OSU sexual abuse charge makes it clear: silence is a thing of the past

Eric Adelson
Brian Garrett says he was sexually assaulted by Richard Strauss at the university clinic in 1996. Strauss, who killed himself in 2005, joined Ohio State in 1978 and was on the faculty and medical staff. (AP)

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan gave a spirited defense on Friday evening against accusations he didn’t do enough as an Ohio State wrestling coach to stop alleged sexual abuse from a team doctor in the ’80s and ’90s. “No one ever reported any abuse to me,” he insisted. “If they had, I would have dealt with it.”

But there was one question he couldn’t answer.

Fox host Bret Baier asked Jordan multiple times why several former athletes had come forward against him, rather than just one or two. What was the motivation for this group?

The congressmen was nonplussed, eventually pointing to the timing of the allegations.

It’s an important question that goes way beyond Jordan’s possible role in this heightening scandal. That’s because the succession of former athletes giving public accounts of misconduct at Ohio State, coming in the aftermath of hundreds of accounts of abuse by former doctor Larry Nassar at Michigan State, indicates that the bubble of silence in college sports may be beginning to leak.

As of Friday, there were five former OSU wrestlers (including an ex-UFC champion) who said Jordan had to have known about accusations of inappropriate behavior on the part of university physician Richard Strauss, who died in 2005. More than one of the accusers said positive things about Jordan, yet held to their claims.

There will be many days of back-and-forth about the congressman – including whether he should stay in office – but it’s crucial to set aside the politics of this for a moment and consider the scale of the issue.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, school investigators have received complaints about Strauss from former athletes involved in cheerleading, fencing, football, gymnastics, hockey, swimming and volleyball. Strauss worked for the school for more than two decades. He also worked at the school’s medical center and student health center.

Whether Jordan knew or not, this is a gathering crisis that could involve many hundreds of students at one of the biggest universities in the nation. And the willingness of former athletes to speak out now – especially in light of the scandal at Michigan State – may indicate a sea change in reporting is only starting.

Two men who were wrestlers at Ohio State University in the 1990s say Congressman Jim Jordan isn’t being truthful when he says he wasn’t aware of allegations team doctor Richard Strauss was groping male wrestlers. (AP)

“It’s now becoming safer to come forward and hold officials and enablers accountable,” says Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “This has been a long time coming and people have refused to believe this type of corruption exists or someone they’ve revered or admired is behind it. It’s added some healthy cynicism to sports, which has long been a bastion of loyalty and even worship of teams.”

More evidence of a cultural problem in Columbus arrived on Friday in the form of a Politico report that six ex-wrestlers claimed they were “regularly harassed in their training facility by sexually aggressive men who attended the university or worked there.” The alleged epicenter was Larkins Hall, which housed athletes and which one former coach called a “cesspool of deviancy.”

Former wrestler George Pardos told Politico that Jordan was “one of the most honest men I’ve ever known.” But he also said this: “Was there some deviant behavior? … Was there behavior when guys were coming into the sauna and showers, was there sexual misconduct? No one is denying that.”

That’s no small statement. It suggests it was widely known that wrongful acts were happening in Larkins Hall, and now a group of Buckeyes are brave enough to speak out on something that will bring their school scrutiny and embarrassment.

Jordan himself offered a sort of acknowledgement on Friday evening that something was amiss. “Conversations in a locker room,” he told Baier, “are a lot different than allegations of abuse.” A coach has a duty to report such “conversations,” but most would agree the threshold of reporting has to change with the times. That’s significant.

In the worst-case scenario, the abuse at OSU was rampant over decades and coaches and administrators including Jordan failed to act. (One allegation made by a nurse claims Strauss groped male athletes during physicals to the point of leading the students to ejaculation.) But even in a less toxic environment that doesn’t implicate Jordan, there was almost certainly some problem that Ohio State must investigate thoroughly. That investigation in itself is a necessary and healthy development, brought about by action. The days of looking the other way should be gone for good, in Columbus and everywhere.

“The university recognizes and appreciates the courage and assistance of those who have come forward and contacted the independent investigators,” a university spokesman told Politico in a statement. “Ohio State is focused on uncovering what may have happened during this era, what university leaders at the time may have known, and whether any response at the time was appropriate.”

Over the coming days, the cable news shows will debate Jordan’s role, his response, and any effect on his career. But ideally, across the country, athletes and coaches and parents will be reinforcing the need to say something when they see something.

“Parents must be assertive with regard to the rights of their athletes,” says Redmond. “Too many go into it blindly believing in coaches and officials. They cannot do that.”

Part of the motivation for those who have come forward in this case – if not all of the motivation – is for sports facilities on campus to be better and safer for future athletes. That, we can hope, is a goal pursued long after this political maelstrom has subsided.

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