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Preserving Bo Schembechler’s legacy should not outweigh response to Anderson report

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The findings of the WilmerHale investigation paint a sad and despicable picture of inaction over several decades.

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“No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team, and if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration what effect does it have on my Team?”


(Editor’s note: This article is an opinion piece that contains graphic descriptions of sexual misconduct.)

The University of Michigan has been the subject of national headlines this week due to the findings of an independent report on the sexual misconduct of former doctor Robert Anderson. Details inside of it included instances that involved football players and have called into question former head coach Bo Schembechler’s involvement or knowledge of what occurred.

Given that Schembechler’s name adorns the current football facility and a statue of the famed coach greets guests at the front door, conversations about whether that should still be the case are here and warranted.

The WilmerHale law firm, whom Michigan hired to run the independent investigation, released a 240-page report earlier this week detailing the decades of abuse Anderson inflicted on students and athletes from 1967-2003.

The findings were unsurprisingly grotesque, graphic and abhorrent. Many of the cases involved unnecessary hernia checks and rectal examinations for unrelated issues ranging all the way from stimulation of male patients and trading services for sexual favors.

Anderson was even fired from his post in the University Health Service before being reassigned to the athletic department, where he worked with several sports programs. The football program was among the many teams he tended to while he was on campus. The report also seems to suggest Anderson targeted vulnerable students who were desperate for treatment.

Schembechler is known for how he molded Michigan into a championship contender on the field in his 21 seasons as head football coach. However, an unavoidable topic surrounding his legacy now includes his lack of response to players that came to him as victims of Anderson’s rampant sexual abuse.

There are at least three instances in the report where he was made aware by his players of the abuse going on. There are also allegations where it is stated that assistant coaches on Schembechler’s staff used the threat of an Anderson exam as a motivational tool in practices.

Here are a few of the bullet points from the WilmerHale report:

“A member of the football team told us that Dr. Anderson gave him a rectal examination and fondled his testicles during a PPE in 1976. The student-athlete told us he informed Coach Bo Schembechler that he did not want to receive any future physicals from Dr. Anderson and that “things were going down there that weren’t right.” According to the student-athlete, Mr. Schembechler explained that annual PPEs were required to play football at the University. The patient continued to see Dr. Anderson and made no further reports about Dr. Anderson’s misconduct. Mr. Schembechler is deceased. The same student-athlete told us that his position coach used the threat of an examination with Dr. Anderson as a motivational tool. We interviewed the coach, who denied the allegation.”

“A member of the football team in the late 1970s told DPSS that he received a genital examination from Dr. Anderson, who fondled his testicles, and a rectal examination, during which the student-athlete pushed Dr. Anderson’s hand away. The student-athlete told DPSS that he asked Mr. Schembechler “soon” after the exam, “What’s up with the finger in the butt treatment by Dr. Anderson?” According to the student-athlete, Mr. Schembechler told him to “toughen up.” The student-athlete told DPSS that “you do not mess with Bo, and the matter was dropped.” The student-athlete, who is represented by counsel, declined our interview request.”

“Another student-athlete told us Dr. Anderson conducted genital and rectal examinations during a PPE in the fall of 1982. The student-athlete told us that during the examination Dr. Anderson “play[ed]” with the patient’s penis and made comments about its size. Following the examination, the student-athlete told us he informed Mr. Schembechler that Dr. Anderson had “mess[ed]” with his penis and that he did not “agree” with the type of physical examination that Dr. Anderson performed. Mr. Schembechler reportedly told the student-athlete that he would look into it, but the student-athlete never heard anything further about it. The student-athlete continued to see Dr. Anderson but did not raise the matter again, fearing that doing so could jeopardize his scholarship.”

“A student-athlete alleges that Mr. Schembechler sent him to Dr. Anderson for migraines in the early 1980s. On at least three occasions, the student-athlete alleges, Dr. Anderson gave the patient a digital rectal examination. The student-athlete allegedly told Mr. Schembechler, who instructed him to report the matter to Athletic Director Don Canham. The patient alleges that he did so twice, in 1982 and 1983, but Mr. Canham took no action. The student athlete’s attorney declined our request to interview his client.”

“In 1991, a student-athlete on the football team sought treatment from Dr. Anderson at Schembechler Hall for an injured knee. During the examination, Dr. Anderson spent a “long period of time” examining the patient’s genitals.”

“Multiple University personnel who worked with Mr. Schembechler told us that had he been aware of Dr. Anderson’s misconduct with patients, he would not have tolerated it,” the report said.

The problem with this line of thought is there is not a lot of common sense reasoning behind it. Schembechler was the de facto mayor of Ann Arbor for nearly 50 years. A lot of information went through him, especially having also held the post of athletic director following his time as head football coach. He held an office inside the football building until the day he died nearly 15 years ago.

To suggest Schembechler did not have an inkling of what was going on defies common logic given the number of times his name appears in the report. The allegations that an assistant coach used the threat of an Anderson exam as a coaching tool is disgusting and suggests a program-wide awareness that his actions made players uncomfortable.

There are pages upon pages of summaries of victims recounting what happened to them. WilmerHale’s report states Anderson committed sexual misconduct on “countless occasions” and that the findings listed in the report came from nearly 600 former patients, more than 300 of which were interviewed. About 90 percent of those interviewed were male. They also state it is likely many more were abused than those they spoke to.

This is all from the report that was done by the law firm the University of Michigan hired to do an independent investigation. This is not sour grapes or hearsay. These are first-hand accounts from a handful of hundreds of victims who contributed to the report. There are more that have not come forward yet or potentially never will.

These findings are a part of Schembechler’s legacy now. It is tied into the story and an unfortunate and sad example of why building monuments to inherently flawed men is always risky business.

It is likely true Schembechler is every bit the great coach and family man the tales of yesteryear say he is. He did a lot for Ann Arbor and is woven into the fabric of the community. However, we are now left with no choice but to discuss what he did not do when we bring up the totality of who he was during his time at Michigan.

Schembechler is a god in aviator sunglasses to the thousands of men he stood in front of at Michigan. To the legends, All-Americans and stars of Michigan’s past, he was a positive instrumental figure in their lives long beyond football. But players like Chuck Christian were violated to the point where the sound of a rubber glove snapping decades later brought back memories of pain and suffering.

Schembechler and Canham’s failure to take the concerns of those who spoke up seriously is symbolic of a larger societal issue of the time. Any man who shared concerns about being violated was seen as weak and lacked toughness that was not befitting of a “Michigan Man.” It was that way in a lot of places and in dealing with men in positions of power. It is unspeakably sad and terribly gross.

Men like Anderson, Schembechler and Canham have long passed away, which makes it impossible for them to stand trial or shed light on what occurred. But the damage is done and there is no justice to be served here. For the victims of Anderson’s crimes, several decades of emotional and physical abuse cannot be erased.

Schembechler famously said no one man is more important than the team. No coach is more important than the team. By extension, no coach or his legacy is more important than an institution.

Removing the statue and renaming the football building does not erase Schembechler’s accomplishments, nor does it serve as a remedy for the damage that has long been done. We name buildings and build statues to immortalize or deify people. Conversations as to whether that should still be the case for men like Schembechler and Canham, whose name is on the natatorium, need to be on the table.

If there is anyone alive that was part of enabling Anderson’s actions, they must be held accountable and their ties to the university must be severed.

The university should not seek to wash their hands of these men, either. Michigan is quick to tout its proud and storied history as an academic and athletic powerhouse. Now, it must own and acknowledge the totality of the legacies involved. That involves having tough conversations and going out of its way to get in front of what happened.

What occurred while all these men were in power is part of the story now. Michigan must find a way to tell those stories truthfully while also moving forward and doing right by the victims of Anderson’s heinous acts of abuse.