Amid all the grotesque reports, amid the blaming and shaming and excuse-making, leaders at Michigan must make painful admissions. It’s clear no resolution in the Robert Anderson sexual-abuse scandal will satisfy everyone. The sheer breadth of the emotional and physical damage suffered over multiple decades, involving football players, other athletes and other students, makes a simple rendering impossible.
But someone — some entity — has to be strong enough to stop the carousel, or as one survivor called it, “the circus.” The voices that matter most are the victims of Michigan’s team doctor and they have every right to raise them loudly. Several more did at a rally outside Michigan Stadium behind a placard that read, “Regents Refusing Justice.” Listening to them, and those who spoke last week, there’s clarity in their conviction, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
How do they want this resolved? That’s what they tried to outline Wednesday. Three in the group of 40 or so athletes and non-athletes spoke (approximately 12 former football players were present, although not all were identified).
I’ve written that if taking down the Bo Schembechler statue and dramatically altering his legacy was a suitable solution, so be it. But the more you listen, the more you realize this isn’t about a statue, and isn’t about vengeance or vindication. With Anderson, Bo Schembechler, Don Canham and vice president Thomas Easthope deceased, it isn’t about damning the dead.
It’s about demanding acknowledgement and apologies, not just for them but for the unnamed 800-plus alleged victims. It’s about trying to understand how heinous acts could continue for nearly four decades, and how to prevent it from happening again.
Is it also about money? Well, sure it is. That’s why the university is in federal mediation with victims’ lawyers to determine an appropriate price for years of pain. It’s also why the Board of Regents has been silent, other than offering a blanket apology for what Anderson did — nothing about what the school did or didn’t do. The mediation is confidential, with gag orders likely in place. It’s also why the rally was held the day before a scheduled Regents meeting.
Mediation discussions involving so many lawyers and alleged victims can take a long time. Whatever protocol Michigan is following, it needs to be sensitive, and that includes time sensitive. Obviously, financial restitution is owed to the victims, and the longer the wait, the uglier it gets. Right now, we’re trapped in a circular argument that goes nowhere, raising pressure and ire.
Some things are indisputable. Anderson was a despicable predator who operated under the guise of medical care, performing unnecessary rectal and genital exams. Other issues are less certifiable, such as how much school leaders, from Easthope to Canham to Schembechler to others, knew.
“Accept our truth,” said Jon Vaughn, a standout running back from 1988-91. “We don’t talk enough about the victims, and I know my story is helping guys. … This is not about us versus Bo. This is about institutional complicity, a coverup. Five or six times, in different eras, we could’ve been kept away from this predator. The school must be open and transparent about the monster who was protected.”
The debate over what Schembechler knew is the flashpoint, and even if he didn’t know the depths of the abuse, he almost certainly knew enough to do more. As the face of the program, he deserves the scrutiny. I also understand why others defend the “Bo I knew.” More than 180 former players are part of an online petition supporting Schembechler’s integrity and legacy, and his family and friends defend him strongly.
Some survivors take those defenses as a shot at their own credibility. Schembechler coached for 21 seasons and built powerful bonds, and because there are contradictions and vagaries in the university-ordered WilmerHale investigation, people lean on what they personally experienced.
It’s difficult for one side to believe the “Bo they knew” could ignore reports of Anderson’s abuse, relayed to the head coach likely in at least five or six instances. It’s difficult for victims to hear their fellow players doubt it was possible.
“(Bo is) a man that personally did harm to me, but personally gave me tools that I’ve carried into my life,” Vaughn said. “You pray that he has peace, because I have peace. … I hope at some point his family can reconcile the fact, my father wasn’t perfect, that’s OK. None of us are lying. The truth is hard to take.”
Vaughn said he feels victim-shamed but is able to separate it. He went on to tout Michigan’s history of winning and lamented the Wolverines’ losses to Ohio State. Even victimized, it’s difficult to fully detach from the program, which is why they hope some positive can emerge from something awful.
That’s the message they’re trying to deliver, cutting through the emotional backlash. Vaughn, former student broadcaster Richard Goldman and former wrestler Tad DeLuca reiterated the points Wednesday. Former football players Gilvanni Johnson and Daniel Kwiatkowski, as well as Matt Schembechler, one of Bo’s sons, said similar things last week.
There were so many flaws in the system, so many missed opportunities to stop Anderson, it’s unforgivable. The statue and the name on the football building are symbols but the symptoms run deeper. It’s about abuse of power on multiple levels, way too common in college athletics.
Goldman, who spoke anonymously to investigators, revealed his identity Wednesday and had a different viewpoint, that the focus should be on Canham, the powerful athletic director who hired Schembechler. Goldman said he told Schembechler twice that he was abused by Anderson. Schembechler told him to tell Canham, who ignored him both times.
On a third occasion in 1983, Goldman said he rebuffed another attempt by Anderson and went directly to Canham’s office. Schembechler heard the commotion, and according to Goldman, was furious and barged into Canham’s office to ask why Anderson wasn’t fired.
“Don Canham is the one that matters, there’s nobody else in that athletics department who could have done anything,” Goldman said. “He was the virtual god and he could’ve stopped everything. If we put all of this where it needs to be, and forget the circuses that everybody has created, it boils down to one man, and that is Don Canham.”
Others’ accounts, including one from Matt Schembechler, suggest Canham wanted to fire Anderson back in 1969, when he allegedly molested then-10-year-old Matt. Again, back to the “Bo I knew.”
Looking back now does the survivors no good. That’s why they’re calling for immediate action. They want the Regents to ask state Attorney General Dana Nessel to launch an investigation, which she has declined to do. The school won’t waive its attorney-client privileges to allow access to everything, and the statute of limitations on criminal charges is long past.
A sincere apology for the negligence of others, not just Anderson, is another request, likely not fulfilled while mediation continues. Vaughn also laid out an ambitious plan that would attempt to address abuse issues throughout sports, as the amount of scandals across the country grows.
Matt Schembechler, son of Bo Schembechler, on Dr. Anderson
Matt Schembechler, son of Bo Schembechler, on Dr. Anderson and the University of Michigan
The Detroit News
His idea is for Michigan, the Big Ten and the NCAA to provide $50 million each to create an independent non-profit to identify and eradicate cultures of abuse. Citing the case of Michigan provost Martin Philbert, who was fired after sexual harassment claims — the school paid $9 million to the victims — Vaughn said he and others want more accountability, from president Mark Schlissel to the Regents.
“When does it end?” Vaughn said. “The time has passed for false apologies that place blame in the past. We will no longer be anonymous, we will no longer be faceless, we will no longer be silent. We will fight for those who feel they don’t have a voice.”
All voices should be heard, all options considered. How and when it ends is hard to predict, and it may be impossible to get to the full truth. But talking and listening with open minds is one way to start.
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