Bo Schembechler, one of the most famous and beloved coaches in college football history, was told of Dr. Robert Anderson’s sexual abuse of students in 1982, a former student alleges.
Anderson, who served as Michigan’s Director of Student Health Services 1968-1980 and was an Athletic Department Team Physician, stayed at Michigan in a faculty position through 1998. According to a spokesperson, the University has received “394 unique complaints” regarding Anderson’s abuse under the guise of medical treatments. Multiple lawsuits against the school are ongoing.
In a press conference Thursday, the man known as “John Doe 17” says he was a student working as a football play-by-play announcer in 1981, when Schembechler advised him to see Anderson for migraines. During that appointment and a subsequent one in 1982, “Dr. Anderson digitally rectally penetrated John Doe EB-17 under the guise of medical treatment,” a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges.
“I remember thinking after that [first] exam, ‘Well, this was kind of bizarre.’ And just let it go. And when I went to see [Anderson] again in 1982 for the same exact reason, because my migraines weren't going away, he once again assaulted me this time in a quite different way. And that's when I knew that something was very, very wrong, and really had begun to discern a pattern, that I knew absolutely what he was doing was not just a one-off incident,” Doe 17 says.
After the second appointment in ‘82, the former student says he reported the abuse to Schembechler, who was head football coach at the time. Schembechler was “visibly angry,” Doe 17 says, and told him to “‘get your ass into [then-Athletic Director Don] Canham’s office and tell him what happened right now.’”
“I felt from the look on [Schembechler’s] face and from his actions, that this was the first time anyone had ever reported it to him. Further investigation by myself down the line later, talking to several of the football players who had also been assaulted by Anderson, none of them ever went to Coach Schembechler, none of them ever went to the assistant coaches. There was a pride factor there in that relationship they had with Schembechler, that never allowed them to bring anything forward to him.”
But the former student says Canham, who was a track and field coach at Michigan from 1949-1968 before becoming Athletic Director from 1968-1988, didn’t take action to investigate or prevent the abuse.
“When I did go to Canham’s office and told him about Anderson and the so-called ‘inappropriate exam’ that had happened, his response literally was just to blow me off. He did nothing. In effect, in my opinion, Canham perpetrated Andersen's abuse,” says Doe 17.
“A lot of it also goes back to the fact that Canham was all-powerful. Believe me when I tell you that the Board of Trustees at the time, including all the coaches...everyone was afraid of Don Canham. If you crossed him the wrong way, if you looked at him the wrong way, said something that he didn't like, you were fired or dismissed and were thrown right off the broadcast.”
It’s impossible to overstate Schembechler’s significance in the Michigan canon. Known widely as “Bo,” the famed head football coach was hired by Canham in 1968 and held the position until 1989, retired with a 194–48–5 record at Michigan, including 13 Big Ten championships and 10 Rose Bowl appearances. In school lore, he’s heralded not only for the team’s success, but for upholding a moral standard fans believe embodies the University at its best.
And Doe 17, who says Schembechler took him “under his wing” as a student broadcaster and treated him “like family,” says he doesn’t hold the head coach responsible for not taking further action to stop Anderson’s abuse, despite Schembechler’s outsized influence at the school.
“Yes, Bo was powerful, but you need to keep in mind what the structure was at the University of Michigan at the time that Don Canham was there. No coach, no assistant coach, could come forward and do anything,” he says. “They were completely powerless without going through Don Canham...and I cannot blame Bo for not being able to come forward and speak to the media... [A]nd I'll say that until my dying day.”
In response to the new allegations, University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald says the school’s investigation into Anderson’s abuse should be allowed to resume. In June, Judge Victoria Roberts ordered the school to stop reaching out to potential abuse victims, because "the Court feels the need to gather information about its purpose and how it might impact information gathering and resolution of plaintiffs' claims."
“At the University of Michigan, we condemn all sexual misconduct. This type of conduct is reprehensible – and whether it takes place now or took place in the past, it is unacceptable,” Fitzgerald said in an emailed statement. “We have great confidence in the WilmerHale investigation, which has been paused by the court. More than 50 former patients of Anderson have contacted WilmerHale and are awaiting a response. We believe the investigation should restart immediately. Through July 23, there have been 394 unique complaints regarding Anderson that are being investigated by the WilmerHale team.”