On Tuesday, May 12th a law firm released a report regarding allegations of sexual misconduct by former University of Michigan team doctor Robert Anderson. Anderson, who died in 2006, worked for the university in some capacity from 1966 to 2003. The report, which interviewed hundreds of patients and university employees, found that Anderson “engaged in a pervasive, decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct” throughout nearly four decades at the school. The misconduct appears to have occurred throughout his entire university career.
Anderson’s abuse “ranged from medically unnecessary hernia and rectal exams on patients seeking treatment for wholly unrelated issues, to manually stimulating patients and causing them to ejaculate, to quid pro quo relationships where he provided services in exchange for sexual contact.”
Consider how this came to light. The letter from former wrestler Tad Deluca (who says his allegations at the time were ignored) which kicked off the investigation into Dr. Anderson’s abuse was only received in 2018. Deluca wrote concerning abuse that occurred in the 1970s. It took decades after the alleged abuse began for there to be an investigation. This is despite Michigan having “received contemporaneous information about Dr. Anderson’s misconduct from multiple sources” since the 1970s. One of those alleged to have known is legendary head coach Bo Schembechler.
If you are too young to know Bo you know his legacy. Both his “the team” speech and his line that “those who stay will be champions” have become core parts of the Michigan brand. He is the most famous coach in Michigan history, a figure nearly sainted in Ann Arbor.
Michigan is far from the only school to have this problem. Staying within state lines, Michigan State bears responsibility for the crimes of Larry Nassar. Zoom out to the conference level and Ohio State had a team doctor assault players as well. At Penn State, in pretty similar fashion to what is alleged to have happened at Michigan, it has been argued that Joe Paterno covered up one of his assistants molesting children for years.
There is little reason to think that reporting mechanisms that fail to prevent sexual abuse succeed at preventing physical harm. Maryland literally had a player die because of team workouts, Iowa and Nebraska have had players hospitalized from rhabdo, and Illinois and Indiana have fired coaches in part because of alleged abuse within the last decade. There are fourteen teams in the Big Ten and I just named nine of them.
This isn’t an issue confined to any university, state, or conference. Nor is it reasonable to expect college athletics to fix the world. But we can and should be asking why there is a pattern of physical and sexual abuse occurring to college athletes, perpetrated by school employees given access to them because they are athletes. If we are to act like the term “student-athlete” has any higher meaning than a tax dodge, we must ask ourselves why our universities fail their students.
Why is it that college athletics is a place students are routinely harmed by the employees given access to them by the university? What has Clemson done to ensure that it won’t happen here? If Clemson is a family, what have we done to ensure there is no abuse within the family? Have we even checked?
Nor is the harm limited to things that happen to student-athletes. Stories of athletes running rampant on college campuses have been a part of college athletics since the birth of the beast. College football is a place where Tom Osborne could go from being alleged to have his assistant hide a player’s gun, to Congress, then come back to Nebraska as AD. Winning fixes everything in college football, even things winning shouldn’t.
At Baylor, for a time, winning was able to “fix” athletes’ sexual assaults. To quote since-fired university president Ken Starr, “success in athletics means all boats rise”. A lawsuit from victims, which alleged that Baylor’s administration had created a “hunting ground for sexual predators,” claims that the university was indifferent to or ignored claims from the victims of dozens of sexual assaults committed by dozens of perpetrators, largely on the football team. Baylor’s Title IX coordinator at the time resigned saying that she felt she was not allowed to do her job due to, “a group of senior leaders that made sure that they were protecting the brand, I believe, instead of our students”.
Is Clemson that different from Baylor? Of course, we hope, want, and need to believe so. But how do we know it isn’t? Because from where I see it Clemson also has an appearance-conscious administration that has successfully used football to advance the university’s goals; in Clemson’s case, those goals include further expansion and cementing itself among the nation’s top twenty public universities.
Don’t tell me your evidence is Dabo Swinney is a good coach. After learning what we learned about Joe Paterno, formerly the kindly grandfather figure of the sport, I just do not trust college football coaches. Perhaps Dabo is sincere and maybe he’s jet sweep Joel Osteen. College football coaches have fallen too many times before, in far too many fashions, for me to take them at face value.
I understand pointed skepticism of the most famous coach in program history is uncomfortable; it wasn’t comfortable at University of Michigan or at Penn State either and look what happened.
I write this not to single Clemson out or allege anything nefarious has been done by the university. What I argue is that, in light of the failures by other universities towards their students, we should not act like it is impossible that Clemson could fail its own students too. In light of that, perhaps we should ask questions as to what we can do to prevent Clemson from becoming the next Michigan, the next Baylor.
Our university has students on campus at this very moment who do not feel listened to by the university with regards to dealing with sexual assault. Many held a sit-in outside of Sykes Hall last October after asking the university for action for “a year and nothing has happened.” These are uncomfortable questions to ask but the discomfort does not make them not worth asking. I am not engaged in idle speculation when I ask how we know that Clemson University is not failing its students.
If I seem harshly skeptical it is only because I have seen many other schools fail to help the students in their care. The harshness is borne from a belief that asking hard questions now can help prevent tragedies in the future. Because when I look at Michigan, at Baylor, at wherever the next scandal breaks in this sport and ask, “Why couldn’t this happen at Clemson?” - I am left with alarmingly few answers.