the.”
While the chippiness of rivalries is part of the fun, there are some things that should be off limits. This is one of them.
Gerson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.