COLUMBUS, Ohio — The most far-reaching sexual abuse scandal in the history of Ohio college athletics went on for close to twenty years at The Ohio State University. The survivors are mostly male athletes, including Olympians, UFC champions, and NFL players who allege they were groped, fondled, and even drugged and raped by Dr. Richard Strauss. OSU's own investigation revealed the school ignored complaints for years. But when it came to seek justice, survivors say Ohio once again looked the other way.
An open secret
A native of Shakers Heights, Will Knight walked on to Ohio State wrestling team in winter of 1992 with something to prove. "It was very special to me that people appreciated that I was a D1 wrestler at Ohio State," Knight said. He was determined to stay on the team, but unprepared for what that meant as a male athlete at OSU.
Strauss was the official team doctor for wrestling when Will went for his first physical in the fall of '92. "He’s sitting eye level with your crotch and he gives you an elaborate groin physical," he said. "I’ve never had an exam like this before."
Knight quickly understood why teammates warned him about Strauss. Each visit to Strauss included an invasive and unnecessary exam. Strauss was the subject of jokes and nervous laughter; it seemed to be an open secret at the OSU Athletic Department.
Knight said "Doc" Strauss also seemed to be everywhere. Knight said he would sit naked in the locker room staring at the "pretty boys" on the team and shower alongside the athletes under his care. Knight said they would sometimes yell at Strauss to turn around, but his behavior continued unabated.
Knight said he was "trying to fit into this place (OSU)" and feared if he punched "this small, little white guy," he would get kicked out. Strauss, he said, held an incredible amount of power over the athletes in his care.
'A tremendous impact'
Strauss determined if athletes were fit to compete, which meant a full exam for even minor injuries. “If you didn’t, you weren’t cleared. And if you weren’t cleared, you weren’t competing," Rocky Ratliff said.
The Marion native represents Knight and 48 other victims. Ratliff is also a survivor. “He’s (Strauss) telling you things to make it okay to do things to you," he said. “I mean, he’s touching you and you can feel his breath on you.”
He remembers sitting in the sauna to cut weight while Strauss sat with him. Naked. Visibly aroused. Ratliff eventually quit school. His excessive drinking soon became full-blown alcoholism. Even after getting sober and going to law school, he said the abuse has had a "tremendous impact" on his life.
“I don’t go to doctors," he said, wiping away tears. "I don’t go into locker rooms."
A shocking realization
Only in 2018, when former wrestler Mike DiSabato blew the whistle and Ohio State launched an investigation, did Ratliff and Knight learn the extent of Strauss's abuse. OSU's report found it spanned Strauss's entire tenure, from 1978 to 1998, and included hundreds of male athletes, in sports from fencing to gymnastics to wrestling, as well as male undergraduates treated by Strauss at the school's student health center. The report found Strauss committed at least 1,429 acts of fondling and 47 rapes.
The scope of Strauss's abuse is comparable to Larry Nassar, the doctor convicted of abusing hundreds of female gymnasts at Michigan State University. Yet, Ohio State is offering settlements worth only a fraction of what was offered to the Michigan State gymnasts and victims of George Tyndall, a USC gynecologist accused of abusing hundreds of patients.
The Michigan State gymnasts received an average of $1.2 million. The USC patients received even more, an average of $1.6 million. So far, OSU said it has settled with 185 survivors in 17 lawsuits who have received an average of $252,551.
“It’s clear that they (OSU) don’t care about us as much as they care about them," Ratliff said.
A surprising offer
Through its Strauss Individual Settlement Program announced in May, OSU Media Relations Director Benjamin Johnson wrote “... the university is committed to providing an average settlement amount of up to $252,551 to individual survivors involved in five of the active cases against Ohio State. Individual settlement amounts will vary and be determined by an independent administrator. Similar to the previous settlements, the program offers tiered compensation on an individual basis depending on the nature of the conduct and other factors.”
Before setting up the program, Ratliff said The Ohio State University has also attempted to have the survivors' claims thrown out, citing Ohio's statute of limitations, which are arbitrary legal deadlines for filing a civil lawsuit. In this case, Ohio's law says a Title IX claim alleging sexual abuse must be filed within two years of the incident.
"It’s been pending for years. It could be thrown out any day," Ratliff said.
So far, more than 400 former OSU students, mostly male athletes, have alleged Strauss abused them in lawsuits. There are 10 active lawsuits that have yet to be settled, according to Johnson.
A continued 'cover-up'
Marci Hamilton, the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children and preventing abuse and the leading national expert in statutes of limitations said that “Ohio continues to be one of the worst states in the country" when it comes to assisting sexual abuse victims.
“It has been cruel," Hamilton said.
For example, Michigan lawmakers opened what's known as a "revival window" to give Nassar's victims more time to file legal claims. California opened a three-year window starting on January 1, 2020 for expired sexual abuse claims against perpetrators and private organizations, according to CHILD USA's "SOL Tracker."
READ MORE: CHILD USA: 2021 SOL Tracker
Ohio Rep. Brent Hillyer (R - District 98) introduced H.B. 249 in May 2019 to create a revival window for Strauss victims. There were six hearings in the House Civil Justice Committee, which allowed for public testimony from survivors and experts, including Hamilton. But the bill was never voted on and expired. An aide for Rep. Hillyer told News 5 there are no plans to reintroduce the legislation.
"It is critically important that this window open so you can learn what really did happen in your own state," Hamilton said. "The fact that it’s not coming forward means, tragically, lawmakers in Ohio are choosing to help with the cover-up rather than protect the children of Ohio."
Ohio State Media Relations Director Benjamin Johnson declined News 5's request for an on-camera interview. He sent News 5 the following statement:
"For more than three years, Ohio State has led the effort to investigate and expose Richard Strauss’ abuse and the university’s failure at the time to prevent it. We express our deep regret and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’ abuse.
"Strauss was a university employed physician from 1978 to 1998. He died in 2005. Ohio State is a fundamentally different university today and over the past 20 years, has committed substantial resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct. These actions include new policies, programs, staffing and tools throughout the university, including athletics and the medical center. They are summarized here.
"Upon learning of allegations from decades ago in spring 2018, Ohio State immediately announced an independent investigation. The university reached out broadly to 115,000 alumni and former student athletes who attended Ohio State during Strauss’ employment at the university and to 147,000 current students, faculty and staff to inform them of the investigation and encourage them to share any information they had with the independent investigators. The university kept the community informed throughout the course of the investigation, creating a website for documents and updates, providing periodic public reports on the progress, and publishing the findings of the independent investigation and all relevant public records online. Ohio State has also welcomed survivors to share their experiences with university leadership and the Board of Trustees.
"Since February 2019, Ohio State has been covering the cost of professionally certified counseling services and treatment for anyone affected, as well as reimbursing costs for preexisting counseling and treatment related to Strauss. To connect with these services, or if individuals are at all uncertain about how to proceed and have questions, please contact Praesidium at 888-961-9273 or visit https://website.praesidiuminc.com/wp/osu/ There is no limit to the counseling and treatment, and it will continue to be offered as long as anyone needs it."
'A huge narrative'
Knight hasn't settled his case against the university, but he said it's not because of money. Knight said he's unwilling to sign the nondisclosure agreement that would prohibit him from speaking out.
“This is a huge narrative in my life and a lot of people’s lives," Knight said. “I gotta be able to tell this story because this can’t happen anymore."
“How am I going to do that as a coach?” Knight said. Now the wrestling coach at his alma mater, Shaker Heights High School, he said he wants to protect the students; a few have already gone on to wrestle in college.
“If I can’t use this to help change anything, I’m not gonna settle with them,” he said.
Strauss masked his abuse as treatment. Ratliff said he referred to the athletes as "thoroughbreds" who needed to be kept in top shape and his actions were simply "thorough" in order to make sure the young athletes did not have testicular cancer or sexually transmitted infections.
Strauss joined OSU's staff in 1978 as an assistant professor of medicine. Reports and victims say he soon volunteered to work with athletes at Larkins Hall, the school's primary physical education building, which has been demolished. By 1979, there were already complaints against him.