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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University, known for its leafy campus, years of basketball success and a heritage that goes back to Abraham Lincoln, is dealing with a different image these days: allegations of sexual assault by a sports doctor and a separate sexual assault complaint against three football players who have been evicted from campus housing.
Michigan State on Thursday announced a police investigation involving the players, whose names haven't been released. At the same time, it suggested there might be problems with how members of the football staff responded after the complaint was made in January. One person has been suspended so far, and an outside law firm has been hired to focus solely on staff.
Even the marching band was hit with unflattering news this week. Michigan State said the longtime director was suspended for a week last year for sending inappropriate text messages to a female musician.
"When you see one incident, and it's isolated, it's much easier to get a handle. But to be now piling up like this, it's very troubling," said John Truscott, an alumnus and public relations strategist in Lansing. "From a PR perspective, this is a classic crisis management case made worse by more negative information emerging."
Truscott said he personally knows President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis and insists "they will not sweep things under the rug."
With 39,000 undergraduates, Michigan State is the state's largest university. It opened as an agricultural college and is considered to be the model for an 1862 law that set aside land for public colleges. Today, it's probably best known, nationally, for its sports programs, especially Hall of Fame basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has led the men's team to 19 NCAA tournaments.
The string of scandals began last September, when Michigan State fired Dr. Larry Nassar, who treated female athletes in the region for years and was affiliated with Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. Nassar is being sued by more than two dozen women and girls who say they were molested during treatments, some as far back as the late 1990s.
Nassar has denied the allegations. Separately, he's charged with assaulting a girl at his home and possessing child pornography. He's in jail without bond.
The lawsuits also accuse Michigan State of brushing off complaints about Nassar and not doing enough to prevent assaults. Spokesman Jason Cody said the school received a complaint in 2014 that was investigated by campus police, with no charges filed. He said the next complaint didn't come until last August, which touched off a broader police investigation that remains open.
In a statement last week, Simon urged anyone with information about Nassar's "repugnant behavior" to step forward. She told employees that any interference with the investigation won't be tolerated.
"Nassar abused the trust of his patients and his professional responsibility as a physician," Simon said.
Michigan State hasn't released details about the allegations against the football players. Besides being kicked out of campus housing, the three have been suspended from team activities. Cody didn't put a timetable on when police might give a report to prosecutors.
Alumni and students said the controversies are getting their attention.
Adrian Hemond, a political consultant and Michigan State graduate and donor, said he plans to "hold onto my wallet for a little bit" until he sees how the school handles the cases.
"I'm looking for a muscular response from the administration. ... Every time there's another story about this, it gets worse and worse," Hemond, 40, said about Nassar.
On campus Friday, Kaylah Jetton, a senior, said women are reluctant to report assaults because they feel they won't get solved. Rob Prost, a sophomore, said Michigan State's reputation could take a hit.
"There's a lot of national focus right now on sexual assault cases at universities," he said. "I feel it all depends on how the university handles it."
White reported from Detroit. Associated Press writer Dave Eggert contributed from Lansing.
Follow Ed White on Twitter at https://twitter.com/edwhiteap and Chris Ehrmann at https://twitter.com/chrisehrm