BY: Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller | IN: Sexual Assault
Earlier this week, college football fans across the country woke to the news that Mel Tucker, head football coach at Michigan State University, had been suspended without pay until further notice.
The reason? Sexual harassment.
It’s a tale as old as time (though no less infuriating) for MSU, which has a long history of mishandling sexual abuse allegations and still hasn’t quite repaired its reputation following the prolific sexual abuse of MSU physician Larry Nassar.
For Mel Tucker, however, a championship-level coach with nearly 30 years of experience under his belt—and a hefty paycheck to boot—this may be new territory.
The complaint against Tucker originates from rape survivor and well-known activist Brenda Tracy, who was invited to the University in August 2021 to help educate athletes on sexual violence in sports. Tracy, who was gang-raped by four college football players in 1998, attended MSU several times over the next eight months and worked closely with Coach Tucker to promote her nonprofit’s mission of ending sexual violence across college campuses.
However, their friendship ended abruptly when Tracy filed a Title IX complaint with Michigan State University in December 2022, accusing its head coach of sexual misconduct—the very thing they’d been fighting against.
According to the allegations, in April 2022, Coach Tucker engaged in non-consensual phone sex with Tracy, who described Tucker as making sexual comments to her while masturbating – an act that she says reopened decades-old wounds and left her frozen and immobilized by her past sexual trauma.
Tucker doesn’t refute that the conversation happened. He does, however, insist the incident was “entirely mutual” and accuses Tracy of both initiating and provoking the conversation. He further asserts that Tracy repeatedly accepted gifts in a relationship that had turned intimate.
Tracy maintains that any perceived romance was one-sided. But whether or not that’s true isn’t the point. A romantic relationship doesn’t buy the rights to an unconsensual sexual encounter any more than a gift eliminates the need for consent. Just because one side claims it was mutual doesn’t mean it was.
The problem here, like for many other sexual harassment and assault cases, is that this encounter was private. It happened after hours, between two individuals, with no other witnesses present; a scenario that could make it difficult for an employer like MSU to determine what actually happened.
Difficult, but not impossible.
Michigan State University’s Title IX code tracks with federal law, which defines sexual harassment as any unwanted or unwelcome sexual advance that interferes with a victim’s right to education or participation in a particular program or activity. This language is on par with Michigan’s Civil Rights Act, which protects individuals from similarly hostile behavior at work, home and school.
When a complaint arises under either statute, investigators must look at the context surrounding an incident to determine whether or not an action rose to the level of sexual harassment. The events and communications—both before and after an alleged incident—can often tell investigators much about what likely happened behind closed doors.
This brings us to perhaps the most damning evidence in Tracy’s complaint — Tucker canceled one of her scheduled engagements with the team following the alleged sexual harassment. If this were, as Tracy claims, a direct result of the alleged harassment, then Tracy would likely be entitled to specific Title IX protections designed to shield victims from retaliation.
Arguments for both sides will be heard at a formal hearing, currently slated to begin on October 5, 2023.
At Sommers Schwartz, we stand behind Brenda Tracy’s efforts to fight the pandemic of sexual violence across college campuses. If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted by a coach or colleague at school or work, we want to help. Shareholder Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller is a seasoned and aggressive sexual assault attorney who understands the need for sensitivity and compassion when handling these types of cases. Contact our offices today for a free, 100% confidential, consultation. We want to hear your story and obtain the justice you deserve.
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Lisa Esser-Weidenfeller focuses her practice on medical malpractice, automobile negligence, and general negligence litigation on behalf injured plaintiffs.