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Dantonio Offers Little In Way Of Answers But Much In PR Acumen While Breaking Silence

Mark Dantonio speaks to the media Tuesday in his first public appearance since a sexual assault investigation involving his program began.
Mark Dantonio speaks to the media Tuesday in his first public appearance since a sexual assault investigation involving his program began.

When Michigan State announced late Monday evening an impromptu press conference the next day with football coach Mark Dantonio, speculation abounded as to why.

After all, the MSU football program is under the specter of a sexual assault investigation that has led to three players and one staff member being suspended. There’s also an internal investigation of the program and a Title IX investigation separate from the criminal matter.

But when Dantonio began speaking on Tuesday, the reason for his first public appearance since the episode began became clear.

“Obviously, I anticipated this would be sort of finalized, to some extent, just in terms of the investigative process,” Dantonio said of the criminal inquiry into his three players and one staffer. “But that’s not been the case.”

MSU announced the suspensions and ensuing investigations on Feb. 9. That was 47 days ago. Since then, MSU campus police have forwarded their investigative findings to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office twice–the first time, Prosecutor Carly Siemon sent the case back to police asking for more. MSUPD obliged her, eventually resubmitting on March 14.

Dantonio’s acknowledgement of the prolonging timeline here shows that he, like many others, expected the justice system’s heavy lifting to be done by now: either his players and staffer charged or exonerated. Instead, the process has lingered into the week of the Spartans’ spring game, which Dantonio admitted MSU officials “only slightly” considered postponing.

So, with the annual intra-squad scrimmage and all of its fanfare coming this weekend, and amid criticism for his silence and media blackout during this saga, Dantonio opted to appear before the media to account for his program.

This is obviously a smart gesture for relations with fans, alumni and donors, many of whom are seeking answers and, not to mention, are eager to move past a 3-9 campaign in 2016.

But the deftest PR move Dantonio and MSU made on Wednesday came in one of a few tense exchanges with reporters during the press conference.

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Dantonio noted before taking questions that there were many things he could or would not discuss due to ongoing investigations, and he reiterated this point several times throughout the session with media. One such instance came when he was asked about the identity of the three players suspended and whether other players are suspended for unrelated matters.

Dantonio acknowledged there are suspension(s) separate from the alleged sexual assault. That prompted a reporter to ask for their identities, a request that Dantonio declined to oblige.

A reporter responded that, without any official word from MSU on who is suspended and what for, some players may be identified by media as serving suspensions due to their absence from Saturday’s spring game, and that may lead to conflating players who aren’t involved in the sexual assault matter with those who are.

“That’s your responsibility,” Dantonio said regarding whether to report on players not in attendance Saturday. “I don’t think that’s fair… but you will all write about it.”

Dantonio and Michigan State are in an impossible position: Either name the players suspended for suspicion of their roles in an alleged sexual assault (for which they have yet to–and may never–be charged) or abstain and watch as the media deduces their identities (which may cause others to be implicated despite their complete lack of involvement).

And yet, Dantonio and Co. crafted the perfect PR response: Turning it around on the media. Essentially, MSU is saying it will not identify those implicated before/until/unless charges are issued. Instead, it has put that onus on the media, and in doing so has made what was already a delicate ethical matter for journalists even more sensitive.

It really is a master stroke from Dantonio and his colleagues on campus. Instead of outing any of their own–which, by the way, they have an ethical obligation not to do as employees of the university and coaches/administrators in the athletic department–they have foisted this impossible position upon the media, which will likely be criticized regardless of which course it decides to take on Saturday.

That may not satisfy the inquiring minds among Michigan State’s fanbase, and it certainly doesn’t play well in the newsroom. But considering the flack Dantonio and MSU have taken for their crisis communications policy throughout this affair , Tuesday went well.

 

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