Ex-staffer: Dantonio ignored warnings on recruit

Dantonio from 2017 addressing player being dismissed (1:53)

At a 2017 news conference, Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio addressed recruit Auston Robertson being dismissed and recruiting director Curtis Blackwell not being retained. (1:53)

A former Michigan State football staffer said under oath that head coach Mark Dantonio ignored his assistants' warnings while recruiting a player who subsequently was convicted of sexually assaulting a fellow student on campus and that important information was omitted from an investigation into how the athletic department handled a pair of sexual misconduct allegations involving football players.

Former Michigan State recruiting director Curtis 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 claimed in court records filed on Thursday that he was made a scapegoat amid fallout from the sexual misconduct allegations against Spartan players in early 2017. Blackwell was suspended shortly after the first incident, and his year-to-year contract with the football program was not renewed later that year. Dantonio cited "philosophical differences" shortly after they parted ways when asked why Blackwell's contract was not renewed.

Blackwell was arrested in February 2017 on suspicion of interfering with or obstructing a police investigation of the sexual assault allegations involving then-freshmen football players Donnie Corley, Demetric Vance and Josh King. He 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 said in a deposition for his lawsuit.

A Michigan State spokeswoman said the university does not have any comment in response to Blackwell's claims. A spokesman for the football program said Dantonio could not comment due to pending litigation.

The three players were later sentenced to three years of probation after pleading guilty to charges of seduction.

During the course of the Jones Day investigation in 2017, another football player, defensive end Auston Robertson, sexually assaulted the girlfriend of one of his teammates. He was dismissed from the team when he was charged with a crime, and later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Blackwell said in his deposition that multiple assistant coaches asked Dantonio not to offer Robertson a spot on the roster because he had a history of troubling behavior. Blackwell said 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," Blackwell said in his deposition.

Burton did not respond to a message left for him Thursday asking him if he recalls the incident.

Robertson, a highly touted recruit from Indiana, was charged with misdemeanor battery during his senior year of high school. 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.

Blackwell said in his deposition that Michigan State assistant coaches learned about other troubling incidents in Robertson's past when they attempted to vet him further during the early months of 2017.

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.

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."

Blackwell said that he, Burton and fellow assistant Dave Warner all suggested the team steer clear of Robertson in a meeting with Dantonio.

"I want to say [Warner] spoke with the principal and the coach ... and they had nothing good to say about him," Blackwell said. "[Warner] couldn't really find anybody that could say anything good about Auston."

Blackwell said Dantonio "overrode" other staff members who didn't want him on campus, telling them he would make Robertson his "pet project." Blackwell said Dantonio met with Robertson on a weekly basis during the freshman's time on campus and created a special program to mentor and monitor him.

When asked for more details by ESPN about their vetting process in 2018, Dantonio and other Michigan State officials declined to answer.

Blackwell claimed in his deposition that, after Robertson's arrest was made public, Michigan State 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 said. "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."

He said the Jones Day report should have included information about what the coaching staff knew of Robertson's past when they were recruiting him. While Robertson's arrest was added to the scope of the Jones Day report, Michigan State hired the firm to examine if employees responded properly after learning about the allegations. They were limited to investigating only how employees responded after those two specific allegations came to light.

Dantonio vehemently denied ever mishandling accusations of sexual violence made against his players after the program's track record was questioned by an Outside The Lines report in January 2018. He said accusations made by a former campus sexual assault counselor that the athletic department and coaches routinely investigated and handled complaints involving athletes were "completely false." The story also referenced reports against multiple football players alleging sexual or physical violence against women before 2017 and those were not covered in the Jones Day report.

Blackwell said in his deposition that Dantonio gave preferential treatment to talented players who got into trouble.

"If you are a high recruit or you were a good player, he would allow those individuals to get away with different things," Blackwell said. "And so because of that, Coach Dantonio had a way of making things disappear."

Blackwell's deposition was filed this week as part of a motion to compel Dantonio to be deposed as part of the lawsuit. For the past month, attorneys for Blackwell and Dantonio have not been able to agree upon a time for Dantonio to answer questions about Blackwell's time at Michigan State.

"Mr. Blackwell is eager to have all of the facts come to light," said Thomas Warnicke, Blackwell's attorney. "We look forward to taking Coach Dantonio's deposition."

When asked at a news conference in August if he felt that this lawsuit could become a distraction during the football season, Dantonio said, "No, not at all."

ESPN's Paula Lavigne and Nicole Noren contributed to this report.