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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)

 

CLEMSON — On the afternoon of Feb. 5, Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, stood in a courtroom in Eaton County, Michigan, and listened to a judge sentence him. Again.

Forty to 125 years in prison were what he was facing for abusing dozens of young women for years under the guise of treatment. About two weeks earlier, a judge in Ingham County, Mich., had already delivered Nassar up to 175 years in prison for the abuse.

The nation watched, reactions on social media ranging from disbelief to disgust.

About 750 miles to the southeast, in Upstate South Carolina, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich was one of those people keeping up with the case. As a prominent figure in college athletics, Radakovich wanted to follow what happened and — more importantly — how it all happened, slipping through the cracks for so long.

The next morning, on Feb. 6, Radakovich called an emergency meeting with every member of Clemson's athletic department. He enlisted the help of campus police, Clemson's Title IX coordinator and the director of university compliance, as well, to have an open conversation about sexual abuse and reporting mechanisms. Wanting to avoid at all costs a similar situation under his own watch, the emergency meeting was mandatory, and it was one of several steps Clemson has taken in an effort to guard against sexual assault in college athletics.

It wasn't a new topic of conversation. Every year in September, Radakovich calls this all-staff meeting. But the Nassar news prompted him to immediately add another. He wanted to make sure his employees were clear about expectations.

"We felt it was really important with the news that came out about Nassar to make sure we're remind our staff, 'Hey, if you see something, you say something,'" said Natalie Honnen, Clemson's associate athletic director for student-athlete services and performance.

"That's something that we quickly did when everything broke out at Michigan State because one of the things that was very telling was obviously what happened, but also the fact that people weren't reporting what they saw or heard or was brought up. We thought that was really important. If something's going on, we want to report it and it's going to be investigated."

In the meeting, Radakovich reminded his staff of both internal and external resources Clemson has put into place, and decided he wanted to resend a document to his student athletes called "Reporting Resources" to remind them of their options, as well.

For about three years, Clemson has enlisted the help of the Dan Beebe Group, an external consulting group the former Big 12 commissioner runs to help train college athletic departments, and one of the areas the group specializes in is sexual abuse.

The Dan Beebe Group coincidentally had its annual visit to Clemson scheduled for Feb. 5-8, and, naturally, the Nassar news shifted more of the conversation toward sexual assault.

In part because of the group's feedback, Clemson has hired a female doctor to add to its sports medicine team. She started July 1.

Additionally, Clemson had the U.S. Council For Athletes' Health come evaluate its sports medicine practices this summer, though the university said that was less about sexual assault and more about common practices in terms of wrapping ankles or rehabilitating injured athletes under the umbrella of general care. Radakovich declined to share what kind of specific feedback Clemson received from that particular external review but indicated it was positive.

Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault advocate who started to speak to athletics programs after she was gang-raped in 1998 by four men, two of whom were Oregon State football players, praised Clemson for being proactive in terms of trying to avoid abuse. But she did caution that no school, including Clemson, is immune.

"Response is obviously great. We have to respond to things that hold people accountable, we have to make sure we have resources that help for survivors, but at some point, we have to not just respond but we have to prevent so we don't have to respond," Tracy said. "The new way of thinking needs to be, 'Yes, these things happen here and here's what we're doing to respond to it and prevent it.' It's time for schools to be transparent. It's time for schools to be upfront that everyone has a problem."

As Clemson moves forward into another athletic year under Radakovich, the staff will meet again in September for its regularly scheduled program and will continue to educate both its staff and its athletes about a topic ingrained in today's culture.

Radakovich is not so naive to think that Clemson is invincible from what happened at Michigan State. "Bad actors," he said, can be anywhere. But that doesn't mean he's not going to try.

"I guess it was Ronald Reagan who said, 'Trust but verify,'" Radakovich said. "We have a great team here. We have resources from the institution. But we're kind of nestled up here in the northwestern part of South Carolina and we would be foolish to think that some of the things that happen around the country couldn't happen.

"Let's take the pieces that we feel like are important for us and put them into place."

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