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Suit: MSU's Dantonio Ignored Warnings About Recruit

Paul Steinbach

A court deposition from August made public Thursday indicates that Michigan State University head football coach Mark Dantonio ignored warnings that a recruit had a troubling history of sexual misconduct. The player, Auston Robertson, joined the Spartans, but was kicked off the team in April 2017 amid allegations he raped a teammate's girlfriend. Last December, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading to a lesser charge.

As reported by The Detroit News, the deposition under oath of former MSU recruiting director Curtis Blackwell claims that three football staff members, including defensive tackles coach and former defensive line coach Ron Burton, and current quarterbacks coach and former offensive coordinator Dave Warner, warned Dantonio that Robertson presented serious problems, before Dantonio green-lighted the signing anyway. Robertson faced previous sexual misconduct claims in his home state of Indiana, and was kicked off his high school football team and barred from stepping foot on his high school campus during his senior year in Fort Wayne.

In his deposition, Blackwell also accuses Dantonio of working with the academic office to get Robertson admitted, despite a substandard academic record, the News reported.

As reported by ESPN, Blackwell is suing Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis, former university president Lou Anna Simon and two university police officers for wrongful termination and unlawful arrest. Blackwell claims in the court records filed Thursday that he was made a scapegoat amid fallout from sexual misconduct allegations against then-freshman Spartan players Donnie Corley, Demetric Vance and Josh King in early 2017. Shortly thereafter, Blackwell was suspended and his year-to-year contract with the football program was not renewed later that year, with Dantonio citing "philosophical differences." Blackwell was not charged with a crime.

Michigan State hired the Jones Day law firm to review how the institution and athletic department leaders responded to the sexual assault allegations. Blackwell declined to speak with Jones Day's investigators, who concluded that Blackwell broke school policy by not properly reporting what he knew about the alleged sexual assault. The Jones Day report cleared Dantonio and all other Michigan State employees of any wrongdoing.

"It seems as though Michigan State used Jones Day to clear the football staff of any wrongdoing and make it all look as if I was the only person that did anything wrong," Blackwell says in his deposition. Blackwell also states that he witnessed defensive line coach Ron Burton tell Dantonio that he didn't want Robertson to be on the same campus as his daughter: "So for Ron Burton to say it was that bad that he didn't want his daughter around him, I knew he had some real serious sexual issues."

Dantonio said in a statement when Robertson was dismissed that the school had vetted him using "all resources available to us to thoroughly review his situation."

"We've never intentionally brought a guy in here where I say, 'Hey, that guy is going to be a bad guy,'" Dantonio told reporters at a news conference in June 2017. "Obviously, we took a risk as we said earlier, and vetted the young man."

According to ESPN, Robertson was charged with misdemeanor battery during his senior year of high school after police said he "rubbed and grabbed" a female classmate's groin against her will in the school's lobby. The female student told police Robertson had also harassed or touched her inappropriately on two other occasions. Robertson, who had also been arrested on vandalism charges months earlier, was kicked off the high school's football team and banned from the high school's campus while Michigan State was recruiting him.

Moreover, police reports and court documents show that Robertson was involved in a string of incidents in which he was accused of sexual violence and two forceful rape attempts during his high school years. He was not charged with crimes in any of those cases. A university spokeswoman said in 2018 that the school was not aware of any of those incidents when Robertson was accepted as a student.

But Blackwell claims the red flags were in plain sight during the vetting process, and once Robertson was at Michigan State and accusations of rape had been made public, university officials attempted to frame the sexual assault incidents around the football program as recruiting issues and to pin blame on him. "I got blamed," Blackwell says in the deposition. "It became Curtis Blackwell's decision to bring Auston Robertson to campus, when we all know the head coach made the decision to bring him on. He overrode everyone else to bring him on campus."

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