The opportunity to participate in organized sports has given athletes around the world the opportunity to improve their health, enjoy time with teammates, and relieve stress.
However, that’s not always the situation participants face—especially student athletes. What should be a safe, comfortable environment for athletes to practice their sport sometimes devolves into a situation of gross power abuse.
This is the unfortunate scenario that more than 1,000 student athletes from the University of Michigan faced at the hands of Dr. Robert Anderson.
How the University of Michigan Failed to Protect their Student Body from Dr. Robert Anderson
In 1966, Dr. Robert Anderson was hired by the University of Michigan as an associate physician. A year later, Anderson became a team physician for the university’s athletic programs; by 1968 he had been promoted to the director of university health services. By his retirement in 2003, Anderson had conducted over 4,000 medical exams.
Seven years into Anderson’s career at the University of Michigan, wrestler Tad Deluca wrote a letter to coach Bill Johannesen and Don Canham, the university’s athletic director. In it, DeLuca wrote of inappropriate conduct by Anderson. “Something is wrong with Dr. Anderson,” he stated.
An unsuccessful attempt to fire Anderson was made by the associate vice president of student services. Although Anderson resigned from his position as director, he continued to see patients as a senior physician.
Decades later, in 2018, Deluca wrote another letter to the current athletic director, Warde Manuel. Two years later, the University of Michigan opened a compliance hotline for others that may have suffered abuse at the hands of Anderson.
In May of 2021, law firm WilmerHale released a report that stated university officials knew of Anderson’s alleged behavior—but did nothing to stop it. The months that followed opened an investigation into how the university failed to protect its students, even after Anderson’s conduct was made known.
Nearly 50 years since the initial allegation—and 14 years after Anderson’s death—the University of Michigan reached a conclusion in the case. In January of 2022 they announced a $490 million settlement, $30 million of which is to be set aside for victims that have yet to come forward.
The settlement will be shared with more than 1,000 alleged victims of Anderson.
The Prevalence of Sexual Abuse in Sports
Student athletes experience sexual harassment or assault at a rate of more than 1 in 4, according to those surveyed in a report by Lauren’s Kids. The ratio in the general population is 1 in 10.
It’s difficult to comprehend how heinous a crime occurs so frequently—and even more so how often it goes unreported.
But the expert attorneys at Hurley McKenna & Mertz have drawn upon decades of experience to explain trends in sexual abuse cases, especially as they relate to the case involving Robert Anderson.
Coaches and athletic directors are often in unsupervised positions of power.
Much like doctors who commit sexual abuse, coaches and athletic directors are often high-status individuals who use their authority to abuse victims into silence.
It’s important to understand that no one, regardless of their status, has a right to your body beyond your consent.
Men who experience sexual abuse are less likely than women to report the incident.
Individuals who do not feel they have been sexually abused or assaulted will not report an incident. This is especially troubling, considering many of Anderson’s victims were men—and only 16% of men who have been sexually abused or assaulted feel their experience was sexual abuse/assault.
Even when men do report sexual abuse, the stigma surrounding male abuse affects the way we view survivors.
Feelings of shame often prevent male abuse survivors from seeking help after their abuse—especially male athletes, who are typically stereotyped as strong and emotionless.
When these men do step forward, they are often faced with scrutiny and doubt.
Some survivors’ feelings of self-blame are reflected in media coverage of the case:
“If I won [in wrestling] it was my fault, and if I lost it was my fault. So in 1975, I lost, and everything here was my fault,” said DeLuca, referring to the way wrestling coaching affected his mindset. “And that’s what I’ve lived with—it’s my fault.”
Resources for Victims of Sexual Abuse
Eliminating stigma for individuals of all identities and believing victims who seek help are the first steps in supporting survivors of sexual abuse.
If you or a loved one are a survivor of sexual abuse by a coach, athletic director, or other sports professional, understand that it is your right to seek legal action against them. We’ve helped thousands of survivors in cases against their abusers, and we’d like to stand up for you, too.We want to get to know you, your situation, and how we can help you get the justice and healing you deserve. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation.