Big-time US college sport still favors profits over survivors of sexual abuse

<span>Photograph: Tony Ding/AP</span>
Photograph: Tony Ding/AP

As devoted and lifelong fans of the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University, respectively, we do not agree on much. Between us are countless school-branded Christmas tree ornaments, mugs, basketball shorts, hoodies, football jerseys, and, most of all, rivalrous distemper.

But, one thing we can agree on is the abject horror we feel in the face of the recent sexual abuse scandals that have rocked both campuses, albeit perhaps not yet at a magnitude commensurate with the crimes that have occurred. The most recent revelations have come from Michigan. Between 1966 and 2003, Michigan team doctor Robert Anderson sexually assaulted hundreds of athletes he was employed to heal and protect. Over the decades, many university officials were informed of the abuse by survivors and failed to act, including, reportedly, the late former athletic director Don Canham, current assistant athletic director and head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt, two former track coaches, a former wrestling coach, and legendary former football coach Bo Schembechler. Schmidt, for his part, has denied that he knew about the allegations against Anderson.

The recent revelations of what Schembechler, who died in 2006, knew and how he responded are truly the stuff of nightmares. Schembechler’s son Matt has disclosed that he was a survivor of Anderson, and that when he told his father about it, the coach told him that he didn’t want to hear about it and then, Matt has said, “That was the first time he closed-fist punched me. It knocked me all the way across the kitchen.” Other members of the coach’s family say he was unaware of any abuse.

In additional devastating testimony, former player Daniel Kwiatkowski, another survivor of Anderson, said that after he informed coach Schembechler, “Bo looked at me and said, ‘Toughen up.’”

But, the disclosure we want to focus on here in part because it has received the least attention comes from former player Gilvanni Johnson, who, like the others, says he was rebuffed by coach Schembechler in his attempt to report Anderson’s transgressions. Yet, Johnson went on to claim that football coaches would threaten players with visits to Anderson as a form of motivation to play better in games. As Johnson put it, “Only now do I realize how crazy it was to threaten rape as a way to make players work harder.”

Incredibly, this disclosure echoes a similar revelation at Michigan’s rival, Ohio State, which has experienced its own horrific sexual abuse scandal involving OSU team physician Dr Richard Strauss, who sexually assaulted at least 350 athletes over the course of two decades. Sports Illustrated reported that: “Some OSU coaches used the mock threat of ‘having to see Dr Strauss’ as motivation to make their athletes run faster or practice harder.” Congressman and former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach Jim Jordan is among those who are accused of turning a blind eye to what was happening to the young men placed under his stewardship. Indeed, several athletes told Ohio State’s commission on the scandal that they “talked about Strauss’ inappropriate genital exams and ... voyeurism directly to – or in front of – OSU coaching staff.”

Jordan, for his part, denies those allegations. “It’s false. I never saw, never heard of, never was told of any kind of abuse,” Jordan told Fox News in 2018. “If I had been, I would’ve dealt with it.”

While every part of what happened at OSU and UM is horrific, there is something particularly disturbing about the fact that the threat of sexual abuse could have been used to “motivate” players, potentially through the physical demands of over-training, itself a form of abuse. Indeed, if athletic departments were using the threat of rape to motivate players, that compromises everything about them.

It is of course difficult to know how to fix what has happened at Michigan (and Ohio State and elsewhere). Certainly, it should be clear that removing statues – such as the now infamous figure that stands in front of Schembechler Hall on Michigan’s campus – and changing names isn’t enough. There needs to be a process that produces complete transparency about the harm that has occurred and mechanisms to ensure it can never happen again. But we also need to confront the fact that a college sports system that values winning and the revenue that comes with it above all else – Schembechler, after all, produced 194 wins in 21 years at Michigan – is a system that will always function as an incubator for harm. When domination is the point of the enterprise, the degrading of human bodies and human minds are viewed as merely necessary, collateral damage.

And thus, disturbingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses from Michigan and some prominent members of its community have not even approached that bar. Indeed, when taken in sum, the responses of so many in the UM football community suggest that perhaps the term “Michigan Man” might best be understood as shorthand for a particularly egregious brand of toxic masculinity.

In its formal statement in response to the testimony of Matt Schembechler, Kwiatkowsi, and Johnson about Schembechler, the university made no mention of the coach, instead highlighting the time that has elapsed since Anderson’s employment and death. Similarly, in response to a question about the claim that Anderson’s abuse had been reported to Schembechler, the current Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh said: “Nothing was ever swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.” Harbaugh, it should be noted, played under Schembechler when he was a quarterback at Michigan.

This gaslighting represents another round of victimization for those already traumatized. Survivors are always questioned about their memories or why they waited to reveal the truth – particularly in prominent cases like this one. Believing survivors, regardless of gender, is important. It’s particularly important given the stigma around the sexual abuse of men and boys. We live in a society where men are expected to be strong, masculine, and straight. No world reflects that more than sports. There is great fear that men will be labeled as deviant or gay if they disclose being abused. When we deny those experiences, we make it even harder for men and boys to get the help they desperately need. Indeed, the stigma around sexual abuse is one reason why the average time to disclosure for sexually abused males is 25 years, but only six months among females.

Even more distressingly, former Michigan player and current radio play-by-play announcer Jim Brandstatter, who also helped draft a letter defending Schembechler’s legacy signed by over 100 former Michigan players and AD officials, said: “Think about the … highest contributors to the University of Michigan. They probably contribute a whole lot of money. And if [they feel] one of their icons is unjustly being prosecuted, I don’t know if they’ll be as friendly with their money. I’m just saying that I know a lot of people are disappointed that the university hasn’t come to the defense of some of these guys.”

Brandstatter’s rationale gestures to the incentive the university might have to resolve the case as quietly as possible. This is an athletic department that pulled in $198m in revenue in the fiscal year prior to the pandemic. It is also an institution that boasts an endowment of $12.5bn. To imagine that these figures can be neatly disentangled from the value Bo Schembechler produced for the institution via the 13 Big Ten titles he amassed in 21 years – or, more saliently, the methods that allowed him to do so – is to traffic in fantasy.

In its penultimate paragraph, the letter from former players defending Schembechler reads: “The effort to destroy Coach Schembechler’s reputation and legacy will not go unchallenged by those of us who knew him. Just because he isn’t present doesn’t mean he’s not here.”

It’s hard to disagree. The dogmatic determination of former players and staff to deny the courageous revelations of the survivors testifies to Schembechler’s most profound legacy: a community of football lifers who choose the Michigan brand and its most famous coach over basic compassion.

Still, we must also understand that this is not just a Michigan problem. This is the fourth school in the Big Ten’s east division alone to be rocked by revelations of this magnitude. What this tells us is that this is a college sports issue more broadly. These disturbing allegations provide more evidence for the way in which big time college sport corrupts the mission of higher education by prioritizing success on the field and the myriad material benefits it provides over the well-being of the students it is meant to serve.

To be quite frank, there is no reforming a system that can integrate sexual violence into its training methods. And yet, that is precisely the system that confronts us.

  • Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. Kevin Shafer is an associate professor of Sociology at Brigham Young University.