Michigan Is Still Failing Robert Anderson's Victims
Jim Harbaugh, Jim Brandstatter, and other prominent former players are betraying their own. Meanwhile, U-M police effectively demote a detective who investigated Anderson.
CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses matters regarding sexual assault/abuse.
When does the reckoning begin?
The WilmerHale report, which contained over 200 pages detailing the University of Michigan’s many failures that enabled Robert Anderson to abuse “countless” patients over a period of decades, came out over two months ago. Regarding legendary coach Bo Schembechler, the only reasonable conclusion is that he knew about Anderson and didn’t take appropriate action to stop him despite being in a position of enormous influence.
For those paying attention, the Schembechler news wasn’t a shocking revelation. A lawsuit filed in July 2020 accused him of being told about Anderson’s abuse and failing to meaningfully act on that information as early as 1981. Even before the WilmerHale report, the idea Schembechler didn’t know about Anderson when his assaults were reportedly an “open secret” on campus beggared belief.
I’ve found the response from Michigan fans, even on the fringes of the internet, to be appropriate for the circumstances. While there were always going to be a few stubborn Schembechler diehards, my impression is the significant majority of the fanbase believes the victims. Most people are ready for the statue of Schembechler—which, I hear, has received an uptick in campus police protection in the last couple months—to come down and the building behind it to be renamed. That’s been heartening.
The response from a sizable group of former players, on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction—and some of those players are employed by the athletic department. One is the head coach and current face of the program.
As the university itself deals with the legal fallout, we’re left with these voices cutting through the official silence and the concrete actions taken by U-M. Thus far, those have been deeply disheartening.
You Can’t Have It Both Ways
I understand that ongoing litigation limits what the university is willing to say. Even if I’d rather institutions leaned in the direction of openness over covering their collective asses, I get why there hasn’t been much in the way of an official word when there are so many lawsuits at play.
In that situation, however, it’s imperative that the institution and its members maintain that silence. In this vacuum, individual statements that aren’t necessarily meant to represent the views of the university and/or the athletic department effectively do just that, especially when they go unchecked.
It’s in this regard that Michigan is failing again. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Jim Harbaugh spoke up to defend Schembechler because he personally never witnessed his childhood hero and father’s longtime colleague do anything untoward:
“He never procrastinated anything,” Harbaugh said of Schembechler. “I mean, he took care of it before the sun went down. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.
“Nothing was ever swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I know.”
Many other people knew a different Bo Schembechler. While Harbaugh is struggling to come to terms with the reality of his idol, he cannot make such public statements in his capacity as head coach and de facto face of the program. The message it sends, intentional or not, is that the football program—and by extension, the athletic department and the whole university—still prioritizes its image over supporting and believing victims.
Harbaugh is far from alone. After Bo’s adopted son, Matt Schembechler, came forward to say he was assaulted by Anderson as a child and received an angry response from Bo when informing him, former player and beloved longtime U-M radio announcer Jim Brandstatter used the fraught relationship between Matt and Bo to discredit those who said the coach swept the issue under the rug.
“Isn’t there a feeling that reasonable doubt should come into play when you’re trashing a man’s reputation that he spent a lifetime to build?” Brandstatter said. “Reasonable doubt should be part of the equation and in this instance, you look at context, and I would suggest that clearly there’s reasonable doubt on a number of these allegations by those people that were up there, including Matt Schembechler.”
This is not a criminal trial; “reasonable doubt” therefore has no relevance. The basis for discrediting Matt Schembechler, as best I can tell, is that he sued Bo and the school in 1999 for $500,000 because of an alleged breach of contract with his memorabilia business; the lawsuit was dismissed in federal court. Their relationship remained acrimonious.
Matt Schembechler’s account of Anderson’s abuse and his father’s alleged response is detailed. There are a couple ways to look at the situation, in my view, and neither lets Bo off the hook:
Believe the victim, whose recounting of events tracks with the reported behavior of Schembechler and Anderson from the WilmerHale investigation. Matt’s story would certainly help explain why his relationship with his father was so bitter.
Take Matt’s account with a grain of salt. Fine. There are still many others who have come forward among Anderson’s hundreds and hundreds of victims to say they informed Bo.
Instead, some former players are using Matt’s specific situation to cast doubt on an overwhelming volume of accusations coming by and large from their former teammates, which adds another sickening dimension to this tragedy. Brandstatter made a particularly misguided and appalling statement when asked if his comments could be seen as victim-blaming [emphasis mine]:
“I’m worried, but I’m not. That is not my intent,” he said. “My intent is very simple — to be very fair and find the truth. In this instance, anyone in our society with our legal system, it is fundamental that the accused gets to face their accuser. In this instance, that’s not able to happen. I just think you walk down a really slippery slope. It can happen to anybody. I can say anything about you or anyone and if I’m not there to defend myself, oh, it must be true. That’s not necessarily accurate. With Bo Schembechler, there are other mitigating circumstances in regards to this, too, and I don’t think you can take out of the equation the fact there is a lawsuit pending and there are monetary compensatory damages at stake here.
“I sympathize with anyone who suffered at the hands of sexual abuse. That’s abhorrent behavior. But in my judgment, it’s also really poor behavior to make an unsubstantiated allegation against someone when that someone can’t defend himself. Bo Schembechler did not do this to them.”
I could write an entire post on these two paragraphs. “I’m worried, but I’m not” says most of what needs to be said, though. Like Harbaugh, Brandstatter is living in denial, and instead of working to reconcile the Bo Schembechler he knew with the one who allowed Anderson to abuse his own players for decades, he’s chosen to lash out at the people who most need and deserve support.
There has been no public pushback from the athletic department or university on these statements from their employees. Harbaugh will be on the sideline this season and Brandstatter will be calling the games along with Hall of Fame lineman Dan Dierdorf, who signed his name alongside more than 100 others on an open letter defending Bo and questioning Anderson’s victims. That silence is becoming more intolerable by the minute.
The Official Actions Haven’t Been Encouraging, Either
I want to make this clear: I don’t want to write about this subject. I’m a sexual assault victim; doing this is traumatizing. I wish I had faith in U-M to handle the fallout from decades of institutional rot with accountability, leadership, and good faith dedication to supporting the survivors of Anderson’s abuse and ensuring the school’s many failures to do so in the past are never repeated.
The school hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. The football alumni have split into two camps, which was both predictable and depressing. The most prominent among them are using their platforms to defend the indefensible. The university president, Mark Schlissel, is under fire for many reasons, chief among them the school’s lack of proper response to sexual harassment and assault allegations in other departments.
Meanwhile, Kim Kozlowski of the Detroit News reported last week that the U-M police detective who helped break the case back open with his investigation into Anderson has been reassigned to road patrol.
[Detective Mark] West said he viewed the change as a demotion since he will lose 3% of his $79,000 salary, or about $2,370. He said he was informed of the change last week.
West said he knew it was a rotating position when he took the job about six years ago but said generally detectives haven't been rotated. At least two detectives in the department have held the rank longer than him, he noted, and he is aware of just one detective who went back to road patrol. The others retired or were promoted, he said.
The 51-year-old has 27 years with the department.
"I can’t really talk about how I feel about it," said West, 51. "I want my job."
Perhaps there’s a good explanation for this. As it stands, it looks on its face like Mark West is being demoted by the school’s own police department for exposing a massive institutional scandal. I desperately hope there’s a different reason.
Until U-M takes meaningful action that instills any faith it’s doing right by sexual assault victims, it’s earned every bit of criticism and skepticism it receives, and the school’s every move must continue to be watched with a suspicious eye.
Even then, regardless of what’s happening behind the scenes, U-M is publicly failing to stand by Anderson’s survivors for as long as Harbaugh, Brandstatter, and the like remain in the athletic department without—at minimum—apologizing for their previous statements.
Everyone else has had their reckoning. It’s past time for the most prominent people in the athletic department to face reality and acknowledge their shortcomings. If they can’t do that, get rid of them. There’s no other way to move forward.
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