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Hero worship and the fallout in East Lansing

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The past week has been one unlike any in the history of Michigan State. It was a week that shook the university to its core, with two of the school’s most prominent leaders stepping down, and two more under fire.

Former President Lou Anna K. Simon stepped down last Wednesday night, following a tumultuous week of missteps and public relations disasters from both her, and the Board of Trustees and their handling of the Larry Nassar scandal. At that point, many believed that the worst was behind MSU, despite an impending investigation from the Michigan Attorney General. In fact, it was only the beginning.

On Friday afternoon, ESPN’s Outside the Lines dropped a bombshell piece, alleging a culture of mishandling sexual assault cases within MSU’s athletic department. The report included incidents involving football and basketball players, and took direct aim at Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo. MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis announced his retirement just hours before the report was released.

In the wake of the report, the futures of both Dantonio and Izzo have been cast into doubt. The reaction to the ESPN piece has been wide ranging and run the gamut from “burn it all down” to “ESPN is fake news.”

The ESPN piece shows that Michigan State is under a microscope, and deservedly so. The university has done little to help itself and has seemingly gone out of its way to block transparency at every turn. Everyone is looking at MSU now, from law enforcement agencies, to the Department of Education, to reporters from both local and national outlets. Whatever the truth, it will likely come out, one way or another.

Whatever your reaction to the ESPN piece, dismissing it outright is negligent. The article brings up some disturbing things, and raises questions that need to be addressed. There is a problem at Michigan State, which includes, but is not limited to, the athletic department. If you were calling for sweeping changes during the Nassar sentencing last week, this is what you asked for.

There are questions to be answered of Dantonio and Izzo, and I believe that in time, we will get the answers to those questions. I advise patience when passing judgement on anyone in this, because as stated earlier, with everyone looking, the truth will come out.

However, I do believe the shine has been taken off of MSU’s coaching giants. One that can never be put back on. Michigan State fans have always held up Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo as examples of coaches “doing it the right way.” These two were the standard by which all other coaches should measure themselves. They were successful, and they did it without cheating, not like “those guys at (insert school of choice here).” They won without getting their hands dirty or selling their souls like “those other coaches…you know who they are.”

And therein lies the problem. When you build people up, put them on a pedestal, build statues, and idolize them, you set yourself up for disappointment. Because coaches are just people like the rest of us, and people are flawed. People make mistakes. Nearly every major religion warns against this type of behavior, and yet we do it anyway.

We can’t help it, especially sports fans. We start when we are young, watching our favorite players perform superhuman feats on the field or court. We see them only in that light. They play for our team, they are our coach, we are the good guys and they are our heroes helping to vanquish the bad guys on that other team. They sell us shoes and clothes and sports drinks. We buy it all and wear it with pride. We mimic them in the backyard and on driveways. We don’t see or don’t want to see the man behind the curtain so to speak.

As we get older we begin to learn that our heroes are not god-like figures or men of myth, but mere people like the rest of us. This doesn’t happen just with sports heroes, it happens with people in your own life as well. Remember the first time you realized your parents were flawed people with problems and issues just like the rest of us? At some point the glass shatters and that perfect perception is gone forever. That’s what happened on Friday.

At some point you stop creating new heroes and idols to worship, but even so, you tend to hold on to the ones that you already have until you are given a reason not to. There are a lot of adults who are putting to rest the last of their infallible heroes.

Now I want to be very clear when I say that I am in no way saying that I believe Dantonio and Izzo are bad people, nor am I saying that I believe, as of now, that they should be fired based on the information available. I am also not insinuating that they did anything purposefully hurtful, dishonest, or sinister. Both of them have done a lot of good for a lot of people. That is why you have so many former players coming out to defend them and praising their character.

But there is a lot of smoke around Michigan State, and the athletic program in particular. It is possible for both Dantonio and Izzo to come out of all this, but it feels like if they do, it will likely be with at least a little dirt on them. And that may be enough for them to continue coaching, to keep winning games in front of cheering fans clad in green and white, but it won’t quite be the same as it was. The glass has already been shattered, you can’t put it back together again.