I started covering sports in 1975 and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. Two of the most fascinating people I got to know and like were highly successful college football coaches: Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Joe Paterno at Penn State.
So I’m doubly troubled this week over further confirmation that Schembechler knew that a U-M sports doctor sexually molested several Wolverine football players (among others) in the late 1970s and 1980s and did nothing about it. It’s like a movie I’ve seen before that I know won’t end well.
And it leaves a few troubling questions:
Was Jim Harbaugh aware of the alleged abuse by Dr. Robert Anderson? Harbaugh – the current coach of the Wolverines -- played for Michigan from 1983 to 1986. A U-M sanctioned report said there was plenty of “locker room talk” in those years about Anderson’s perverse behavior. Was Harbaugh a victim? Did he know of any victims?
Should Schembechler’s statue be removed from the campus, as if he were a Confederate general targeted in a Black Lives Matter protest? Should Schembechler’s name be removed from the football headquarters?
With Michigan State’s Dr. Larry Nassar imprisonment for sexually molesting female gymnasts – and the Penn State football rape scandal a fresh memory – should we be more alert to the possibilities of more predators at prestigious sports programs?
Let’s flash back to Penn State. Ten years ago, when I wrote for Keith Olbermann’s television show, we dealt with news that a former Nittany Lions’ assistant coach – Jerry Sandusky – raped multiple young boys he recruited through a youth program.
After the news broke, someone was quoted in a wire story as saying Paterno’s statue should be pulled down outside the stadium in State College, Pa.
I smiled when I read it. “That’ll be the day,” I thought.
JoePa – as he was called – was a living legend, venerated as an intellectual and the embodiment of the highest principles of college athletics for the student-athlete.
A day or so later, we learned through further news stories that Sandusky’s behavior had been reported to Paterno and Paterno did nothing about it.
Oh, boy, I thought. They’d better take down that statue before somebody blows it up. Sure enough, they took down the statue. Paterno left his coaching position in disgrace and died soon afterward.
Certainly there are differences between the cases of Schembechler and Paterno.
Schembechler left coaching in 1989 and became president of the Detroit Tigers in 1990. He died in 2006. He’s no longer around to explain this or to defend himself.
But the report from the WilmerHale law firm is damning. According to the Detroit Free Press:
“Several football players notified Schembechler about Anderson’s behavior, the report says. A member of the football team in the late 1970s told police he asked the coach `soon’ after an exam `What’s up with the finger in the butt treatment by Dr. Anderson?’
“Schembechler told the player to `toughen up,’ according to the report . . ."
Blind Eyes and Feet of Clay
I covered Schembechler for the Free Press for three seasons, from 1981-83. Any reporter around the team in those years knew Schembechler had total control of his program. Little took place that he didn’t know about.
Supporters of the team bragged that “Bo runs a clean program” and they often expressed disdain for others in the Big Ten they called “cheat schools,” referring to alleged recruiting violations and other sins both venial and mortal. In response, Michigan’s rivals found the Wolverines “arrogant.”
Certainly, Michigan has been humbled by the recent revelations. And Schembechler is hardly the only university leader accused of ignoring the scandal (at best) or allowing it (at worst).
But he is the only one with a statue outside a building named after him.
I’ll offer a weak excuse for Paterno and Schembechler. Both were born and raised in an era when heterosexual exploitation was overlooked and homosexuality was rarely even acknowledged.
The combination – homosexual rape – was probably more than either wished to deal with, especially in the manly setting of big-time football.
Like the bishops who turned a blind eye to predatory priests in their same generation, both coaches protected their institutions rather than protect young people in their orbits.
None of this rescinds all the victories in their stadiums and the good works they accomplished off the field.
But both turned out to be idols with feet of clay. Like the statue of Joe, the one of Bo must also go.
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