Male survivors unite to expose sexual abuse at college football’s biggest rivals

Fans of famed rivals Ohio State University and the University of Michigan often boast of how little they have in common. But two of America’s biggest college sports programs are bonded by one issue: a history of sexual abuse perpetuated by team doctors.

On Saturday OSU and Michigan battled in front of 110,000 fans on the football field – an occasion so momentous it’s known simply as The Game. But elsewhere on the Michigan campus former athletes from both universities gathered in front of Michigan president Mark Schlissel’s house to shine a light on the sexual abuse they endured during their time at the colleges. The protest was spearheaded by Jon Vaughn, a former running back for Michigan, who went on to play four years in the NFL. Now, despite the longstanding rivalry between the universities, the men have formed a survivor solidarity group.

“Toxic masculinity is an overused term, but I’m putting my name on this, because some other man is out there struggling with their own trauma and the stigma attached,” said Tom Lisy, a wrestler at OSU in the late 1980s. He was abused by an OSU team doctor, Richard Strauss, and had driven from Cleveland to attend the protest. “If sexual assault can happen to the men on the field – these athletes – then it can happen to anyone. I’m out here raising awareness of that,” said Lisy.

For seven weeks and despite increasingly frigid temperatures, Vaughn and a rotation of fellow survivors from in and out of state, have slept outside Schlissel’s home, speaking to students and passersby about former Michigan team doctor Robert Anderson. Hundreds of former Michigan athletes have accused Anderson of abusing them between 1966 to 2003. The survivors of his abuse, who include prominent football and basketball players, allege Anderson fondled them and repeatedly performed unnecessary rectal and genital exams. The case sent shockwaves across the state and struck a chord with Michigan’s neighbor and rival in Ohio. Anderson died in 2008 and never faced charges over the accusations.

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

At the same time Anderson was at Michigan, Strauss was conducting similar abuse at OSU. Strauss sexually assaulted hundreds of male athletes over the course of decades. Like Anderson, he did so under the guise of medical treatment. Strauss died by suicide in 2005. The Strauss case has been called the most sweeping sex abuse scandal in the history of American higher education. Despite that, this September a federal judge dismissed some of the biggest remaining lawsuits over the university’s failure to stop the sexual abuse. The judge acknowledged it is indisputable that Strauss abused hundreds of young men but ultimately agreed with Ohio State’s argument that the statute of limitations expired.

Both universities have issued apologies for the abuse and have taken steps to prevent such cases happening in the future, although they have been accused by some survivors of doing little to prevent it in the first place.

On the day of The Game, fraternity houses proudly displayed bedsheets spraypainted with unsubtle sentiments like “Fuck Ohio”. Just blocks away Vaughn – with the support of current students and fellow survivors of Anderson, Strauss and Larry Nassar – has constructed what can only be described as an encampment.

In addition to his camper van, there’s a cluster of tents, two poster boards that read “Support the Survivors” filled with hundreds of signatures, a number of smaller signs with data from campus safety reports, and haunting messages like “They All Knew.”

Throughout the day, men wore and distributed t-shirts that read, “#MeToo: They All Knew,” in the fonts and colors of both teams, buttons emblazoned with “Hail to the Victims” a nod to Michigan’s fight song and facemasks with “Survivors” embroidered front and center with the ‘O’ as OSU’s famous block O.

Despite weeks of protest on campus, Vaughn has yet to receive any personal acknowledgement from Schlissel, who has called the Anderson case “an enormous liability” for the university with regard to the financial impact ongoing litigation will most certainly have. However, Michigan students are certainly paying attention. In recent weeks, many have approached Vaughn to share their own stories of assault.

“The first day I was out here with Jon, this woman approached us and the longer we talked, I realized she was describing her rape here on campus,” said Tad DeLuca, one of the first whistleblowers about Anderson’s abuse. “This happens all the time. We’ve probably talked to 300 or 400 people and students.”

Graffiti at the foot of Bo Schembechler’s statue on the Michigan campus
Graffiti at the foot of Bo Schembechler’s statue on the Michigan campus. Photograph: Sam Dodge/AP

Students are also joining in the protest. In the run-up to The Game, a statue of Michigan’s former head football coach Bo Schembechler was splattered with red paint. “Bo knew #hailtothevictims” was painted on the ground alongside. Schembechler’s time at the university overlapped with Anderson’s and it has long been reported – even by Schembechler’s own son – that he was aware of the abuse. “It would’ve been a lot more than red paint if I’d have done it,” said Vaughn.

Despite support from students, Vaughn and his fellow protesters aren’t universally welcomed. Indeed, Michigan’s current head coach, Jim Harbaugh, has defended Schembechler. “There was nothing that ever was swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion,” Harbaugh, who played under Schembechler during his time at Michigan, said.

“Fuck him. That’s the most insensitive, irresponsible comment ever, when you know your teammates suffered rape,” Vaughn responded in a recent edition of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. “Fuck you, Jim Harbaugh, and fuck everybody that follows you.”

In the midst of this very public fight, many of the men are only just beginning to reckon with the years of trauma, realizing it manifested in ways that include avoiding routine doctor visits and issues with internalized rage and alcohol abuse. Lisy said he only recently found a way to inform his now adult children. How recent?

“Yesterday,” he said with tears in his eyes.

Two hours before gametime, Stephen Snyder-Hill prepared signs to carry to the stadium. Snyder-Hill, a survivor of Strauss’s abuse at OSU, wrote in permanent marker: “Mid-game score: Strauss: 2,800+, Anderson: 2,000+”. It was a reminder of how many assaults the doctors are accused of making. “This is dark,” he laughed. Snyder-Hill, a military veteran and LGBTQ+ advocate, recalled the university asking him in 2015 to give a Ted Talk on how people can use their voice to drive change. The invitation came just three years before he began speaking publicly about his experience with Strauss – and what he says was the university’s subsequent refusal to believe him (an allegation that OSU denies). “The irony,” he deadpanned.

Crowd reactions varied as the men marched to the stadium with signs in tow. There were eyerolls, scoffs and off-handed comments like, “Let people have fun today.” Revelers in the street, outside bars and on the lawns of fraternity houses either fell silent, jeered, or tossed out a half-hearted “Fuck OSU”.

“This is the best tailgate I’ve ever been to,” joked Snyder-Hill.

But perhaps the most poignant response came from a man and his adolescent daughter who warily approached the group after they’d reached the stadium.

“That’s really terrible, I’m sorry” he told them, solemnly gesturing towards a sign that read, “I was molested at OSU.” He added: “I don’t have anything to offer other than I’m just sorry.”

The day’s protest culminated with the group outside the stadium, close to a pre-game TV broadcast analyzing the two team’s chances. The signs appeared smaller as the stadium loomed and thousands of fans decked out in OSU and Michigan colors milled through its arches. It was a stark reminder that, for most fans, the battle these men are waging is secondary to the one on the field.

Just as they were about to leave, another bystander teetered over. “I know I’ve had some to drink, but isn’t there a better day to have this conversation?” he asked.