I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
In November, USA TODAY reported that Louisiana State University had a culture of covering up sexual misconduct allegations. The university denied it.
In December, we reported that LSU knew about its failings as far back as 2018. But did nothing to correct it.
In January, we sued for an internal LSU report from 2013 regarding accusations that the head football coach at the time, Les Miles, had sexually harassed and made sexist comments about female student workers. LSU fought us.
Then, in rapid fashion early this month, two reports emerged.
On March 4, we won the fight for the Miles report, which concluded he used inappropriate behavior with female students.
On March 5, LSU released an investigation by the law firm Husch Blackwell that found a systemic failure to properly report and investigate allegations of sexual misconduct. The university had hired the firm to look into the school’s handling of such complaints after our November investigation.
Husch Blackwell’s lead investigator said USA TODAY’s findings, from reporter Kenny Jacoby, columnist Nancy Armour and freelancer Jessica Luther, were “pretty spot on.”
The fallout from those revelations was swift.
Interim LSU President Tom Galligan announced last week the suspension of two employees for their roles in the university’s failures.
On Monday, the University of Kansas “parted ways” with Miles, who had been coaching there since 2018. On Wednesday, Kansas athletics director Jeff Long, the man who hired Miles, stepped down as well.
At the same time, Louisiana lawmakers and student survivors grilled Galligan for hours over his decision not to fire anyone.
And former LSU president F. King Alexander, now the president at Oregon State, is facing tough questions about his role in keeping the 2013 report quiet and keeping Miles employed. He released a letter Monday saying in part, “I now regret that we did not take stronger action earlier against coach Miles, including suspension leading to further investigation and dismissal for violations of university policy.”
The frustrating part, says investigative editor Emily Le Coz, is that “so many people have said in the wake of the reporting, ‘well, yeah, everybody knew that this was happening at LSU,’ but nobody reported it.
“And nobody reported it because it was normalized. Like you’re not going to report that the grass is green, it’s just a given. That’s where the problem lies, that things have become so normalized that it takes shaking somebody out of that paradigm to help them understand how wrong it was.”
That’s where investigative reporting comes in.
USA TODAY’s probe into LSU began shortly after our December 2019 publication of Predator Pipeline, an investigation that showed that even when expelled, suspended or criminally convicted for sexual offenses, student athletes can transfer to other NCAA schools and return to the field in a year or less.
A parent of an LSU student called Jacoby after reading Predator Pipeline. He said his daughter had been abused and the school was covering it up. We began looking into it. Other tips followed.
But it was not an easy process. We sued for police reports and were denied. We sent questions to LSU that were never answered. We began to reach out to the women, who were difficult to find and scared to talk.
“We didn’t have records or phone (numbers) of a lot of the women involved in these cases,” Armour said. “So a lot of trying to make contact has been an exercise in old-school reporting. We’re sending them messages via Instagram or calling random phone numbers that we’ve got no idea if they’re legit.”
And once found, we worked to gain their trust.
“There’s a reluctance on the part of the women to talk,” Armour said. “So there’s been a lot of having to make good-faith efforts to show the women that we are not just here to wade through your life for the sake of a story. We have greater intentions.”
Le Coz said many of the women told the reporters they were afraid to share their stories not just because of the personal nature of what happened, or the potential to relive trauma, “but fear of retaliation, that the culture at LSU was so toxic and retaliatory that they legitimately were afraid to speak out because they thought that they would be attacked.
“People are fervent fans of the football team, and anybody who speaks ill of the football team just braces for the backlash.”
Ultimately, we were able to gather the information we needed to show that LSU didn’t investigate reported sexual misconduct, ignored complaints against abusers and denied victims’ requests for protections.
“We discovered that this was not just an athletics problem, but this was a problem throughout the university,” Jacoby said.
From there, LSU hired law firm Husch Blackwell to look into the reports. In early February, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into LSU’s compliance with federal campus safety laws
The Husch Blackwell report found LSU’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints was a “serious institutional failure.” Problems included campus leaders who never fully funded or staffed the office responsible for investigating claims and, ultimately, left students at risk by not recognizing abuse victims’ trauma.
The report also referenced and expanded upon LSU’s 2013 internal investigation into Les Miles by law firm Taylor Porter.
According to that investigation: “Les Miles was accused of texting female students, taking them to his condo alone, making them feel uncomfortable and, on at least one occasion, kissing a student and suggesting they go to a hotel after telling her he could help her career,” we reported.
The report also revealed accusations that Miles wanted female students who assisted in recruiting to be attractive, blonde and fit, and those who weren’t would be given fewer hours or terminated.
Miles denied the allegations to investigators, said he did not kiss the student and said he was a mentor to young women at the university.
“As a result of the investigation’s findings, LSU issued Miles a letter of reprimand and required him to sign forms stating that he had read and understood the school’s policies,” our reporters found. “The university also ordered him to stop hiring student employees to babysit, cease being alone with them, and attend eight, one-hour sessions with an attorney and pay for it out of his own pocket.”
“The investigation … did not find that Miles had sexual relationships with any of the women,” we reported. “But it found his behavior inappropriate.”
The Husch Blackwell report additionally detailed that LSU’s athletic director at the time wanted to fire Miles. Instead, the university kept its head coach on until 2016, when he was fired after a 2-2 season start.
The report outlined 18 recommendations to fix the problems.
“We’re not the first people to make recommendations to you,” Scott Schneider, who conducted the investigation, told LSU’s Board of Supervisors. The report noted five different reviews of LSU’s Title IX policies done in the last five years, all finding problems.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “… if this report is given to you and we don’t implement these recommendations, the same ills we discussed throughout the report will just continue to repeat themselves.”
Our reporters will continue their work. At LSU, and at other universities where similar stories continue to emerge.
“We can’t stop now,” said sports investigative editor Peter Barzilai. “It’s not done as long as there are more people coming out with new stories and new allegations and implicating new people. We’ll keep going at it. The credit goes to the reporters, because they’re the ones who keep uncovering new information.”
Indeed, at Wednesday’s meeting in Baton Rouge, where state legislators were grilling the interim LSU president, Jacoby was once again there, covering the 10-hour hearing.
About six hours in, an official stopped and called out USA TODAY, saying they wouldn’t be there without Jacoby and his team. Everyone on the dais applauded.
Even interim president Galligan, on the hot seat much of day, told Jacoby afterward, “Your work, it’s made a heck of a difference. I mean, the progress that we’re going to make, it’s you.
“If you hadn’t put it all in one place – thank you.”
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Nicole Carroll is editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.