America at Large: How Schembechler enabled a sexual predator among the Wolverines

The case of Dr Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan is the latest in a long line in college sports

 Former Michicgan head coach Bo Schembechler pictured in 2005. Photograph:  Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Former Michicgan head coach Bo Schembechler pictured in 2005. Photograph: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

 

A couple of former University of Michigan football players held a press conference last week and testified about their experiences on campus. One talked about unorthodox methods their coaches used to motivate them and how, on occasion, those underperforming in games or in training were threatened with being sent to Dr Robert Anderson, the team physician, as punishment. The deal was that unless they upped their effort, they’d suffer a mandated trip to the surgery where the medic known in the locker-room as “Dr Anal” would “Andersonize” them.

“Only now do I realise how crazy it was to threaten rape as a way to make players work harder,” said Gilvanni Johnson, a wide receiver between 1982 and 1986.

Daniel Kwiatkowski arrived on campus as a freshman offensive tackle in 1977 and underwent a mandatory physical exam during which Anderson “molested and violated” him. Afterwards, he went to training and told Bo Schembechler, the legendary Michigan coach, what had happened. The man who the previous year had visited Kwiatkowski’s parents at home and assured them he’d always look after their teenage boy had no interest in hearing about Anderson digitally raping the new kid.

“Toughen up,” said Schembechler.

Anderson went on to molest and violate others for nearly three more decades. Johnson and Kwiatkowski are just two from hundreds of Wolverines alumni who have recounted harrowing stories of their suffering at the hands of a man who worked for the university from 1966 to 2003. With depressing familiarity, these horrific tales include multiple accounts of victims telling people in charge what the doctor was doing to them and nobody taking any action. Least of all the most powerful individual in the institution.

Schembechler was the college’s gridiron coach from 1969 to 1989 but he was much more than that. Aside from leading the team to 13 Big Ten Championships and transforming their stadium into “The Big House”, an intimidating venue where in excess of 100,000 shoehorned in for home games, he embodied Michigan football the same way Alex Ferguson was once Manchester United. Most feared man on campus. Face of the university. Following his death in 2006, they erected a statue to remind future generations of all those epic Saturdays in autumn when he was at the helm. Turns out there was a little more to the story than the simple legend.

“I don’t want to hear this,” said Schembechler when his 10-year-old stepson Matt tried to tell him that he had been touched inappropriately by Anderson. Then he punched the boy in the chest.

Last week’s public disclosures by Matt Schembechler, Johnson and Kwiatkowski came after a recent independent investigation found that at least 230 former students, many of them athletes, were victims of Anderson, who died in 2008. The report also confirmed that university officials, including Bo Schembechler, failed to act on warnings about his proclivities as far back as 1975. Inevitably, plenty of alumni are unwilling to accept the college’s most beloved coach could have known and did nothing, despite the fact his reputation was that, when it came to his players, he knew everything. Always.

For some Americans, college football is a quasi-religious experience which makes criticism of messianic coaches something akin to blasphemy. Demented Penn State cultists still refuse to believe Joe Paterno, their own football coaching god, kept Jerry Sandusky on his staff for decades even after being told about his paedophilia.

Aside from instantly attacking the credibility of the victims, the current defence of Schembechler is that he had nothing to gain from protecting Anderson. An overly simplistic take. How about the theory he was preserving the commercial juggernaut brand that is Michigan football?

Another school of thought contends he refused to take action because having this information over Anderson ensured the doc did his bidding when it came to injured players. A physician who knew his career could be ended by Schembechler would be much more willing to declare a star fit enough to play, no matter how grave the physical danger. That only sounds far-fetched if you don’t understand how sick college football is and always has been. This is a sporting dystopia where unpaid amateurs get chewed up and spat out annually while coaches and institutions make millions off their broken bodies.

Every time a story of this ilk breaks, it emerges young men and women on athletic scholarships proved especially vulnerable to sexual predators because they lived in constant fear of losing access to education. No surprise then that the current epidemic of these cases occurred on campuses where sport is famously prized above academics.

At Ohio State University, coaches used to threaten lollygagging athletes with visits to Dr Richard Strauss, another who molested hundreds even after wrestlers had made multiple complaints against him. Similarly, Michigan State University ignored repeated warnings from undergraduate victims of Dr Larry Nassar who, in his other job, also assaulted America’s elite gymnasts for decades.

In best-selling books like “Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership”, the mythologising claimed Schembechler didn’t just produce players but “Michigan Men”, individuals of exceptional character.

When visitors to campus pose for photographs today beside his statue outside the football facility named in his honour, they are backgrounded by a wall emblazoned with his mantra, “Those who stay will be champions”. And some will apparently spend a lifetime battling demons caused by a perverted doctor the sainted coach enabled.

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