The Mel Tucker Mess: From Investigation to Termination
Michigan State University is once again in the spotlight for an investigation into one of its staff members. Ever since ex-athletic trainer Larry Nassar was at the focal point of an intense sexual harassment case almost a decade ago, MSU has found itself in a similar situation with former football coach Mel Tucker. The case involves Tucker and Brenda Tracy, a sexual violence advocate. Both of them promoted the handling and prevention of sexual assault to MSU collegiate athletes, mainly within its football program.
Mel Tucker signed a ten-year, $95 million contract with MSU in February 2020. One year later, the school contracted Tracey to educate student-athletes on dealing with sexual misconduct. Tracy involved herself with MSU’s football team the most, becoming close with Tucker professionally. Over the eight months of their relationship, Tucker and Tracy met and spoke to each other on several occasions. Tracey soon noticed, though, that Tucker had other intentions. According to her, Tucker had developed a one-sided “romantic interest.” Contrastingly, Tucker claims that there was a joint desire to romanticize. After repeated discussions of maintaining a platonic partnership, this mutual understanding was upended soon after. During a phone call on April 28, 2022, Tucker made frequent inappropriate comments about himself and Tracy and proceeded to masturbate on the phone. Tucker claims that the interaction was consensual and that Tracy “unequivocally” initiated the incident. Tracy denies this stance and promotes that Tucker acted independently, admitting she heard “moaning and groaning” and “some kind of lubrication” over the phone.
In December 2022, Tracy filed a Title IX complaint form to MSU, and Tucker was notified appropriately afterward. He and his attorneys have been dubious of the authenticity of the investigation ever since it launched, describing it as "terribly flawed, unfair, biased, and devoid of due process." To spearhead the investigation, MSU hired Rebecca Veidlinger, a prominent Title IX attorney who has worked within Title IX offices at multiple colleges. Beginning in January 2023, the investigation consisted of interviews with Tracy and Tucker, as well as six witnesses. All of the six witnesses and Tracy were interviewed by the end of the month, but Tucker refused until March of that year. Between January and March, Tucker and his attorney, Jennifer Belveal, sought to end the investigation and suggested a settlement agreement to Tracy’s attorney, Karen Truszkowski, twice but to no avail.
After Tucker’s interview concluded in March, Veidlinger received polar admissions. Tucker did admit to having “phone sex” on April 28 but insisted it was consensual. He also claimed that he was not in Florida during the call but instead in East Lansing; however, official records show he was in Florida for the call, attending an “administrative” fundraising trip. The most surprising allegation, though, involved ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne and Tracy’s traumatic background. Tucker said an associate told him that Lavigne was looking into Tracy’s gang rape story, making him hesitant about how Tracy “goes about her business.” Lavigne denied this allegation, writing that she was “perplexed” by the claim and that Tracy had never been the target of an investigation.
Nonetheless, Veildlinger finished her investigation in July 2023, submitting her 106-page report to the school. The report did not include a finding of fault and instead referred the case to be sent to a hearing, which was held on October 5, and would determine if Tucker violated MSU’s sexual harassment policies. Before the hearing, however, MSU decided on Tucker’s future. On September 10, 2023, not even a day after a USA Today report detailed the allegations and investigation publically for the first time, MSU suspended Tucker without pay. Nine days later, MSU announced plans to fire Tucker for cause amid the investigation and potential sexual misconduct, allowing him seven days to present reasons as to why he should not be terminated for cause.
Tucker and his lawyer's response, released on September 26, detailed how MSU had no basis to fire him for cause and also gave “point-by-point” reasons why the school was not justified in firing Tucker, inquired about the investigation's veracity, and criticized MSU for its mishandling of confidentiality. MSU fired Tucker the day after, feeling that Tucker’s reasons were “a litany of excuses” and “[didn’t] provide any information” to refute the school's reasoning for termination. The firing also means that MSU doesn’t have to pay Tucker the remaining amount on his contract, denying him the roughly $80 million he was supposed to make through 2032.
With much surprise, Tucker was not present for the scheduled sexual harassment hearing on October 5, roughly three weeks after he called the hearing a “sham.” The hearing was intended for both Tucker and Tracy and their legal teams to present evidence and make arguments regarding their sides of the story.
Tucker’s legal counsel instead sent an eight-page letter to the MSU administration, claiming Tucker could not appear due to a “serious medical condition,” with the nature of the condition not being disclosed. The excusal letter was part of a much larger 106-page document that Tucker's legal team claims to include “new evidence” regarding Tracy’s true motivation and critiques of the investigation. More than 20,000 “new communications” were contained in the letter, most of which were text messages between Tracy and her late assistant, Ahlan Alvarado. Belveal claims that the document shows how Tracy manipulated a witness, deleted key evidence in the form of texts, and went through with the investigation for financial gain. The document shows that Tracy texted, “Money is my only recourse to make him feel like there is a punishment" to Alvardo. Not only was the document an attempt to besmirch Tracy, but also the school itself. It criticized MSU’s handling of the investigation for its inability to gather certain text messages and for overstepping its boundaries by invading Tucker’s personal life.
As for Tracy’s initial reactions, she was astounded by the information, saying how the document “put out more lies and mischaracterizations” into an already sprawling case. MSU’s reactions were ambiguous, as they declined to comment directly. The only response was from a spokesperson for MSU, Emily Guerrant, who told reporters that “the university will not comment on details related to [the investigation].” Tucker and his counsel have also been working on a wrongful termination lawsuit that asserts MSU was unjustified for firing Tucker for cause.
The result of the hearing will be determined by outside attorney Amanda Ames through a written report to MSU, which must be completed by October 25. Ames will take into judgment the seventh-month investigation and hearing to decide if Tucker violated school policy regarding sexual harassment. The shocking letter that came forward during the hearing will have great weight on Ames’ eventual conclusion and has already spawned new doubts about the truth in both Tucker and Tracy’s allegations. It has also generated even more inquiry into MSU’s handling and execution of the investigation, which has garnered it both unwanted publicity and administrative hesitancy.
This event overall has generated conversation about MSU and its inauspicious history of scandals in recent years. The most disgracing one was the aforementioned Larry Nassar incident that plagued the school during the mid-2010s. Rachael Denhollander, a victim of Nassar, said about the Tucker case that, “It’s a repeat of 2014… [MSU is] using victim protection to cover their own ignorance, and that’s nonsense.” These opinions come from the fact that confidential information was published in a USA Today article, making people question how MSU handles highly sensitive information. Guerrant said about the unfortunate exposure that “we [MSU] are dismayed to learn the confidentiality was broken in this case.” From Nassar to Tucker, for a school to have two major investigations of sexual misconduct within a decade is objectively hurtful to its public image. Furthermore, for privileged information to be mishandled in both cases only highlights potential procedural deficiencies that seriously afflict MSU and its administration. The next phase for MSU during this media siege is intensely foggy, and as for Tucker and Tracy, their futures are even more ambivalent.