BY ANNA GUSTAFSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE
MICHIGAN—Danielle Moore knows what it means to stand up to a powerful abuser.
She knows what it means to live through trauma, what it means when some people refuse to believe that trauma, what it means to have to recall that trauma day in and day out – in front of the abuser, in front of a sea of people, in front of a judge.
Moore was 13 years old when Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and ex-USA Gymnastics doctor convicted of raping patients for decades, began abusing her.
“He broke me; he stole my innocence and exploited it for his own sick satisfaction; all aspects of my young life were torn apart,” Moore said in the victim impact statement she read during Nassar’s 2018 trial that ended in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentencing the former doctor to up to 175 years in prison.
Now, Moore has a doctorate in clinical psychology and serves on the board of The Army of Survivors, an advocacy group with a mission of ending sexual assault against young athletes.
Which is to say: Moore knows how to survive.
But that trauma that began when she was 13 years old remains – and, as sexual violence survivors explain time and again, will forever be a part of her life. There are times when the pain is more potent than others, as has been the case in the past couple of days. On Sunday, USA Today published a story about Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and prominent advocate who has dedicated her life to educating people about sexual violence, filing a complaint with Michigan State University’s Title IX office accusing the school’s head football coach, Mel Tucker, of sexually harassing her.
The complaint was filed in December 2022. University leadership suspended Tucker without pay on Sunday, about nine months after the complaint was filed with MSU and within hours of the publication of USA Today’s story.
Tracy’s lawyer, Karen Truszkowski, on Tuesday released a statement that “an outside party disclosed Brenda Tracy’s identity to local media, which led to the USA Today story. Brenda Tracy had no intention of publicly disclosing her identity.”
For survivors like herself, Moore explained, the Tucker story emerging at Michigan State University – a place where school leadership failed to respond to complaints about Nassar beginning as early as 1997 – was yet another example of “institutional failure.”
“It’s been five, almost six, years since sentencing [of Nassar] – plenty of time to put more protections in place,” Moore said in an interview with the Advance on Monday. “It’s hard to see a survivor be victimized again. That’s trauma after trauma.
“It’s hard because it brings up, at least for myself, that institutional retraumatization,” Moore continued. “When you go to report an incident like this, and you’re hoping the institution is going to help and support you and that doesn’t happen – that’s another trauma. That’s another huge blow. It makes you question, ‘Where do I turn?’ It does not help with that shame and guilt, feeling as though somebody is not believing you. It increases those feeling as well, which is a huge part of trauma within sexual assault and harassment.”
Tracy’s complaint stated that on April 28, 2022, Tucker made sexual comments to her and masturbated while the two were on a phone call, according to the USA Today investigation. Beginning in 2021, Tucker invited Tracy to campus three times as part of her advocacy work combating a culture of sexual violence in sports. The founder of the nonprofit Set the Expectation, Tracy travels the country to share her story of surviving a gang rape by four football players when she was 24 years old.
“The idea that someone could know me and say they understand my trauma but then re-inflict that trauma on me is so disgusting to me; it’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” Tracy told USA Today. “It’s like he sought me out just to betray me.”
On Monday, Tucker released a lengthy statement that said “Tracy’s allegations of harassment are completely false” and said the phone call Tracy cites in her complaint was consensual.
“While I am saddened by Ms. Tracy’s disclosure of the sensitive nature of this call, let me be perfectly clear — it was an entirely mutual, private event between two adults living at opposite ends of the country,” Tucker said in his statement.
Tracy responded to Tucker’s statement on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“This is just more of the same DARVO, deflection, victim blaming and lies that I’ve been dealing with now for months,” Tracy wrote. DARVO stands for “deny, attack and reverse victim and offender.”
Tucker, who signed a $95 million contract with MSU and has been one of the highest paid college football coaches in the country, is expected to face a university hearing on Oct. 5 and 6.
Other survivors of sexual violence, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have spoken out about Tracy’s story.
“As a survivor, I’m shocked,” said Whitmer, who first shared her story of being raped as a college freshman during a 2013 floor speech while she was Senate minority leader.
“As a Spartan, I’m disappointed,” Whitmer continued in a prepared statement released on Monday. “As governor, I want answers.”
“I know the pain that so many feel when allegations like this come to light because I live it too,” Whitmer said. “It’s retraumatizing. MSU holds a special place in so many of our hearts — which is what makes this hurt more.”
The governor went on to say that the public deserves “to know when the university knew about these allegations and why they made the decisions they did.
“We need to ensure that one of our state’s flagship universities, one that carries so much weight around the world, is learning from the past and not recreating it,” Whitmer said.
“Spartans, survivors, and Michiganders — we deserve better,” the governor concluded.
Tracy’s complaint was filed with MSU in December 2022, at which time the Board of Trustees said they were made aware of the complaint.
“The MSU Board of Trustees was notified in December 2022 that there was a complaint filed against Mel Tucker,” the board and MSU interim President Teresa Woodruff said in a prepared statement issued late Monday evening. “The MSU Administration did not provide the Board details of the allegation or the identity of the claimant at any time during the ongoing investigation, following MSU protocol and best practices for RVSM [relationship violence and sexual misconduct]-related cases. Further, the Board was advised that appropriate interim and personnel measures regarding Mel Tucker were put into place at that time. The Board found out greater details surrounding the case via the media stories breaking on Sept. 10.
“In accordance with state law, Trustees are provided final reports of Title IX and RVSM matters pertaining to employees once the entire case resolution and all appeals processes are completed,” the statement continued. “The investigation involving Mel Tucker is still ongoing.”
At a Sunday press conference at MSU, Woodruff said Tracy’s complaint and the USA Today story “might sound like the MSU of old.
“It was not,” the interim president continued. “It is not because an independent, unbiased investigation is and continues to be conducted. That investigative process is not complete.That process will not be complete until there is a hearing and a final decision. It is not the MSU of old because we maintain the confidence of the claimant and respondent while respecting and valuing the claimant’s and respondent’s right to share their story.”
But it is that sentiment – that this is “not the MSU of old” – that survivors said rings deeply false to them. Moore cited the school’s ongoing refusal to release about 6,000 documents involving the Nassar case.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office has for years attempted to get MSU to turn over thousands of unredacted documents related to the Nassar case; trustees have claimed they have attorney-client privilege regarding the documents and have refused to make them public. Survivors have said making the documents public could play an instrumental role in their healing and in holding MSU accountable for what transpired during Nassar’s tenure at the university. The school’s refusal to do so led to survivors in July filing a lawsuit against the university.
Less than two days before the USA Today story was published, Nassar survivors had again urged MSU trustees to release the thousands of documents during the board’s meeting.
“Just 48 hours prior to [MSU’s Sunday press conference], the MSU Board shot down Nassar survivors’ request to release those 6,000 documents,” Moore said. “By releasing those documents, it could be very healing and it could mean that the university could learn from its mistakes.”
However, instead of learning from the past, Moore said the university is only repeating its mistakes. Hearing the interim president make her remarks that this is not the MSU of old “was really gut wrenching,” Moore said.
“Are they just saving face by saying these statements like, the MSU of today, not the MSU of the past?” Moore asked.
“Why are we still here, talking?” Hayes asked during Friday’s meeting. “We need you to step up for the sister survivors. We need to know justice was done, and everyone has been held accountable.”
During Friday’s meeting, MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar told the survivors who spoke that she wants to “commend you on your bravery.
“To hear all of your stories, and to hear all your concerns, over and over and over again, is heart-breaking to me,” Vassar said. “I’m doing my best. I hear you. And I’m doing my best.”
Numerous other survivors took to social media to wield vehement criticism of MSU’s handling of Tracy’s complaint.
Rachael Denhollander, the first person to pursue criminal charges against Nassar, wrote on X that the university put “the survivor in a position where speaking publicly was the only option to stopping [Tucker].”
“After she did, he gets suspended,” Denhollander wrote. “Not because of the investigation … Because people found out. Explain to me exactly how this isn’t the same MSU?”
Kaylee Lorincz, another Nassar survivor, also wrote that “this is still the ‘old’ MSU, no matter how many times the interim president felt the need to say it isn’t.”
“Covering up the 6,000 documents, and now this cover up,” Lorincz wrote. “MSU continues to hurt victims over and over again.”
Set the Expectations, Tracy’s nonprofit, also spoke of victims being harmed.
“Our nonprofit knows, with unblinking clarity, the immense challenge of coming forward as a survivor of sexual misconduct or violence,” the nonprofit wrote on social media.
“When people come forward to report misconduct, assault and/or violence, they deserve compassion, protection and empathy,” the nonprofit continued. “Instead, survivors are more often met with skepticism, victim-blaming, threats of violence, and personal attacks.”
Ultimately, Moore said, MSU must stop “prioritizing the winning and the money over the individual.
“That’s a huge problem, and that’s probably blocking a lot of people not only from coming forward but from their cases being heard and believed,” Moore said.
“We saw that with the Nassar case,” she continued. “The first report was in 1997. If that individual was believed, I never would have been seen by Nassar. To stop this type of behavior, it needs to be stopped at that first report.”
This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.