ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When the University of Michigan announced last week that allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct by a sports doctor were under investigation, former wrestler Mike DiSabato was stunned by the parallels to an abuse scandal at his alma mater, Ohio State.
The accusations by several people against Dr. Robert E. Anderson at Michigan immediately called to mind claims DiSabato and hundreds of other men made about Dr. Richard Strauss at Ohio State. The two cases had striking similarities. Two physicians, both dead for years, are now accused of using their positions to abuse male athletes and students.
Both men worked in athletics and student health care, were well-regarded during long tenures and at some point focused on researching or treating genital ailments.
“It’s unbelievable, yet totally believable,” DiSabato said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Former athletes have alleged that both doctors performed inappropriate or unnecessary exams. They said some athletes joked and warned each other about the behavior but did not challenge it because they were embarrassed, unsure of the medical necessity or unwilling to risk jeopardizing their spot on a team. They recalled nicknames for the physicians like “Dr. Jelly Paws” and “Dr. Drop Your Drawers.”
Former patients said they made coaches or other officials aware of concerns decades ago and got nowhere. Investigators said both men came under scrutiny by state regulators in the mid-1990s, but the cases were closed.
The accusations against Strauss and Anderson were brought to the attention of university officials by former wrestlers just a few months apart in 2018, but the resulting investigations and responses have followed different timelines.
Ohio State launched a school-funded investigation by a law firm in April 2018. Those investigators concluded last year that Strauss sexually abused young men for nearly two decades, starting in the late 1970s, and that school officials failed to stop him. The university has apologized and promised a “ monetary resolution,” though the federal lawsuits against the school remain unsettled after months of mediation.
University of Michigan officials said campus police began investigating Anderson after a former wrestler notified the athletic director in July 2018 that he was fondled during medical exams in the 1970s and had told his coach back then. After local prosecutors reviewed the investigation and determined no criminal charges could be authorized, the school announced Wednesday that an outside investigation by a law firm was underway.
Those investigators are likely to encounter similar hurdles as in the Ohio State investigation. Many years have passed. Memories have faded. Records may have been purged, and some employees or others with relevant knowledge may be dead.
The president of the University of Michigan apologizedThursday to “anyone who was harmed” by Anderson.
While no one has publicly defended Strauss, The Detroit News quoted Anderson’s children rebuffing the allegations against their father.In a police report, former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr was among those interviewed who said they did not see or hear about any inappropriate behavior by Anderson.
Meanwhile, some of Anderson’s accusers are eyeing potential legal action, including Olympic wrestler Andy Hrovat, the first athlete to make public accusations about being mistreated by the doctor.
“It’s clear that Andy has a claim,” said attorney Michael Nimmo, part of the Denver-based law firm representing Hrovat. “There are federal and state laws that will protect him and all student-athletes who were put in the same situation he was with respect to providing a safe environment to have medical exams done. We’re going to be investigating that to the fullest extent.”
Another attorney, John Manly, said former Michigan athletes alleging misconduct by Anderson have also reached out to his firm. Manly represented more than 200 victims in the abuse cases that led to the imprisonment of former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and a $500 million settlement by Michigan State.
MSU dropped a plan to investigate its handling of the Nassar complaints and release a public report, upsetting survivors who have urged the school’s new president to revive the investigation.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, told the AP that University of Michigan leaders should not follow Michigan State’s lead and should commit to a “truly independent review,” the findings of which would be made public. She said she’s dismayed, though, by how Michigan officials have handled things so far.
“The scary thing and the horrifying thing about these situations is that it’s always the same set of circumstances. It’s always people in authority who care more about reputation, who care more about some outside set of goals than they care about people, covering up reports of abuse,” Denhollander said.
Michigan State’s mishandling of the Nassar complaints led to a $4.5 million federal fine in September and a statement by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that such behavior “must not happen again, there or anywhere else.”
DeVos’ department also is investigating whether Ohio State handled reports about Strauss appropriately. The agency would not confirm Friday whether it has any investigation related to Michigan and Anderson.
Universities dealing with such allegations face heightened concerns about institutional trust after sexual misconduct investigations at other schools and throughout the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education.
“The public tends to perceive that the first step is figuring out how to defend oneself as an institution or an individual,” McDonough said. “Higher ed institutions are not about defending in these situations in the first instance. They are about figuring out what happened, or at least they should be.”