Opinion: Allegations against Bo Schembechler are devastating; so are the stories of abuseMitch AlbomDetroit Free Press
DETROIT — They say there are three truths in any accusation: the accuser’s, the accused’s, and the actual truth. Two of those were not accessible Thursday, and they never will be.
But one truth was heard.
And it was devastating.
Three men, now in their 50s and 60s, two of them former Michigan football players, the other the son of its most famous coach, sat behind a podium table in a hotel conference room, flanked by lawyers, and recounted, in painful detail, how their young bodies were sexually abused by a former team doctor named Robert Anderson.
“He digitally raped me”…”He caressed my testicles while asking me questions about my sex life”…”They called him Dr. Anal…”
The excruciating details went on. They spoke of being too scared to speak up. Too young to know how to react. Tears formed and words choked as they related multiple accounts of the most brutal betrayal between a doctor and patient.
“He fondled my genitals”…”He molested and violated me”…”I felt humiliated and confused.”
Anderson’s alleged behavior was cringing to hear. But to the accusers, it was only one breach of trust. The other, which may have hurt them more, was allegedly that of the coach, Bo Schembechler.
“Bo knew,” said Daniel Kwiatkowski, a former lineman in the 1970s.
“Bo knew everything,” said Gilvanni Johnson, a former wide receiver in the '80s.
“I understand the reverence people have for my father,” said Matt Schembechler, Bo’s son, “but I know the truth.”
That truth, as told by these three men, was a portrait of ruinous neglect. Bo was accused of dismissing reports of Anderson’s abuse with comments like “toughen up.” Matt Schembechler claimed he was first abused by Anderson in 1969 when Matt was just 10 years old, and when he told his father, “it didn’t go well.” He claimed Bo screamed at him and hit him.
“That was the beginning of the end of (our) relationship. … I hoped my father would protect me, but he didn’t.”
A parent's instinct
Protection is at the heart of parenthood, and at the heart of any college coach’s relationship with his players. Coaches go into homes and promise parents their sons will be looked after, that they will be like second fathers to those young men while on campus.
This is why Thursday’s news conference was, for those who revered Bo Schembechler, a huge gut punch. For those who loved him more personally, it was too shocking to believe.
These included Cathy Schembechler, Bo’s widowed wife, who, while saying she could not speak to Anderson’s conduct as she didn’t know anything about it, did tell me, “I can speak to the character of my late husband, Bo. From the time we were married in 1993 until his death in 2006, Bo never spoke of being aware of any inappropriate behavior or conduct by Anderson.
“In my opinion, Bo was not aware of this conduct and would not have allowed such behavior to occur, especially to any of his players, family, coaches, or program. If Bo had known of such conduct he would have stopped it immediately, reported it, and had Dr. Anderson removed from the university.”
Meanwhile, Bo's youngest son, Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler, also found the stories hard to believe. "None of us were in that room when those players were talking to Bo," he told ESPN. "The Bo I knew would have taken care of it and found another doctor. It would be that easy."
Others no doubt believe the same. Heck, many, many people want to believe the same. And of course, Bo is not here to respond to these charges, or explain why Anderson was never removed from the university. But the charges against him scream the obvious question: Why would a famous coach, who could have had any doctor he wanted on his staff, ignore such awful accusations in order to keep him?
“The only thing that I can come up with, knowing Bo and how he operated,” Matt Schembechler said, “is that (with that knowledge) he's got the goods on Dr. Anderson, Dr. Anderson's gonna do what he tells him. Kid can’t play? No, Doc, you’re gonna send that kid (out there).”
That theory seems extreme. It suggests that in addition to ignoring sexual abuse charges, Bo was extorting the doctor so that injured players could risk their health?
How could this have happened?
“I don’t know if I buy that,” said Johnson, who was actually on the team. But what then was the motivation? If you believe that these three and others went to Bo with reports of Anderson’s behavior — and listening to them, it’s difficult not to believe that — what possible explanation could satisfactorily cover Bo permitting Anderson to stay?
Could it be the way the players relayed it? Both Kwiatkowski and Johnson admitted they only told Bo once, and were intimidated in even bringing it up, in Johnson’s case “because I was afraid he would pull my scholarship.” Could it be, as some are suggesting, that Anderson lied and defended his behavior to Bo as medically required, and Bo was too myopic about football to question it? Could it be, as others have postulated, that the times were different, that people preferred to bury such secrets, naively wishing they would just go away?
Who knows? But none of those explanations are enough to counter the damage, not given the decades of terrible suffering that the alleged victims detailed Thursday. Johnson spoke of losing two marriages, and long stretches of sexual promiscuity, trying to prove “that I wasn’t a homosexual.” Kwiatkowski admitted to avoiding doctors ever since college “jeopardizing my own health. I’ve (also) found it very hard to have intimate relationships with women.”
There is no measuring what was broken by this apparently demented doctor, who is accused of abusing more than 800 men over his tenure from 1966 to 2003. Anderson died a few years later.
Plain and simple, he was a monster.
But Thursday wasn’t merely about the damage done.
It was about a response.
Time for 'total accountability'
Why now? Many people asked. What do Matt Schembechler and the former players want? All three spoke of wanting to show other victims of abuse that it is OK to come forward. All three also — along with their lawyers — agreed on one thing: The university has to take responsibility for what happened.
Not just admit that Dr. Anderson was horrific, as U-M has already done in a recent extensive report, but own up to allowing it to happen. This is why Bo is so critical to the case. If he knew and said nothing, the evil goes from one man’s abuse to a possible systemic cover-up that the university somehow condoned.
“Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Southern California. … And now Michigan,” said Steven Drew, one of the attorneys representing Matt Schembechler. “How many more do we need?
“We need to have start having total accountability. We need to stop the argument that we are immune from responsibility.
“(It’s) more important than the power, the privilege, the profits … more important even than the brand. The brand needs to be accountability.”
Cynics will say this is legalese for a massive lawsuit and huge financial damages. And one of the attorneys did confirm that they would be seeking damages. Michigan State, you recall, paid out $500 million to survivors in the Larry Nassar abuse suit.
But the questions that arose Thursday should not be centered on money, nor for that matter, on Jim Harbaugh, the current coach and a Bo disciple, who recently said the Bo he knew would never have looked away from an abuse scandal. Several reporters asked the panel about those comments.
“Please don’t focus on Jim Harbaugh,” Matt Schembechler beseeched the media. It’s clear he wants the focus to stay on his father.
“What do you think (Bo) would say if he were here right now?” a writer asked.
“Honestly,” Matt replied, “I could care less what his opinion was … I don’t hate Bo. I just don't like him.”
One truth is clear: The pain is real
Now, in the interest of background, it should be noted that Matt Schembechler, who was adopted along with his two brothers by Bo when Bo married their mother, Millie, has referred to Bo as “a horrible human being” whom he couldn’t wait to get away from when he turned 18. Matt once sued his father and U-M claiming they thwarted his plan to make souvenirs of old stadium bleachers. He also co-wrote a scathing magazine piece for GQ magazine about Bo — while Bo was alive — citing the bullying he claims he endured as a child.
None of that — repeat, none of that — counters one iota of ignoring sexual assault. The two are not in the same arena. What supporters of Bo are facing now is an internal crisis. Those who knew him well and admired him — and I count myself in that group — are left dumbfounded that a man of such apparent principle and integrity could knowingly permit such an awful string of events.
As Cat Schembechler said, “The allegations that I have read and heard … are not credible based on the Bo Schembechler that I knew and that many others knew as well.”
Were we all wrong? Were we all blind? Is there a piece of this whole story that is horribly missing?
Who knows? Even when the accused and the accuser are alive and facing one another, only two of three truths are made clear. We are all left to wonder about the third, the one most important and most elusive. But we can say this with clarity. Thursday afternoon was real tears, real choking up, and true heartbreak. And the damage done years ago is only just beginning to be measured.
Email Mitch Albom at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.