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Michigan State University

Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker accused of sexually harassing rape survivor

Brenda Tracy, a prominent rape survivor and activist, says Mel Tucker made sexual comments and masturbated without consent during a phone call. Her complaint led to an ongoing Title IX investigation.

Michigan State's head coach, Mel Tucker, signs autographs for fans during a spring game on April 16, 2022, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, while rape survivor Brenda Tracy stands by his side.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with news that within hours of publication of ӣƵ's investigation, MSU suspended Coach Mel Tucker without pay.

Two years ago, one of the nation’s star college football coaches and a prominent rape survivor teamed up to fight the culture of sexual violence in sports.

Their partnership should have been a force for good. Instead, it has devolved into scandal, with the activist accusing the coach of the same misconduct that both of them preached against.

The accused is Mel Tucker, the head football coach at Michigan State University and one of the highest paid coaches in all of sports. Accusing him is Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor who has made educating athletes about sexual violence her life’s work.

Over eight months, they developed a professional relationship centered on her advocacy work. Tucker invited Tracy to campus three times – twice to speak to his players and staff and once to be recognized as an honorary captain at the team's spring football game.

But their relationship was upended during a phone call on April 28, 2022, Tracy says in a complaint she filed with the university’s Title IX office in December that remains under investigation.

According to her complaint, Tracy sat frozen for several minutes while Tucker made sexual comments about her and masturbated. His violation, she said, reopened 25-year-old wounds from her rape by four men – two Oregon State University football players, a junior college player and a high school recruit.

“The idea that someone could know me and say they understand my trauma but then re-inflict that trauma on me is so disgusting to me, it’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” she told ӣƵ. “It’s like he sought me out just to betray me.”

Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and advocate for victims of sexual violence, filed a complaint with Michigan State accusing its head football coach, Mel Tucker, of sexual misconduct.

In his statements to the Title IX investigator, Tucker acknowledged masturbating on the call but said Tracy grossly mischaracterized the episode. According to him, they had consensual “phone sex.”

“Ms. Tracy’s distortion of our mutually consensual and intimate relationship into allegations of sexual exploitation has really affected me,” Tucker wrote in a March 22 letter to the investigator. “I am not proud of my judgment and I am having difficulty forgiving myself for getting into this situation, but I did not engage in misconduct by any definition.”

Michigan State hired an outside Title IX attorney to investigate the complaint. She finished her investigation in July. A formal hearing to determine whether Tucker violated the school’s policy banning sexual harassment and exploitation is scheduled for Oct. 5 and 6, during the Spartans’ bye week.

The stakes are high for everyone.

Tracy says Tucker is following through on a threat to ruin her career and reputation by painting her as a woman who mixes professional and personal relationships and files false reports. She fears he will undo her legacy.

Tucker, who signed one of the most lucrative contracts in college sports history two years ago, could lose out on the roughly $80 million he is owed if Michigan State fires him for cause, which would be a stunning fall from the elite ranks of college coaches.

Reached by ӣƵ on his cellphone Saturday night, Tucker hung up after a reporter mentioned the case.

Hours after ӣƵ published its investigation, the university suspended Tucker without pay, pending a resolution of the Title IX case.

“This step, suspending Mel Tucker without pay, is … necessary and appropriate for today's circumstances,” Interim President Teresa Woodruff said at a Sunday evening press conference. “These actions are not taken lightly.”

Tucker watches a play during the Spartans' game against Central Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Sept. 1.

ӣƵ typically does not identify people who allege sexual harassment. Tracy agreed to be identified and shared more than 1,200 pages of case documents.

Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in education, requires schools to investigate allegations of sexual harassment that took place in the context of a school program or activity. Such claims are inherently difficult to adjudicate because of many of the factors at issue in this case: a lack of eyewitnesses and recordings, the passage of time and the thorniness of litigating consent.

Adding to the uncertainty, the institution tasked with sorting out the facts is perhaps best known for missing repeated opportunities to stop one of the most prolific sexual abusers in American history.

For nearly two decades, Michigan State leaders failed to act on complaints against Larry Nassar, the disgraced former U.S.A. Gymnastics and campus physician accused of sexually assaulting more than 300 female athletes under the guise of medical treatments. He has been sentenced to a minimum of 100 years in prison.

Amid its efforts to rebuild trust among students, employees, alumni and the East Lansing community, Michigan State's leaders must now decide whether the face of its prestigious football program is guilty of sexually harassing one of the country’s most influential advocates against gender-based violence.

For some, how the university navigates the crisis will send a clear message about its commitment to progress.

“This goes beyond coach Tucker and Brenda Tracy,” said Jennifer Gomez, a Boston University professor who researches the effects of interpersonal trauma and violence. “What happens here has the potential to be very healing or very harmful for lots and lots and lots of other people.”

The meeting: Spartans coach, rape survivor forge professional bond through shared mission

Tracy and Tucker met in August 2021 during her first visit to Michigan State, after a mutual acquaintance introduced them.

Standing before a packed auditorium in the Spartans’ football operations building, Tracy told a gut-wrenching story of turning her pain into purpose two decades after filing a police report saying she had been gang-raped as a 24-year-old mother of two.

At the end, she challenged the “good men” in the room to use their privilege and influence to educate themselves and call out bad behavior.

Tracy's nonprofit, Set The Expectation, aims to prevent sexual assault and relationship violence by educating men, particularly athletes and coaches.

By then she had delivered versions of the speech more than 100 times to at least 40,000 athletes and coaches. Michigan State paid her a $10,000 speaking fee.

Tucker was in his second season as head coach. A former University of Wisconsin-Madison defensive back, he had spent two decades coaching defenses for 10 college and NFL teams before landing the top job at the University of Colorado in late 2018. Michigan State lured him away a year later by doubling his salary.

Mel Tucker's career at Michigan State: A timeline

Tucker and Tracy “hit it off” immediately, they would both later tell the Title IX investigator. They bonded over their love of Jordan sneakers, shelves of which lined Tucker’s office walls.

Tucker had been moved by her speech, and she had been a big hit with players, he told the investigator. They discussed her coming back to campus in the future.

Tracy left East Lansing feeling she had found a champion in Tucker, she told the investigator. He seemed engaged with her cause, leading his players in signing her pledge to, among other things, obtain “ongoing, affirmative consent” before engaging in sexual acts with another person.

Over the next year, their assistants planned two more visits to Michigan State for Tracy, emails, text messages, and itineraries show: the April 2022 spring game where Tracy and her nonprofit, Set The Expectation, would be honored on the jumbotron and a training that July with coaches and players.

Tucker (center) led his team in signing Tracy's #SetTheExpectation pledge shortly after her first visit, a post on Michigan State football's Instagram page shows.
Tucker honored Tracy as honorary captain for Michigan State's 2022 spring football game, which he dedicated to raising awareness for sexual and interpersonal violence.

During that time, the two also talked on the phone at least 27 times, Tracy’s phone bills show – an average of once every two weeks for a half hour. They often spoke at night to accommodate their work schedules, they said. They chatted about their jobs and eventually more personal matters, such as their families, mental health and daily lives.

They spoke most frequently in fall 2021, while Tucker was leading Michigan State to a 11-2 record – its best season in six years – and negotiating one of the richest coaching contracts of all time.

In November, Michigan State signed him to an unprecedented 10-year, $95 million deal that came fully guaranteed, even if it fired him for poor performance. The only way he could lose out on the money, the contract said, was if he materially breached it, was convicted of a crime or engaged in “conduct which, in the University’s reasonable judgment, would tend to bring public disrespect, contempt or ridicule on the University.”

It was around then that Tucker, who had been married for more than two decades, started becoming interested in Tracy romantically, they both told the investigator.

Whether Tracy reciprocated is where their accounts diverge.

The disputed call: 'You're touching yourself?'

Tucker told the investigator that he and Tracy developed a romantic connection and talked openly about it.

They frequently made flirtatious comments about each other’s looks and bodies, Tucker said. Tracy told him she wanted a “sugar daddy” who would pay her a monthly amount to be his girlfriend, he said, and that she would be “all over” him if he wasn’t married.

Tucker said they had acknowledged their mutual desire for a romance but agreed it would be “too messy” because of his marriage and the physical distance between them.

By contrast, Tracy told the investigator that Tucker’s romantic interest in her was entirely one-sided. She said she came to feel he was less interested in her cause than in her.

Tucker messaged her photos of herself that he had found on her Instagram page, making comments such as, “This is the one,” or complimenting her eyes, Tracy said. Tucker also sent her two gifts – a pair of Jordans and $200 in cash through Venmo – and donated $2,500 to her nonprofit.

Once, Tucker called Tracy via FaceTime. He was in bed, shirtless. He talked about his unhappy marriage, describing himself as “more or less single.” Then, during a Nov. 9, 2021, call, she said he asked her, “If I wasn’t a football coach and if I wasn’t married, would you date me?”

Tracy said she responded that she would not because they worked together – one of several times she recalled trying to set boundaries. She said she made clear to Tucker on a Dec. 1 call that they would only be friends, and he seemed to agree.

Then, after the spring game, Tucker called her four times, phone records show. Tracy said he repeatedly asked her to meet him alone, without her assistant, and even suggested slipping into her hotel through a back door so no one would see him. She said no.

Tucker and his players run onto the field before the Central Michigan game at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 1.

Twelve days later came the call.

Tracy was in her home office in Oregon. Tucker, who was in a hotel in Florida, called her at 12:39 a.m. EST, phone records show. The call lasted 36 minutes.

According to Tucker, he became aroused when Tracy made a comment about needing to hit the gym more to look better without clothes on. They then discussed how having phone sex could complicate their relationship, he said, but Tracy suggested once would be harmless and he agreed.

“Unequivocally, there’s no doubt about it,” Tucker told the investigator, case documents show. “She was the one who said we’ll do it.”

Tucker told the investigator that he and Tracy had consensual phone sex.

Tracy denies all of that. The call started off normal, she said. But when she sent Tucker a photo of them together from the spring game, she said he responded by commenting on her buttocks and calling himself an “ass man.”

She remembered Tucker’s voice getting deeper and weirder as he continued talking about her buttocks. She asked him what he was doing, and he said he had a “hard dick” and was touching himself.

“You’re touching yourself?” Tracy asked, according to the investigation report. Tucker responded, “Yes.”

Tracy became emotional as she recounted the incident to the investigator, the investigation report shows.

Tracy said she thought to herself, "Oh my god, this is happening, and I can’t stop it." In the moment, she said, it didn’t occur to her to hang up. Eventually she said something along the lines of, “If you do this, I don’t ever want to hear about it, we are only friends, that’s it.”

When he finished, Tracy said, Tucker told her, “Thank you, good night, sweetheart.” She responded, “Yeah,” and he hung up.

Then she sat at her desk for a while, staring at her phone and crying.

The aftermath: Perceived threat prompts Tracy to file sexual harassment complaint

Three months passed between the call and the next time Tracy and Tucker spoke.

At first, Tracy tried to pretend to herself that nothing had happened. Her partnership with the school was paramount and she focused on that.

Tucker, however, was not responding to her text messages. And he abruptly canceled her in-person training, planned for July 25, three days before it was supposed to take place. A team staffer told her they had double-booked, but Tracy believed she knew the real reason.

When Tracy finally got Tucker on the phone about a week later, he was angry, she said, accusing her and her assistant of gossiping about his marital problems.

Tracy recalled that Tucker made comments such as, “I can’t trust you,” “If you say anything about this, I’ll hear about it,” and “I’ll be fine, it’s you that I am worried about.” She viewed it as a threat to destroy her reputation if she spoke out about him.

Tucker at one point told her he had done nothing wrong. According to Tracy, she started to say, “Well, something…” referring to his masturbation, and Tucker interrupted, saying, “But nothing happened.”

Tracy fears Tucker's claims about her will undo her legacy.

Tucker recalled the Aug. 2 phone call much differently. He told the investigator that Tracy apologized to him for discussing his marriage with her assistant, and he accepted. Although they ended the call on good terms and discussed postponing her visit until next year, Tucker said he had lost trust in Tracy.

The training was never rescheduled, and they never spoke again.

Tracy initially stayed quiet about Tucker for the sake of her career, she said. Ultimately, she decided that if she let it slide, she wouldn’t be the person she claimed to be – the one who encourages people to speak up about sexual misconduct and hold others accountable.

She filed her complaint in December – eight months after the call. In dry and bureaucratic language, the record of that complaint begins: “The specific allegations of prohibited conduct against Respondent are as follows …” A notification was delivered to Tucker the following day.

Tracy's allegations are detailed in her December 2022 formal Title IX complaint.

Tucker was “absolutely shocked,” he would tell the university’s investigator. In subsequent correspondence, he and his attorney suggested Tracy’s motive: She held a vendetta against Spartans athletics because of its history of sexual misconduct scandals and falsely accused him for financial gain.

“To say that I have learned from this situation is an understatement,” Tucker wrote in a letter to the investigator on March 22. “I will never again allow myself to be duped by kindness.”

The investigation: Tucker moves to halt case as investigator gets to work

The university tapped Rebecca Leitman Veidlinger, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Title IX attorney, to conduct the investigation.

A former Indiana sex crimes prosecutor who now heads a private practice, she also previously worked in the Title IX offices at Michigan State and the University of Michigan.

Veidlinger started her investigation in January by interviewing Tracy and six people she had identified as witnesses, including three of Tucker’s assistants who had been involved in coordinating and canceling her campus visits.

Tracy’s other three witnesses – her assistant, therapist and attorney – told Veidlinger that a distraught Tracy had disclosed the situation to them in early August, within days of her final phone call with Tucker.

Jacqueline Swanson, Tracy’s attorney who is also her friend, turned over a copy of the notes she took from their conversation on a yellow legal pad.

Handwritten notes taken by attorney Jacqueline Swanson memorialize the phone call in which Tracy told her about the incident.

Ahlan Alvarado, Tracy’s assistant and best friend who had attended the April 2022 spring game, said she had been with Tracy in their hotel after the game when Tucker repeatedly called Tracy asking to meet her alone.

Alvarado said Tracy had told her previously that Tucker “liked” her and it could become a problem. She shared a screenshot of a Dec. 2 text message in which Tracy told her she had just spoken with Tucker, who had agreed they could only be friends.

“I’m glad it didn’t get weird,” Tracy wrote.

Tracy described a call with Tucker in which they agreed to be friends in a Dec. 2, 2021, text message to her assistant, Ahlan Alvarado.

Tracy provided phone bills and emails that corroborated her timeline of events and showed Tucker had been calling her from his personal cellphone.

Although Veidlinger had interviewed all six of Tracy’s witnesses before the end of January, Tucker didn’t agree to be interviewed until late March. In the intervening weeks, he and his attorney, Jennifer Belveal, tried to stop the investigation.

Tracy said Belveal twice contacted her attorney, Karen Truszkowski, proposing a settlement agreement. Tracy said no.

Tucker and Belveal also urged Michigan State to drop Tracy’s complaint. In January, they sent a 12-page letter to the school arguing it lacked jurisdiction to investigate Tucker's “purely personal” relationship with Tracy.

They later commissioned Brett Sokolow, board chairman and co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators, to write an “expert witness” report asserting that policing employees’ “off duty” activities would set a dangerous legal precedent.

“Can an employee never have phone sex?” Sokolow wrote. “How far does MSU intend to go in policing the private conduct of its employees, and how does it expect its 20,000+ employees to react when they find out that they no longer have private lives outside the reach of their employer?”

Michigan State was not persuaded. The alleged conduct would be covered by school policy, it concluded, because it took place in the context of Tracy’s work as a vendor for the school and affected their ongoing business relationship.

The case would go forward.

Michigan State University students march to the steps of the campus administration building on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, to protest the school's handling of the sexual abuse allegations against former campus doctor Larry Nassar.

The findings: Records refute Tucker's story; his attorney alleges bias

Tucker sat down for his interview on March 22.

He said he wanted to be transparent and set the record straight. But Veidlinger would note some key inconsistencies.

For instance, Tucker claimed he had made the phone sex call from home in East Lansing – not in a Florida hotel. He had just returned from a trip to Florida, he said, where he had been doing charity work unrelated to his employment with the school.

Veidlinger, however, had obtained documents showing Tucker had, in fact, been in Naples, Florida, the day of the call – attending the Greg Montgomery Foundation Golf Outing on the school’s dime.

An expense report Tucker submitted to Michigan State for his hotel and meal costs showed the trip's purpose was “administrative” and did not involve any personal travel. The costs were paid by the Spartan Fund, the athletic department’s fundraising arm; he had flown to Florida on a donor’s private plane.

An expense report Tucker submitted to the university contradicts his account to the investigator.

Tucker told Veidlinger he had canceled Tracy’s July 25 in-person training because his new mental conditioning coach, Ben Newman, needed to implement a new program. But Veidlinger would obtain records from the school showing Newman had been meeting weekly with the team since early June and did not hold any meetings between July 15 and 28.

During the interview, Tucker also made an explosive new allegation: He said his associate had told him that renowned ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne was investigating the veracity of the gang-rape story at the heart of Tracy’s public persona. The information, Tucker said, made him question how Tracy “goes about her business.”

Veidlinger did not address this allegation in her report, but Lavigne denied the allegation.

“Neither (Tracy's) organization nor Tracy is or has been the target of any investigative reporting,” Lavigne said in a statement to ӣƵ. “I’m perplexed that Mel Tucker would respond to a complaint of sexual harassment by involving me or ESPN.”

Tucker did not identify any witnesses who could support his version of events, including his associate, whom he said he had promised anonymity. That same associate, Tucker said, told him that Alvarado, Tracy’s assistant, had been gossiping about his marriage – a claim Alvarado denied.

During Michigan State's spring football game in April 2022, Tucker wore a purple and teal ribbon bearing the name of Tracy's nonprofit to raise awareness for sexual and interpersonal violence.

Veidlinger delivered her final 106-page investigation report in July.

Along the way, she had learned that one potentially rich source of evidence was missing: Both Tracy and Tucker had deleted their text messages with each other. Tucker would tell her that he deletes his messages regularly because he receives so many; Tracy said she did so in a panic after their last phone call, feeling she needed to cut all ties with him.

Per Title IX and school policy, Veidlinger did not issue a finding of fault in her final report, but instead summarized the facts and referred the case for a hearing.

At the hearing, planned for October, both sides will have the opportunity to present evidence and make arguments. Another outside Title IX attorney hired by the school will then decide whether the evidence shows that Tucker likely violated school rules.

Among the witnesses who will be missing from Tracy’s witness list is her assistant and best friend, Alvarado. She died in a car accident in June.

Meanwhile, Belveal argued Alvarado’s death “presents yet another reason that this case should be dismissed.”

Letters Belveal sent Veidlinger throughout the case accuse her of bias against Tucker – and men more broadly.

Tucker's attorney, Jennifer Belveal, repeatedly accused the investigator, Rebecca Veidlinger, of conducting an unfair investigation.

One letter in May contained a list of 170 perceived problems with Veidlinger’s draft report and questions she should have asked Tracy and her witnesses. They included why Tracy had not returned Tucker’s gifts, why she had given him her Venmo username and what opinions she held about Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, former football coach Mark Dantonio and former president John Engler, all of whom had been associated with past sexual misconduct controversies.

A fair process, Belveal wrote, would expose Tracy’s allegations as “nothing more than another agenda-driven attempt … to defame Respondent and the University.”

“We request that the investigation be reopened,” Belveal wrote, “that each of the questions be asked of the appropriate witnesses, that jurisdiction be reassessed, and that the matter be dismissed.”

Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for ӣƵ covering sexual harassment and violence and Title IX. Contact him by email at kjacoby@usatoday.com or follow him on X .

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