The N.C.A.A. sent a letter of inquiry to Michigan State University, formally opening an investigation into how the university handled the case of Lawrence G. Nassar, the doctor who sexually assaulted scores of female athletes.
Dr. Nassar spent decades on the faculty at the university and treated its athletes, as well as members of the United States national gymnastics team.
“The N.C.A.A. has requested information from Michigan State about any potential rules violations,” Donald M. Remy, the association’s chief legal officer, said in a phone interview Tuesday evening.
N.C.A.A. bylaws require colleges to protect the health, safety and well-being of athletes. Among those who have said Dr. Nassar abused them are members of the Michigan State cross country and softball teams. Kathie Klages, the former gymnastics coach who retired last year, has been accused of seeking to cover up allegations against Dr. Nassar, who served as team physician for the university gymnastics and women’s crew programs.
In a statement late Tuesday, the association said: “The N.C.A.A. has sent a letter of inquiry to Michigan State University regarding potential N.C.A.A. rules violations related to the assaults Larry Nassar perpetrated against girls and young women, including some student-athletes at Michigan State. We will have no further comment at this time.”
A Michigan State spokesman said Tuesday night that the university was reviewing the letter before issuing a response.
On Wednesday, Michigan State released the N.C.A.A’s letter, which was addressed to Athletic Director Mark Hollis and copied to President Lou Anna Simon. Referring to Dr. Nassar’s “heinous and appalling assaults,” it cited the principle of athlete wellbeing and a by-law that it said pertained to that principle.
“Larry Nassar’s heinous crimes of record against more than 150 victims raise serious concerns about institutional practices, student-athlete safety and the institution’s actions to protect individuals from his behavior.”
In a statement Wednesday, Hollis pledged a “comprehensive response” to the letter and the university’s cooperation. Of college athletes, he added, “Our first priority has always been and will always be their health and safety.”
The N.C.A.A., the governing body of intercollegiate athletics, was widely criticized several years ago for its handling of a case involving Penn State University in which Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant football coach, sexually abused young boys. (Sandusky is serving a decades-long prison term.)
Less than a year after the Penn State scandal became public in the fall of 2011, an independent investigation commissioned by Penn State, and led by Louis J. Freeh, helped lead to N.C.A.A. sanctions, including a $60 million fine and the vacating of more than 100 wins from the lifetime record of the former head coach Joe Paterno, who died earlier that year. Several of the penalties were later rescinded, and the wins restored.
He was lauded as the must-see doctor who worked with America’s best gymnasts. Now Lawrence G. Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison. Over seven days, women recounted his sexual abuse at a marathon sentencing hearing in Michigan.
Critics contended that the N.C.A.A. had overstepped its bounds with those penalties. Emails made public because of a lawsuit two years later appeared to show N.C.A.A. officials questioning whether their institution had the authority to issue such penalties on a university, even one where several high-ranking officials later received jail time for their roles in covering up Mr. Sandusky’s abuse.
In one email, an N.C.A.A. official referred to the consent decree between the association and Penn State as a “bluff” and urged a settlement because the N.C.A.A.’s chances of proving a violation of its bylaws before a Committee on Infractions might prove difficult.
Last year, an N.C.A.A. Committee on Infractions demonstrated just how narrow those bylaws can be when it declined to penalize the University of North Carolina over a scandal in which scores of dubious classes were taken disproportionally by football and men’s basketball players. Through gritted teeth, the committee said it could not find an N.C.A.A. violation because the classes had been available to all students.
The Nassar case has drawn comparisons to the Sandusky case, raising questions about how university officials responded to warning signs about federal crimes being committed on their campus and about whether they tried to protect someone who was considered valuable to the athletics program. The Michigan State University police received a report about Dr. Nassar as early as May 2014, and on Tuesday a former rower at Michigan State said she had received no response to two separate reports of abuse by Nassar.
Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, a former chair of what is now known as the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors, has faced calls for resignation, though the university’s board has largely supported her.
The Nassar case has been pushed further into the national spotlight over the past week as Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has allowed more than 140 women, and others connected to the case, to speak at a sentencing hearing for Dr. Nassar, who has pleaded guilty to multiple sex crimes and has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges. On Monday, three leading members of the board of U.S.A. Gymnastics, which also employed Dr. Nassar for years, resigned amid increasing criticism of how they responded to reports of his abuse.
Several voices ordinarily critical of the N.C.A.A. have urged the organization to stay away from the allegations against Dr. Nassar.
“We are always mindful of the voices around college athletics,” Remy said. “and we strive to do the right thing.”
At the N.C.A.A. Convention last week in Indianapolis, Mark Emmert, the association’s president, conspicuously did not mention Michigan State in his annual address, even as he alluded to the U.N.C. scandal and the under-the-table payments in men’s college basketball that federal officials revealed last fall. Emmert told members of the news media at the convention that he did not have enough information on what happened at Michigan State to comment on it in-depth.
However, in his address Emmert rebutted the notion that the N.C.A.A. should steer clear of controversy.
“We can’t dance around those things,” he said, referring to various scandals. “We can’t make excuses for it. We can’t say our process is slow.”
He added: “How do we respond? I think, first of all, by not retreating from it, not getting under our desks not hiding from it.”
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