Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sports peers help Izzo, Michigan State navigate campus tragedy

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Tom Izzo scanned the faces of the Michigan State basketball players gathered in the basement of his home, searching for an idea about how to proceed on a Tuesday unlike any other in his four-plus decades of coaching.

In some of them, he saw fear. In others, nothing. Scariest of all, Izzo says, some of those faces stared back with the emotionally unmoored expressions of young men who didn’t know how to feel. Despite his experience reading players and providing them with what they need to keep moving, Izzo says he felt lost as well. The best thing he could do in that moment, he says, was be honest.

“I have no blueprint,” Izzo recalls telling his team on the morning of Feb. 14. “I didn’t try to make them think I knew what I was doing. I said I’m learning. I’m working through it.”

Less than 12 hours earlier, Michigan State’s campus remained on lockdown as five different police departments joined forces to find the 43-year-old gunman who at 8:15 p.m. opened fire in a classroom building and then again at the student union. Three students — Brian Fraser, Alexandria Verner and Arielle Anderson — were killed, five others were injured and some 50,000 more were robbed of the sense of security that a past generation of college students used to take for granted.

Izzo traded more than a dozen phone calls that night with Garrett Briningstool, the team’s chief of staff, while waiting on updates from the university. After making sure their players and staff were safe, the two men turned to crafting a plan for the unprecedented days ahead. They knew campus would be closed the following day, so Izzo asked Briningstool to coordinate a lunch meeting at his house. The only thing Izzo says he knew for sure on Monday night was that he needed to see his team face-to-face.

Coaches, administrators and mental health experts say there is no universal prescription for delivering the proper response to what was once an unthinkable situation. When should athletes return to competition? What roles should sports play in helping a campus community heal in the wake of a school shooting?

While the answers aren’t always clear, Michigan State’s athletic department crafted an organized and empathetic response in the week following the shooting. Its effectiveness was due in part to the advice that poured into East Lansing from experts and peers who learned from similar experiences at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and Virginia.

Since 2007, eight college campuses have had school shootings that killed at least three people. At least 75 primary or high schools have had active shooter incidents in the same timespan. Each passing tragedy expands the network of those who have learned how to navigate their aftermath — from arranging for mental health resources to deciding when to return to prior routines to producing apparel that helps raise funds for victims. It might not be a blueprint or a playbook with the level of specificity that coaches prefer, but many corners of American society have done this often enough that they now know the best ways to help. As Michigan State showed in the month since its shooting, sports are no different.

Nick Richey was at Meijer, a grocery store in Lansing, finishing some last-minute Valentine’s Day shopping shortly before 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, when the first text message from campus police hit his phone: MSU Police report shots fired incident occurring on or near the East Lansing campus. Secure-in-Place immediately …

Richey, the Spartan men’s basketball team’s athletic trainer, snapped into action as his mind flashed back to April 16, 2007.

Back then, Richey was an assistant athletic trainer at Notre Dame and was driving through the South Side of Chicago on his way to a job interview at the University of Illinois when he heard the news on the radio. A student at Virginia Tech had killed 33 people, including himself, in a dormitory and a classroom building in what was then the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Richey had finished his graduate degree at Virginia Tech two years earlier, marrying his wife while there and building relationships with athletes who were still on campus. It’s where he met his mentor, Mike Goforth, who still works as the Hokies’ associate athletic director for sports medicine.

Inside the grocery store, as his phone buzzed with the first replies from Michigan State players, Richey thought about the conversations he had with Goforth about the shooting in Blacksburg.

“One of the things that Mike always really harped on after that was having a quick and reliable way to try and make sure that we could get ahold of our kids,” he said. “I wasn’t at Virginia Tech [during the shooting]. But I was fortunate enough to be able to listen and learn from Mike after he went through it.”

In 2007 at Virginia Tech, then-basketball coach Seth Greenberg knew what classes his players took and what dorms they lived in, but it took an anxiety-filled 1½ hours for his staff to make sure they were safe back when cell phone messaging was not as advanced.

Richey and Michigan State had a faster system in place. He and Briningstool began locating their players through a team-wide group chat. A message was sent out at 8:35 pm. Within seven minutes, he and the Spartan staff had confirmed the well-being of each of their players.

Izzo woke Tuesday morning to a phone filled with messages of support. One of his first calls came from Greenberg. The longtime friends spoke for nearly an hour. Greenberg started by asking Izzo about his son, a senior at Michigan State. Greenberg’s daughter was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007. Then he relived the cold, blustery April day that he’ll never forget and tried to prepare his friend for what was coming next.

Greenberg’s season was over by the time he had to help his players find a way forward. After calling their parents, Greenberg relayed a university decision that gave all Virginia Tech students the option to go home not long before final exams. But first, he would ask them all the pertinent questions: Are you OK mentally, physically and emotionally? And if not, do you need someone to talk to?

“We did it by feel,” said Greenberg when asked whom he leaned on for advice at the time.

Virginia Tech offered mental health services to students on campus, and many of Greenberg’s players took the school up on the offer to head home. Coleman Collins, then a senior forward, remembers sticking around for about a week, but he says he couldn’t go anywhere without coming across a caravan of news vehicles, idling reminders of a chaotic day. He left for New York City and didn’t return until graduation the following month.

Greenberg recalls the relief that many players found by returning to the gym on campus and feeling a sense of routine again. Early on the Tuesday morning after Michigan State’s shooting, he told Izzo that playing again could provide a safe haven of normalcy for his athletes and a chance to temporarily escape for their fanbase. Returning to play, he told his friend, wasn’t about trying to win.

Before they hung up, Greenberg also reminded Izzo that everyone reacts differently in tragic situations and each of his players might need something different from him in the days to come. “You’ve seen it, but you haven’t dealt with it,” says Greenberg, who is now a college basketball analyst at ESPN. “It’s a raw emotion.”

Izzo next joined a Zoom call with Michigan State’s other head coaches and several members of the athletic department. The discussion was led by Dr. Lionel Rosen, a psychiatry professor and former Army captain who has consulted with Spartan sports teams since 1982. Rosen zeroed in on the sentiment Greenberg had shared: Everyone grieves in their own time and in their own way.

The message sank in. When Izzo greeted his players in his basement a couple hours later, he started by telling them that whatever they were feeling was valid.

“I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago,” Izzo said later. “I have a better understanding right now that not everybody processed things the same way.”

Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller was running on nothing but adrenaline by Tuesday afternoon. The former police officer had been on campus until 3 a.m. the previous night in his role as part of the university leadership’s emergency response team. His Tuesday was largely dedicated to making sure all of Michigan State’s athletes had access to the mental health resources they needed.

Haller says he leaned on the advice of MSU psychology professor Rebecca Campbell. With 25 years of experience researching the ways in which authority figures and organizational responses impact survivors of sexual assault and violence, Campbell has helped Haller think through how the athletic department can be prepared to respond to any type of traumatic event since he took the job in September 2021. She told him it was crucial to make sure athletes knew that they had agency and options in deciding when they were ready to return to practice.

Haller decided to meet with each in-season team at least twice — once with coaches and once without — to get a sense of how the athletes were feeling about playing again.

“I made it clear that each student athlete could make their singular decision. You know, if this isn’t the time for you, then we’ll wait,” Haller said. “… This wasn’t a particular situation where I could walk in and say, well, as the leader, we have to do this, this and this. You know, for me, it was important to ask the right questions, or at least ask questions.”

To figure out which questions to ask, Haller sent a message to Carla Williams, his counterpart at the University of Virginia. Three months earlier, Williams had similar discussions with her teams after a student shot four football players, killing three of them as they returned to campus from a class field trip. He said before he could put the phone back in his pocket, Williams responded by saying she was stepping out of a meeting and would call him in a moment.

“I just let her talk,” Haller said. “Most of it was dealing with how to take care of our student-athletes, how to take care of staff and talking a little bit about when you return.”

Williams received a similar call in November from ACC commissioner Jim Phillips. He was the athletic director at Northern Illinois on Valentine’s Day 2008, nearly 15 years before the Michigan State shooting to the day, when a former graduate student entered a lecture hall wearing a utility belt strapped with semi-automatic handguns and ammunition, killing five others and himself.

Haller learned from Williams, who learned from Phillips, who learned from Jim Weaver, then the athletic director at Virginia Tech. Phillips was in the hospital checking on student victims the night of the shooting at Northern Illinois when Weaver called with condolences and advice.

“[Weaver] just said, ‘You have to be strong for others,'” Phillips said. “But he also said, ‘Don’t be afraid to be emotional in front of the student-athletes and the coaches and in front of people because it’s part of your own leadership responsibility to continue to be who you are.'”

Phillips remembered something else he talked about with Weaver: what to do about scheduled games, and about moving on when nothing could seem normal again — when the trauma would last beyond the initial hours and days, when wins and losses didn’t mean much anymore. There was no easy answer, then or now.

At Michigan State, Haller helped the athletic department’s two mental health experts create a schedule that would allow one of them to be on hand for each team’s first practice to monitor players. Throughout the week he checked in with teams to figure out if they wanted to postpone any games or meets. By the end of the day Tuesday, the Spartans men’s basketball team knew it wanted to get back on the floor. They’d make their return on Saturday night with a visit to in-state rival Michigan.

An hour east, in Ann Arbor, Jake Stocker was preparing for Michigan State’s visit. Stocker attended Michigan State for three semesters before graduating from Michigan, where he now works as the athletic department’s director of game presentation and fan experience. He started his Tuesday by sending an email to his bosses with some suggestions on how to welcome the Spartans that weekend.

The poignant moments of silence, the patches on jerseys and the other shows of support that often follow a campus tragedy are the result of careful planning and time-consuming logistics management. Stocker knew he had to move quickly to coordinate a respectful, appropriate greeting for their in-state rival.

Throughout the Big Ten, athletic department officials on several different campuses started discussing how they would recognize the victims of the Michigan State shooting. Justin Doherty, a senior associate athletic director at Wisconsin, said his staff had discussions throughout the week on what to do when the Michigan State men’s hockey team visited campus that weekend. Doherty said there are no hard and fast rules, but in this case they decided to add a pregame moment of silence to show empathy for their friends and colleagues in East Lansing.

“We’re always in touch with our colleagues at other schools,” Doherty said. “Oftentimes, you know what other schools are doing and how other schools are handling things. You’re always watching how, whether it’s pro teams or college teams, handle moments like that. We all, I think, learn from each other.”

At Michigan, Stocker suggested the department print 2,000 T-shirts for students attending the game that would match the shirts Wolverine players were planning to wear during warm-ups. He knew he could rely on a rush order because the team had used the same printing company three months earlier to do something similar when hosting the Virginia men’s basketball team for one of its first games after its campus shooting.

Stocker decided on maize-and-blue shirts — rather than green or white — so that the arena could also provide an escape of normalcy for fans and players once the game began. He took notes on how to balance the show of support with the comfort of routine a year earlier when the football team honored the victims of a shooting at nearby Oxford High School, where a sophomore killed four other students in late November 2021.

“After the Oxford shooting, the UVA shooting, it’s now ‘We know what the minimum of what we’re going to do,’ and our conversations are about: ‘What else can we do? What’s the right thing?'” said Stocker, who has now helped coordinate responses to three different mass shootings in the space of 14 months.

It’s terrible that things like this keep happening, but now we’re at the point where we have to be prepared for it.”

Wednesday morning for Izzo began in his office. He sat across the desk from Matt Larson, the athletic department’s head of communications, carefully parsing the words he wanted to share later that night at a campuswide vigil. He also had to plan the team’s first practice back for that afternoon, but the veteran coach known for sharing his emotions off the cuff wanted to make sure he hit the right notes when addressing the broader community later that night.

For those a few degrees separated from these tragedies, pain often comes in the form of helplessness. Experience has led to improvements here as well, providing a road map for many to act on the impulse to do something helpful.

Izzo learned what impact his words could have last spring, when he was invited to speak to the student body at Oxford High School months after their school’s shooting. He had that meeting in mind when he sought out a way to visit the Michigan State shooting victims in the hospital and in crafting the message he wanted to deliver at the vigil.

For those who aren’t prominent public faces of major universities, opportunities to lend a hand usually include donating money. Here, too, trial and error through decades of similar tragedies have made it easier to satiate the desire to help. Michigan State put systems in place to organize donations, and systems on top of those systems to root out scammers and prevent unintended burdens that could come from well-intended gestures.

By Wednesday, several GoFundMe pages had generated thousands of dollars for victims and their families. Over the past two years, GoFundMe has created hubs so that donors know where to go for verified pages that can be trusted. There are eight dedicated to Michigan State. Leigh Lehman, director of communications at GoFundMe, said that the hubs were created for moments of natural disaster.

“But as we are seeing more and more of these shootings,” she said, “it has started to serve the exact same function as well.” Lehman said that GoFundMe was in touch with the governor’s office to provide assurances that the Michigan State platforms were safe.

Kim Tobin, the head of MSU’s advancement office, was in the midst of similar logistics with the Spartan Strong Fund, created by the school to provide a simple answer to the hundreds of alumni and fans who were sending emails asking how they could help. The school and the state’s attorney general’s office both worked to vet fundraising efforts, which raised nearly $1 million from more than 4,000 donors in the month after the shooting. They also warned the public about others who had not made it clear how the proceeds of their funds would be used to help victims.

Tobin spoke on Wednesday to Lily West, the head of the University of Virginia’s alumni association, who helped her alma mater sort through similar obstacles last year. West also walked Tobin through the process they used to make sure any money that went to victims at Virginia wouldn’t wipe out financial aid options or cause tax problems for their families — a lesson she says she learned by talking to colleagues from Virginia Tech. When West wrapped up her conversation with Tobin, she said her only request was that Michigan State be prepared to provide the same help to the next campus hit by tragedy.

“It’s gut-wrenching to think about, but it’s the sobering reality,” Tobin said. “I hold my breath thinking about not if, but who, will it be.”

She was among the thousands of Michigan State alumni, students and community members who bundled up against the cold on the Wednesday after the shooting to try to help each other regain their bearings at the vigil. She listened to the words Izzo pieced together carefully earlier that day. He told the crowd it was fine to grieve in any way they needed to grieve. He said that while he knew a basketball game would seem trivial to those more directly impacted by Monday’s shooting, he and his team would be doing their best that week to find a way to help.

On Thursday, Feb. 16, Haller announced that most of Michigan State’s teams would resume playing over the weekend.

The hockey team was traveling to Wisconsin the following day. Baseball and softball were on their way to early-season road trips. The men’s tennis team and the women’s basketball team would host games on campus that Saturday. For Haller, it was now time to figure out how to make sure those events could help the community come together without unintentionally doing anything that might retraumatize students. He once again turned to Campbell, MSU’s resident expert on trauma-informed responses, for help.

Haller and other university officials rewrote the scripts for in-game announcements and entertainment for all its home games. The air compression T-shirt cannon was put away for the year. The public address announcer would warn fans before the starting lineup introductions that the arena lights would be turned off, in case that could trigger a traumatic flashback to being locked down. When the men’s team returned for its first home game, they would line up eight empty seats to acknowledge the victims who either died or were still fighting for their lives. Officials ran the details of each of these decisions past Campbell to make sure they struck a balance between honoring victims and not forcing others to relive or dwell for too long on a traumatizing experience.

“We had ways of talking about [the empty-seat memorial] down to: Where would it be placed in the [student section]? Can we fold the Spartan shirts on the chairs? Would that be OK?” Campbell said. “Every little piece of the normal run-of-show, we walked through and talked through: Keep it. Remove it. Modify it; how would we modify it?”

Campbell said in the blur of phone calls throughout the week, Haller was consistently thinking steps ahead about how to avoid causing any additional harm with each step of the process. In an industry where coaches plan their days in minute-by-minute increments and athletic directors schedule events years in advance, Campbell said Haller fully grasped that there could be no set timeline in this situation.

Not every team was ready for competition that first week. Haller said the women’s gymnastics team wanted more time. They skipped a meet scheduled for the first Friday after the shooting, which would leave them a little rusty heading into a crucial stretch at the end of the month.

To help them get ready, Haller arranged for more than 100 staffers from the department to attend a practice the following week to simulate the distractions that often pop up at gymnastics meets. On Feb. 27, the Spartans had one of their best performances of the season to claim a share of the program’s first regular-season conference championship. Haller said watching the meet unfold in person felt like “a minor miracle,” but the victory wasn’t what made him choke up with tears while reliving it.

“It wasn’t so we could compete for a Big Ten title. It wasn’t to win a game or meet or match,” he said when asked about what he told teams to help them with their decision on when to return. “It was that bonding piece, that connection piece. You can be vulnerable and still be strong.”

Izzo didn’t attempt to hide his tears as he stood beside his team Saturday night in the moments before their game in Ann Arbor.

Stocker sat nearby at the scorer’s table orchestrating the details of the pregame memorial he had spent the past several days putting into place. Ushers in the Crisler Center’s upper bowl carried rolls of stickers to give to fans — a white Spartan helmet logo inside a green heart. Stocker ordered the stickers on Wednesday, finding a way to bypass the usual advanced approval he would need from Michigan State to use the logo. He knew the licensing director at MSU would likely be inundated having to sort through all the requests from those who wanted to use the logo to show support and raise money — a task made even more difficult because her office, located in the student union, was part of a crime scene.

In the lower bowl, the Michigan student section unfurled a “Spartan Strong” flag and gave their opponents a standing ovation when they took the floor. They all wore the maize shirts that read “Michigan Basketball Stands With MSU” — 31 cardboard boxes filled with them arrived still warm from the printing press Friday afternoon.

“It was our opportunity to show that we care about Michigan State,” Stocker said. “The biggest thing is to make sure to get ahead of it as soon as possible.”

In a genuine effort to show support, Stocker’s experience paid off and highlighted the efficiency with which the sports world has learned to respond to tragedy. The stickers and T-shirts were ready to go by Friday evening. On Saturday morning, the families of Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner buried their children.

While Arielle Anderson’s family and friends gathered to honor her life in a vigil Saturday night, 12,000 others stood for a moment of silence before the basketball game in Ann Arbor. The arena was bathed in green light and Michigan’s pep band played their rival’s alma mater.

Later, Izzo would call it a “very classy” reception. He took note of how effectively so many people had navigated the days that followed another school shooting, and wondered what it meant that we’ve become this good at responding.

“Learning how to deal with it, sure,” Izzo said. “But when are we going to get to the point where we learn how to correct it? Dealing with problems is one thing, correcting them is another. I’d like to see more effort put into that but that includes myself, I guess.”

Izzo knows he’s wading into deep, politicized waters when raising questions about how to solve the plague of school shootings in America. The 68-year-old coach was born and raised in a town in the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan where school is canceled on the first day of deer season. He says he and his father might be the only two men in Iron Mountain who have never been hunting, but that his upbringing nonetheless leaves him aware of how nuanced and difficult it can be to legislate gun ownership.

That nuance is better parsed by others who have some expertise on the subject, Izzo says, but that doesn’t keep him from sharing his thoughts. He mentions the 43-year-old shooter in Michigan State’s case was able to legally purchase guns despite a previous misdemeanor gun charge on his record. He places the bulk of the blame for these shootings on a lack of accountability and consequences for breaking the rules.

“I struggle with that,” he said. “But what I also really struggle with is I’ll never be able to understand how you can buy weapons of war across the counter. That I don’t understand.”

Izzo, whose team is set to play in the Sweet 16 against Kansas State on Thursday, said perhaps this offseason will give him more time to reflect on how to be a part of whatever push for change needs to come.

Meanwhile, others who helped Michigan State through its tragedy are already making plans to prepare for the next one. Stocker at Michigan said he is working on a presentation for this summer’s annual meeting of Big Ten marketing directors to discuss what he has learned while hosting multiple pregame memorials. Lily West at the Virginia alumni association says she and her staff are gathering notes and hoping to prepare a document they can quickly share with fundraising peers for whoever is next to join their unfortunate club. Haller met with his fellow Big Ten athletic directors in Chicago last week during the men’s basketball tournament and shared some of what he has learned. He said the top thing he would emphasize in those meetings was making sure that every department had a plan in place to check in on their athletes in an emergency.

Izzo said he hasn’t yet spent time thinking about what he’ll say if, or when, he wakes up some morning in the future to the news that another coach on another campus has to gather his players and try to help them absorb another senseless shooting. He doesn’t feel any more confident in knowing the right things to say now than he did when he met his team for the first time that Tuesday morning, or if there are right things to say when staring back at a group of faces trying to process their own emotions and the role they will play in helping a campus heal.

But he felt confident then, and still feels confident now, in one message he delivered to his players in his basement during that first meeting. Their experience in the past few weeks and in the weeks to come puts them in the small but growing group of students of their generation that will understand what a community is feeling and how to move through it every time another shooting happens.

“I’m sad to tell you, you’re going to know,” Izzo told them that Tuesday. “You’re going to know. You’re going to be able to say, ‘I went through something.’ That’s not a good thing.”

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