January 29, 2023

Opinion: The urgent lesson of the University of Michigan sexual abuse scandal

Matt Schembechler said that when he told his father — who was in his first year as head coach — Bo Schembechler responded by punching him in the chest. He said that he and his mother reported Anderson’s behavior to athletic director Don Canham, who fired Anderson, but it is Matt Schembechler’s understanding that his father had Anderson reinstated, CNN reported.
Anderson, who worked at the University of Michigan for 37 years, went on to see student patients until he retired in 2003. He died in 2008; Bo Schembechler died in 2006.
The allegations against Anderson come a month after a university-commissioned report revealed that the doctor had “engaged in sexual misconduct with patients on countless occasions.” That finding in and of itself is abhorrent. But somehow it’s even worse to imagine that Bo Schembechler and university officials were aware of the abuse and allowed it to continue.

And yet, this scenario has in recent years proven more common than one would think, considering the crime seems so obvious and so devastating: People in charge failing to act — either carelessly or willfully — and victims falling through the cracks, even when they are courageous enough to come forward, as in Matt Schembechler’s case. Here was a child who managed to tell an adult about his experiences, only to be told, essentially, that he should have kept it quiet.

Indeed, several other survivors have come forward to say that Bo Schembechler and other school administrators either turned a blind eye or, in an even more damning allegation, used it as a way to keep players in line. According to Gilvanni Johnson, a former football player, the coaches would joke about the doctor and threaten a “Dr. Anderson exam if (they) did not think we were working hard enough.” Anderson had even earned a reputation around campus as “Dr Anal,” said Johnson, who claimed the misconduct was widely known.
These details are extremely troubling in the way they point to just how ingrained the tolerance for Anderson’s behavior appears to have become. (UM President Mark Schlissel and the board of regents issued a statement that condemned the “tragic misconduct” of Anderson and expressed sympathy for the victims. “We are committed to resolving their claims and to continuing the court-guided confidential mediation process,” the statement said.)
The courage displayed by the victims in telling their stories, despite having been ignored for so long, is heartening. But the fact is, while 43% of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, they are often left out of the conversation about victims of sexual violence. Both male and female victims of sexual abuse can take years to come forward, for reasons that include confusion over what happened to them and worry they won’t be believed.
In one example, a Boston man who came forward in January 40 years after he says he was assaulted by his Boy Scout troop leader recalls that he “was afraid to tell anybody, afraid to be ridiculed, and afraid of how people would think of me,” he told the Boston Globe. He didn’t even tell his own father until just before the Globe story was published, and credits the abuse he endured with depression in his early teen years, during which he turned to alcohol, drugs and sex as a means of distraction. “I contemplated hurting myself,” he said.

That’s likely because the notion of men as victims — or displaying any sort of weakness at all — is too often unwelcome in our society. This is one reason why the allegations against Anderson were covered up by so many for so long — and perhaps why this scandal has come to light only after most of the relevant parties have died, including Anderson, Bo Schembechler, and Thomas Easthope, the university’s former assistant vice president of student services, who allegedly failed to respond to countless accusations

It’s one reason, too, why the allegations were dismissed as “locker room talk” and why athletes who reported Anderson to Bo Schembechler were told to “toughen up,” according to the university-commissioned report. There remains a powerful shame and stigma attached to sexual abuse of men, which is often rooted in homophobia and rigid definitions of masculinity that perpetuate a sense that, if it happens, the response should just be to “get over it.”

One survivor, former wrestler Thomas DeLuca, said he was stripped of his scholarship and kicked off the team after he wrote a nine-page letter to his coach in 1975 about his experience with Anderson. Johnson says that after he reported having been fondled by the doctor during a routine exam, fellow players told him not to “rock the boat” and Schembechler went back on a promise to let him play basketball for the school.

This reluctance to acknowledge the prevalence of male sexual abuse is only heightened in a male-dominated environment where masculinity and “toughness” are celebrated and rewarded — culturally and often financially — such as in college and professional sports. In a way, to a predator, male athletes may be perfect victims.

At the same time, it’s important to understand that when talking about the sexual abuse of men — or women — there isn’t one “type” of victim, though stories of sexual abuse in sports have made headlines repeatedly in recent years. Anderson has also been accused of abusing pilots and other aviation workers as part of his work providing medical exams for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Whether Bo Schembechler’s gross negligence in allowing Anderson to abuse hundreds of young men, including, allegedly, his own son, was rooted in evil or professional ambition doesn’t matter. He should be considered an accomplice to sexual violence, as culpable as Anderson himself.

And while Matt Schembechler’s reluctance to share his story of abuse until after his father’s death is understandable, one hopes that his example in coming forward will help more men have the courage to do the same — earlier and loudly.

We might see that shift if we create institutional avenues to come forward and foster a culture where victims are not punished when they do. As seen in the case of the Boston Boy Scout, who told his story after learning that several other men had begun to come forward with similar accounts of abuse at the hands of their troop leaders, one person’s strength can pave the way for many others. It is imperative that institutions and organizations through which adults and children interact have clear and effective systems in place for reporting, investigating, and addressing incidents of abuse, and that those systems are checked regularly.

It’s also important for parents of boys do their best to encourage open communication with their sons — and daughters — to make it clear that abuse of any sort is never their fault. And that if they aren’t sure, the best way to be sure is to share the story with a trusted, safe adult.

Sadly, in the case of Matt Schembechler, despite his mother’s failed attempt to intervene, the parents allegedly offered no protection, ultimately. This is why although institutional systems are necessary, it’s important to remember that the responsibility for keeping children safe can come down to a single individual. Chances are good that if a child reports once to an adult to little, or detrimental effect, he will not report again — which could allow a cycle of abuse to continue.

And, of course, the more the world can begin to understand that any male can be a victim of sexual abuse, whether a college football player, a pilot, or a little boy, the more likely it will be that behavior by men like Robert Anderson, and Bo Schembechler, does not go unchecked in the future — that perpetrators of such abuse are punished and their victims are given the support and care they need to make them whole.

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