Ohio State the latest scandal in US college sport’s dark history of sexual abuse
Report released shows Dr Richard Strauss sexually assaulted more than 170 athletes
Dr Richard Strauss was found to have sexually assaulted more than 170 Ohio State athletes, male and female, over a 20 year period during his time as chief doctor. Photo: Angie Wang/AP Photo
One student at Ohio State University reported to Dr Richard Strauss’s office complaining of a sore throat. The sports department physician then spent five minutes examining the young man’s genitals. Another fetched up at his clinic for a pre-season physical during which Strauss spent most of the examination sitting inches away from his penis and occasionally touching it with a stethoscope.
When conducting drug tests, the doctor liked to accompany football players into the bathroom stall and to kneel next to them so, according to him, he could make sure the urine was theirs.
Over the course of nearly 20 years on campus, Strauss gained a reputation for conduct that ranged from inappropriate comments to sexual assault. Every ailment, wherever it occurred on the body, seemed to require male athletes to strip completely naked. Rectal exams were somehow deemed necessary for all sorts of injuries. He often took off his own clothes while treating a student and routinely asked them out for dinner while massaging their genitals. Successive generations of wrestlers noticed the doctor regularly turned up in their communal showers to wash alongside them and loitered a little too long in their locker rooms when they were in states of undress.
Strauss began working at Ohio State University as an assistant-professor of medicine in 1978 and was soon volunteering as a team doctor with the college’s vaunted sports teams. Within a year, employees received their first complaints about his abusive behaviour towards male patients. Yet, it took until 1996 before he was removed from his role in the athletics department, and he was still allowed to retire voluntarily in 1998, even departing with the prestigious accolade of emeritus professor. By that point, hundreds of athletes in the first flush of their collegiate careers had been assaulted in various ways.
Just over a year ago, Mike DiSabato, an Ohio State wrestling alumnus, told the university about the abuse inflicted on him and others by Strauss. Although the doctor committed suicide back in 2005, a subsequent investigation conducted by Perkins Coie, a law firm, found 177 victims.
Those are only the ones who were so far willing to revisit the horrors they suffered at his hands. It is estimated the actual number is at least twice that. At last count, over 50 athletes, many of whom represented the college’s flagship grid-iron team in that period, are preparing lawsuits.
The story has a depressingly familiar ring to it. At Penn State University, the sainted Joe Paterno, gridiron coach and the most powerful figure on campus, knew for decades about Jerry Sandusky, one of his assistants, molesting children and did nothing.
At Michigan State University, the first complaints about Dr Larry Nassar assaulting young female athletes during medical exams surfaced in 1998 yet he wasn’t fired until 2016. The pattern seems to be to ignore any scandal that might damage the brand because these are some of the most storied establishments on the collegiate sports landscape.
“On behalf of the university, we offer our profound regret and sincere apologies to each person who endured Strauss’ abuse,” wrote Michael V Drake, President of Ohio State University, in an open letter to coincide with the publication of the findings. “Our institution’s fundamental failure at the time to prevent this abuse was unacceptable – as were the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members.”
It is openly accepted many of the victims refused to come forward at the time for fear of losing their prized athletic scholarships, yet one more indictment of the warped culture that abides in universities where sporting excellence is paramount.
The wrestlers and football players involved know that at places like Ohio State, the free education they receive can be whisked away in an instant for the slightest infraction and they dare not risk that. Meanwhile, the college twice looked into allegations against Strauss in such a cursory and derisory fashion that the Perkins Coie report describes those attempts at finding the truth as “investigations”.
The Strauss case has attracted even more headlines because of the fact one of Ohio State’s wrestling coaches during this era was Jim Jordan. Now a Republican Congressman, and one of Trump’s most rabid attack dogs on the wacky conspiracy theorist wing of the party, Jordan has denied knowing anything about the allegations during his time on campus between 1987 and 1995. Two men who wrestled for the college under the politician’s tutelage claim he did know. The circumstantial evidence suggests everybody knew.
Throughout the report, there is a surfeit of evidence that knowledge of Strauss’ proclivities was truly widespread. One new coaching hire from San Diego claims to have heard whispers about him before he even arrived in Ohio. Another coach testifies that he used to overhear senior athletes mocking incoming freshmen who were going to get their physical exams from the dreaded doctor.
This was an environment so dysfunctional that athletes sometimes chose to shower with their shorts on because of the physician’s lurking presence, and many begged trainers to accompany them to appointments with him for fear of what might happen.
There are over 200 pages of detailed, nauseating accounts of what he did, when and where he did it, and how so many people in and around the college’s sports teams seem to have known he was doing it. And, yet, nobody did anything. Again.