Ohio State’s Richard Strauss investigation another sobering reminder that colleges must listen to athletes: Doug Lesmerises
On Friday, Ohio State said at least 177 men were sexually abused by athletic department doctor Richard Strauss, who died years ago. This is according to findings from a law firm that investigated the accusations, concluding that school leaders knew at the time.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State president Michael Drake said he worries if he hears a story about a student unable to schedule a class she wants, that the welfare of every OSU student is on his mind at all times.
So how, for two decades long before Drake, did Ohio State do nothing about Dr. Richard Strauss sexually abusing athletes?
Ohio State on Friday released a report on its investigation into the former doctor employed by the athletic department who conducted medical exams on athletes and other students between 1979-98, while various university employees and administrators heard something about allegations of Strauss abusing students during those exams.
The report commissioned by Ohio State found at least 177 students who suffered at the hands of Strauss. No one ever stopped him.
On page 88 of the report, under the heading “Summary of findings regarding university knowledge of Strauss’ sexual abuse of students,” it was explained exactly how many university employees didn’t act:
Many of the students felt that Strauss’ behavior was an “open secret,” as it appeared to them that their coaches, trainers and other team physicians were fully aware of Strauss’ activities, and yet few seemed inclined to do anything to stop it. ... More than 50 individuals who were members of the OSU Athletics Department staff during Strauss’ time at the University corroborated these student accounts during interviews with the Investigative Team.
The athletes talked openly about the way Strauss conducted their physicals, uncomfortably joking, as kids might do. The employees of Ohio State tasked with looking out for those athletes heard the talk and took little or no action, as irresponsible adults might do.
“Rumors" is a word that comes up a lot in the report. Rumors are allowed to live and grow when grown-ups don’t attempt to investigate in order to turn those rumors into facts. Here’s one disheartening example of a head coach doing something that actually was doing nothing, the way a person might act to absolve themselves of blame without doing any good.
In the late ’80s, this coach heard from his athletes that Strauss’ hernia exams were inappropriate. His solution? He loudly said in the locker room, “That’s not happening on my watch.”
From the report:
The Head Coach told us that he let his “voice carry," so that Strauss and everyone else in the training room was “on notice” that the Head Coach was monitoring the situation. The Head Coach believed that Strauss was deterred from engaging in misconduct with his student-athletes as a result.
Strauss continued to abuse OSU athletes for another decade.
Why did that go on for so long?
I think it’s because universities too often jump at the opportunity to cast college students as kids when it’s convenient, and then treat them as adults when it’s convenient. This is especially true with athletes, who aren’t any more important than other students, but who are burdened and gifted with responsibilities and opportunities that complicate the university-student relationship.
Here’s what I mean: If you’re going to trust an athlete to wear the Ohio State name in competition, if you’re going to insist that they train and if you’re going provide them resources to succeed, if coaches are going to yell at them and believe in them, then those coaches and that university must listen to them.
Coaches and administrators must listen to athletes and respect them as adults, and they must listen to athletes and protect them as children. You take them seriously as partners in the process of college athletics, and treat them gently as young people finding their way.
That’s because college athletes don’t have power, and they don’t have an agenda. Most are too busy and overwhelmed to be concerned with anything other than the right thing to do in the moment. They aren’t cynical enough or cagey enough, not compared to universities and athletic departments with endowments and reputations to protect.
So if athletes are concerned about concussions and the potential effects of CTE, if they’re concerned about time demands and the ability to balance their sport and their classes, if they’re concerned about being compensated inside a billion-dollar college athletic complex, if they’re concerned about social justice and other political issues they’d like to influence from their platform ... or if they’re concerned about an athletic department doctor administering physicals in a way that many felt was abusive, then listen.
I’m not sure how else to react to the Strauss investigation. What happened is awful, and it should have come to light years ago. Strauss is dead and the people in power at Ohio State who did too little to protect their athletes are gone. Society has advanced to take accusations of abuse more seriously, yet Michigan State and the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Olympic gymnastics world let trainer Larry Nassar operate freely as a serial sexual abuser from the early 1990s until 2016.
So it can happen now. It almost assuredly is happening now. Somewhere out there, at some university or athletic organization, an adult is using the perceived power granted in sports to abuse an athlete. Maybe an athlete is speaking up, and no one is listening.
Former Ohio State wrestler Michael DiSabato prompted this investigation into Strauss. He forced Ohio State into it, and when he began in April of 2018, he told me as he searched for the right words in a phone interview, “Sexual abuse on college campuses and within amateur athletics is a systematic problem caused by an immoral business model which does not allow for those who are exploited to have a voice.”
At the start, he just wanted someone to listen.
Months later, DiSabato called me late one night as I was driving, and I pulled over on the side of a highway to listen to his stories about what happened at Ohio State when he wrestled there, stories I almost couldn’t believe because if they were true, how had no one stopped that from happening?
The report is out now, confirming many of those stories from DiSabato as recounted by other athletes. It happened. But DiSabato had to scream for anyone to listen to athletes and do something about it.
As the current president who inherited this, Drake apologized, saying in a statement released with the report, “Our institution’s fundamental failure at the time to prevent this abuse was unacceptable — as were the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members."
It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone left at Ohio State to lose jobs over this. Many abuse victims are part of a lawsuit against Ohio State that has been scheduled for mediation, though the university has sought to have the case declared outside the statute of limitations. You’d imagine some financial compensation for the victims will eventually occur.
Could the lawsuit affect enrollment or donations? I’d doubt something that occurred this long ago would have that type of significant present-day effect on Ohio State. The case took a political turn with the allegation that current U.S. representative Jim Jordan, as a former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach, was among the administrators who knew something was happening with Strauss and didn’t act. Friday’s report didn’t cite Jordan by name, and he told reporters in Washington that the report confirmed his statements that he didn’t know about Strauss.
That’s all related to what happened in the past. As for the future, let’s all listen to athletes as college helps them grow from kids into adults. Once again, they’ve proven more reliable and trustworthy than the people supposedly in charge of them.