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What we know about the University of Michigan sports sexual assault scandal

Bo Schembechler
The statue of legendary football coach Bo Schembechler is prominent on the Ann Arbor campus. Some are calling for the statue to come down after the former coach was accused by multiple players and his son of ignoring complaints of sexual assault by a longtime athletic department doctor, Robert Anderson. (Bridge photo by Arjun Thakkar)

Since February 2020, when the University of Michigan announced that it was investigating allegations of sexual abuse against the late Dr. Robert Anderson, much more information has emerged about his alleged misconduct, the people who claim they were abused, and the extent to which U-M officials within the athletic department, including college football hall of fame coach Bo Schembechler, may have known about his reported behavior.

An independent probe contracted by the university suggested over 800 people may have been abused by Anderson while he was a physician at the university. Many of these individuals were former students and athletes who attended the school in the 1960s and 1970s, and several lawsuits have been filed against U-M that claim officials knew about Anderson’s reported behavior and did nothing to stop it.

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With the university’s Board of Regents set to meet Thursday and survivors of Anderson calling on the board to let the state of Michigan investigate how the university addressed the doctor’s abuse, it’s worth catching up on the details surrounding a scandal that has embroiled one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities.

Who is Robert Anderson? What is he accused of?

Dr. Robert Anderson was a physician who was the director of University Health Services at the University of Michigan, a team doctor for the school’s athletic department, and a clinical instructor for the medical school. Anderson conducted physical examinations of student athletes that were required for their participation in activities. He was employed with the university for nearly 40 years, joining the UHS staff in 1966 and leaving the school in 2003. Anderson died in 2008.

A number of sexual misconduct allegations have emerged against Anderson, alleging that he used his position to abuse patients while working as a physician for the university. Anderson allegedly conducted inappropriate physical exams on patients, digitally raped patients, and requested sexual favors in exchange for writing letters that would qualify them for exemption from the Vietnam War draft and discounts on expensive medications.

Who is making the accusations?

The primary individuals coming forward to accuse Anderson of sexual misconduct are former U-M students and athletes.

In February 2020, the university opened a hotline to allow those accusing Anderson of abuse to file complaints. Within two weeks, over 100 complaints came in from individuals alleging Anderson abused them. A January court filing suggests there could be more than 850 victims of Anderson’s misconduct.

One of the University of Michigan Regents, Ron Weiser, said in March 2020 that he was abused by Anderson while he was a freshman wrestler and a student at the university from 1963-1967.

How is former U-M football coach Bo Schembechler involved? Why is this important?

Former athletes have alleged that Bo Schembechler, a revered former U-M football coach and athletic director who died in 2006, was aware of Anderson’s conduct and took no action to put an end to it.

Last week, Bo’s estranged adopted son, Matt Schembechler, spoke at a press conference with other Anderson accusers, and said he told his father Anderson abused him during a required physical in 1969 when he was 10 years old. According to Matt Schembechler, Bo lashed out at him physically and responded, “I don’t want to hear this … never talk to me about this again.”

At the same press conference, former football player Daniel Kwiatkowski said he was anally penetrated by Anderson during rectal exams multiple times as a freshman. When he first told the coach he was violated by Anderson in 1977, Kwiatkowski alleged Schembechler responded by telling him to “toughen up.”

The accusation is significant because it suggests U-M officials, including former athletic director Don Canham, knew about Anderson’s misconduct and allowed him to remain employed with the university. 

If the allegations happened decades ago, why are they emerging now?

It’s common for survivors of sexual assault to not talk about their assaults for years, often out of shame, guilt, or a fear that they would not be believed.

Still, there is evidence to suggest some victims did try to report Anderson’s abuse decades ago, and were ignored or punished.

The University of Michigan claims it was first made aware of the allegations against Anderson when former wrestler Tad DeLuca contacted Athletic Director Warde Manuel in July 2018 to disclose abuse he faced by Anderson in the 1970s. U-M internally investigated the allegation before announcing in February 2020 it would be opening a hotline to hear from victims of Anderson. U-M alum Robert Stone was the first person to publicly disclose allegations against Anderson, alleging Anderson sexually abused him in 1971.  

At a press conference in February 2020, DeLuca said he wrote a letter in 1975 to his wrestling coach Bill Johannesen and Canham, the AD, describing the abuse. He alleged he was kicked off the team soon after, though Johannesen has denied receiving the letter, stating, “Not one wrestler ever came up to me and accused Dr. Anderson.”

Others also allege they reported the abuse to Canham and that he did not act on their disclosure.

How has the University of Michigan responded? Has U-M investigated the allegations?

The university has apologized to those who were harmed by Anderson while he was a physician with the school. 

U-M contracted the law firm WilmerHale, which was also investigating sexual misconduct allegations against the school’s second-highest administrator, Provost Martin Philbert, to conduct an independent investigation into Anderson’s misconduct and how the university responded to his actions. The firm released a 240-page report in May that found there was “no doubt” Anderson engaged in sexual misconduct. The report also details several instances in which athletic department officials, including Schembechler, were notified of Anderson’s abuse.

“The fact that no one took meaningful action is particularly disturbing in light of the nature, scope, and duration of Dr. Anderson’s misconduct,” the report said.

If Anderson is dead now, what possible legal repercussions are there?

Survivors of Anderson’s abuse have brought individual lawsuits against the university, arguing the school tried to conceal the doctor’s misconduct. The first such lawsuit was filed by a former wrestler in March 2020, and in Aug. 2020, it was reported that more than 70 lawsuits had been filed.

A class-action lawsuit was also filed against U-M in March 2020 accusing the university of being complicit in Anderson’s behavior and allowing him to sexually abuse students while he was a physician at the school.

If lawsuits brought against the University of Michigan are successful, how much money could U-M eventually pay in compensation?

Settlements could easily total hundreds of millions of dollars, if recent similar scandals at other universities are a guide.

In 2018, MSU reached a $500 million settlement with over 300 women and girls who were sexually assaulted by former sports physician Larry Nassar. Nassar was sentenced for up to 175 years in prison for abusing female athletes who came to him for treatment of sports injuries. 

Penn State University reached a $109 million settlement in 2017 with over 33 victims of Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach who sexually abused athletes while he was employed with the university from 1969 to 1999.

Ohio State University has paid over $45 million in settlements to 185 victims of Richard Strauss, an athletic physician who sexually abused athletes while he worked at the university from 1978 to 1997.

Will the University of Michigan take down the Bo Schembechler statue?

It’s unclear if U-M will change the name of Schembechler Hall, the school’s football facility, or take down the statue of the famous football coach, located east of Michigan Stadium. Penn State removed the statue of similarly revered football coach Joe Paterno in 2012 after a report indicated he knew about and attempted to cover up allegations of child sex abuse against Sandusky. 

Wiping names off university facilities has been done before. In 2018, the U-M Board of Regents voted to change the name of a science building formerly named after University President Clarence Cook Little, who was controversial for vocally supporting eugenics. The decision came after a formal request from faculty members who asked that the building’s name be reviewed.

Has anyone denied these allegations?

Current U-M Football Coach Jim Harbaugh, who was a U-M football player under Schembechler from 1983 to 1986, said in July 2020 he “never saw” Anderson exhibit any inappropriate conduct. Last week, Harbaugh defended Schembechler and said his former coach would have taken action if he was aware of Anderson’s alleged misconduct. 

Other members of Schembechler’s family issued a statement on Tuesday claiming the football coach was not aware of Anderson’s alleged abuse.

A group of former football players also began an online petition on Monday to contest claims that Schembechler knew about Anderson’s abuse. The petition was closed with 182 supporters on Tuesday afternoon.

Will the state attorney general investigate the university’s handling of the case?

While survivors of Anderson have pushed for Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate the university, Nessel has said she will not conduct such an investigation unless the Board of Regents fully cooperates with the state and waives attorney-client privilege that would allow it to avoid disclosing information. 

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette and Nessel, his successor, previously investigated Michigan State University’s handling of abuse allegations against Nassar, but the inquiry was closed when MSU used attorney-client privilege to avoid giving documents to the state. 

Additionally, as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, U-M Regent Weiser, who has a contentious relationship with Nessel, a Democrat, opposes having the attorney general investigate U-M.

“As the only regent who was a victim of Dr. Anderson, Dana Nessel is the last person I'd call for justice,” Weiser said in a tweet through the Michigan GOP account. “She's politicized every inch of her office.”

The University of Michigan Board of Regents is meeting Thursday. Is the board expected to consider any actions connected to the scandal?

The agenda for the Board’s Thursday meeting at the moment does not detail any actions related to Anderson’s abuse. It’s possible that University President Mark Schlissel and the Regents may discuss the allegations surrounding Schembechler and could decide to take a vote on the issue even though it is not on the agenda.     

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