Jun. 16—In light of new accusations and in the interest of pulling readers and viewers into a complex story, the recent coverage of the sex abuse case at the University of Michigan has largely been distilled into a debate on the legacy of Bo Schembechler.
As in: How should Michigan confront the allegations that its iconic late football coach blindly enabled former team doctor Robert Anderson and his decades-long reign of terror?
Should it take down the statue of Schembechler outside the football complex?
Rename Schembechler Hall?
Disassociate from the most celebrated figure in its modern history entirely?
These are worthy questions, to be sure, and if Schembechler indeed gave terrifying new meaning to the old “Bo Knows” advertising campaign — as the investigative report commissioned by Michigan suggests is the case — the answers are clear. The man who preached the team, the team, the team, would have been a wolverine in sheep’s clothing, a fraud who put the brand above the welfare of his athletes.
I don’t dismiss any of this.
And if these considerations are important to the victims — more of whom plan to make their voices heard at Michigan Stadium on Wednesday — they should be important to us.
Yet, in a way, the intensity of the media focus on Schembechler feels dismissive just the same.
Because the bigger, most important story is not one of the mythology and symbolism surrounding a man no longer with us.
In Michigan and beyond, it’s the courage of the survivors who continue to cast a klieg light on the top-to-bottom failings of the schools, churches, and institutions of power that have so devastatingly betrayed so many, and hold them to account.
In the Big Ten alone the past decade, we’ve seen it at Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, and now Michigan.
The latter two scandals may have received only a fraction of the national attention, because the victims were mostly college-aged male athletes.
But that makes the pain no less real, the voices no less important in recalibrating a culture that still has a long way to go.
Consider what these men are up against. The past week has offered a reminder, affirming the forces that conspire to silence victims of sexual abuse.
It began last Thursday, when Schembechler’s stepson, Matt, and two former Michigan football players — three of more than 850 victims who have accused the late Anderson of sexual assault — held a press conference to tearfully detail not just the abuse but the coach’s cold, willful ignorance.
Matt Schembechler flashed back to 1969, when as a 10-year-old in need of clearance to play tackle football, he said his father sent him to the Wolverines’ team doctor. There, he remembered, Anderson fondled his genitals and digitally penetrated him, leaving him unsettled and humiliated.
“When Bo got home, I told him what happened,” Matt said. “It did not go well. Bo’s temper was legendary, and he lost it. He screamed, ‘I don’t want to hear this. I’m not hearing this.’ I tried to tell him repeatedly, but my effort earned me a punch in the chest.”
The two former Michigan players, offensive tackle Daniel Kwiatkowski (1977-79) and running back Gilvanni Johnson (1982-86), recounted telling Schembechler about repeated similar experiences.
“Bo looked at me and said, ‘Toughen up,'” Kwiatkowski said.
Since the news conference, the three men have heard it all, the story predictably devolving into a referendum on the credibility and motives of the accusers.
Never mind the report paid for by Michigan said Schembechler was clearly told by at least four people Anderson molested them during routine exams, and yet — like other university leaders — took no action.
They’ve heard, “Why now?” and that they should have stood up to Anderson themselves — as if the power dynamics at play were that simple — and that it was a different time.
They’ve heard they’re in it for the money (which supposes that more than 800 people must be lying so they can sue their alma mater, including billionaire Michigan regent Ron Weiser.)
They’ve heard Michigan radio voice Jim Brandsatter say, “I don’t want to attack the victims, but … ” and many more willing to finish the sentence.
They’ve heard full-throated defenses of Schembechler, including by Jim Harbaugh, whose comments last month provoked Johnson, his former teammate, to come forward.
Harbaugh could have expressed his love and reverence for Schembechler — a sentiment shared by many hundreds of former players — and his concern about the allegations. Instead, he made no mention of the victims and said, “[Bo] never procrastinated anything. I mean, he took care of it before the sun went down. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know. Nothing was ever swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion.”
And we wonder why more victims don’t come forward.
Yet the survivors at Michigan still did, same as they did at Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State, to name just a few of the institutions that when confronted with horror looked only to protect the facade.
The brand. The brand. The brand.
“For me, the reason I [came forward] is helping others and protecting others,” Johnson said, “and letting them know that it’s OK to come out.”
The big story of the moment may be the legacy of Schembechler and his larger-than-life statue.
But it’s far from the biggest story.
First Published June 16, 2021, 9:31am