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Anderson scandal raises questions about UM athletics icons

John U. Bacon

About 15 months ago, former student-athletes at the University of Michigan accused a former U of M doctor of sexually abusing them during medical exams.

The university’s leaders hired a pre-eminent law firm, WilmerHale, to interview Anderson’s patients and colleagues, examine files, and sort out what happened. They are about to award hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, and have enacted reforms to ensure this never happens again – but that's probably little consolation for the hundreds of survivors. 

Michigan released the law firm’s report this week, which provided a lot of answers, however troublesome, and raised some questions.

I'd never heard any allegations against Dr. Anderson until the first reports surfaced a year ago. My first reaction was being appalled that 600-some students had been abused by Dr. Anderson. Obviously, Dr. Anderson should not have been practicing at U of M, or anywhere else.

I’ve known many of the people involved, including: dozens of survivors, Dr. Anderson’s son, and not least, former athletic director Don Canham and football coach Bo Schembechler. 

Questions remain over who knew what, and when. Four survivors told Schembechler about Dr. Anderson’s odd physicals – more than enough to raise red flags.

These recollections are hard for me to read because they run counter to the Schembechler I knew, who consistently made the welfare of his athletes his top priority. One example: he refused to sign endorsement deals with helmet companies, because he feared it would force the team to use an inferior helmet.

Likewise, in a cruel irony, Don Canham set up one of the nation’s first in-house medical units for student-athletes. It cost more, but he was proud of it because it would provide quicker, better care for Michigan’s athletes. Of course, it was in that unit that Dr. Anderson abused hundreds of athletes. 

It is impossible for me to believe neither man knew about Dr. Anderson’s abuse. It is equally hard for me to believe that they didn’t do anything about it. But one of the few things we can say with certainty is this: whatever Canham and Bo did in response, it clearly wasn’t enough to stop the abuse, which continued for decades.

There’s no ignoring the hardest fact: this was a gigantic systemic failure of the entire university, and Canham and Bo were part of that.

The era they worked in is not an excuse, but it is a factor. Few hospitals, schools, camps, or churches at the time effectively acted to stop such abuse. Now they all handle abuse differently than they did four decades ago, and for good reason. But Dr. Martin Luther King’s words also ring true: “The time is always right, to do what is right.” The era may help explain their lack of response, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Complicating matters is another simple truth: neither man is here to respond, clarify, or apologize.

The university will have to decide happens to Schembechler’s and Canham’s buildings. I’m guided here by Ken Burns’s advice: “Consider the whole person,” the good, the bad, and the mystifying – whatever we find.

As for Bo’s statue, which went up several years after he died, I can say that he never asked for one, and didn’t expect one. I have no idea if he would agree to it or not. Bo’s legacy – taken in full – did not need a statue when he died, and does not need one now.

What is needed is help for the survivors.

John U. Bacon is the author of seven national bestsellers. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, it's management, or it's license holder, the University of Michigan.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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