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Opinion: Talk of Bo Schembechler’s Michigan legacy overlooks real villain: Robert Anderson

  • June 17, 2021

At one point during his college football days, Jon Vaughn was told by the team doctor that he needed his sperm for research purposes.

Vaughn was a star running back for Michigan football. He says he was “terrified of cancer” because his mother was battling it. This led him to do whatever doctors told him to do, especially if couched in the pretense of cancer screening.

And so, as difficult as this is to write, and as horrific as it is for Vaughn to recall, he allowed that doctor to stimulate him so that the sperm could be produced. It happened, according to Vaughn, more than once.

This is the level of terror that one human monster named Robert Anderson allegedly inflicted — on students, athletes and hundreds of others who came to him in the naïve belief that a doctor, as sworn to by the Hippocratic oath, will do you no harm.

Instead, the harm never stopped. It went on for the 36 years that Anderson worked at U-M. It goes on to this day, in the restless nights and haunted thoughts of his former patients.

In a news conference Wednesday morning never quite seen before in Ann Arbor, abuse survivors, dozens of them, stood in street clothes in the hot sunshine of a Main Street lawn — men, women, Black, white, middle-age and older — all behind a podium that was set up just right, with the huge “M” of the Big House in the backdrop of every camera shot.

The University of Michigan was the target of their wrath. Their lawyers want the U-M Board of Regents to cooperate with a state attorney general investigation into decades of abuse by Anderson, and, almost more importantly, the coaches and administrators whom they say never stopped him, seeking justice and presumably a bigger-than-you-can-imagine settlement.

Wednesday, as with a similar news conference last week, brought stories that left you shivering or clenching your fists. The alleged acts are abusive and unforgivable.

Former Michigan athletes demand state AG investigate handling of Robert Anderson reports

MORE:Devastating stories of abuse

How does one man get to inflict this much damage? Don’t you find yourself asking that today? How does one man harm so many people, yet stay on the job for 36 years, retire without a blemish, and only now, 13 years after his death, endure the arrows fired by his accusers that die in the dirt above his grave?

“All I know is I should have never met Dr. Anderson,” Vaughn said.

He’s right. By the time Vaughn endured what he called years of being “ruthlessly, repeatedly and regularly raped by Dr. Anderson, at least 45 times” between 1988 and 1991, plenty of other people had come forward to complain about him.

Those stories, now being revealed, show a perverse abuse that seemed to fall into a pattern: Players would go to Anderson for any number of medical reasons — but always for annual physicals — and he would perform unneeded rectal and testicle examinations on them, sometimes making sexual suggestions as he did.

It didn’t matter what your true ailment was. Your pants almost always came down. Richard Goldman was a student sports announcer in the early 1980s who stood by that microphone Wednesday morning and said that he was sent to Anderson after complaining to Schembechler about migraine headaches.

Goldman claimed that Anderson (in the middle of an exam about headaches, remember) reached down and grabbed Goldman’s testicles. Further abuse attempts happened two more times, Goldman said.

Similar charges were echoed by a former Michigan wrestler named Tad DeLuca. And last week, two former football players and Schembechler’s son, Matt, told horrible tales of Anderson’s allegedly disgusting practices.

“You can’t imagine that we’re all in a conspiracy, corroborating to take down the university we love,” Vaughn insisted. “I still cry for this situation. I still cry for my brothers that I know that can only still say to me, ‘Me, too.’ ’’ 

Who tried to stop this monster?

His tears are real. The stories feel real. Even those who staunchly support Schembechler seem to reach out in empathy for the accusers, some of whom were former teammates.

“I’ve got tremendous sympathy for those who suffered the misconduct of Dr. Anderson,” former Wolverines lineman Jim Brandstatter recently told the media. Brandstatter played for Schembechler and was treated by Anderson in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “But in my opinion, to tie Bo to that is also wrong, especially just on allegations.”

The allegations spoken Wednesday did not implicate Schembechler as harshly as charges by his son did last week. On Wednesday, Vaughn said that despite the continued abuse, he never spoke to Schembechler about it. Goldman, the college radio announcer, said he immediately told Schembechler, who told him to quickly go tell Canham, then the athletic director.

Goldman said the first time, Canham ignored him, and when it happened again, he ignored him again. The third and final time, after Goldman refused to submit to another Anderson physical when merely seeking medication for his migraines, Goldman went straight to Canham and loudly complained that nothing had been done.

To which Canham, according to Goldman, replied, “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Goldman said Schembechler was so upset by that, he marched into Canham’s office and behind closed doors, screamed about Anderson still being there.

“Bo read him the riot act. I could hear Bo clearly. … He was telling Canham, ‘What in the hell are you doing? Why hasn’t this man been fired? This is the third time that this has happened. Why have you done nothing?’

“Whatever one thinks of Bo Schembechler doesn’t matter. Can we laser-focus on the fact that the employee went to the employer (and) the employer was Don Canham?’ “

‘Accountability and transparency’

And on this saga goes. The camps are dividing into those who believe Anderson was a deceitful and perverted lone wolf who always denied any wrongdoing, and those who believe Schembechler, Canham and other U-M staff not only knew about Anderson’s behavior, they covered it up or looked the other way.

A number of the former football players coming forward seem hesitant to throw Schembechler under the same bus as Anderson. The problem is for lawsuits to have real teeth, and for a desired state investigation to come to the desired conclusion, they need Schembechler — and Canham and the other coaches and staff members — to have been cognizant of what transpired. That implicates the school itself. And it’s the school that must provide “accountability and transparency,” according to the lawyers Wednesday.

“This is not about Bo,” Vaughn insisted. “This is not about statues. This is not about names of buildings. This is about … dead people, missing people and lawsuits. We continue to hear the name University of Michigan like they’re the live one … and we’re the dead ones.”

Actually, the dead ones are the ones being accused. And they can’t speak and they can’t defend themselves and they can’t apologize and they can’t be jailed. They can only serve as ricochets to the main target now, the university itself. And maybe, given the timing, that’s the only place where any real justice will be meted out, and any real closure can occur.

But while ignoring an abuser is a despicable thing, it’s still shades different than the abuser himself. On Wednesday, in the hot June sunshine, more accusers made that point and made many other points, and left pretty much everyone watching sigh in disbelief for what was lost, and what will never be found out.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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