We have a tradition in journalism, one of those tattered remnants of our glory days we cling to like a penniless, starving widow refusing to sell her demitasse spoons. We call it “full disclosure.” When Pete Karmanos is named in a Deadline Detroit story, an editor will add that Karmanos is an investor in this website. When NPR does a story on Facebook, they mention that Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation gives them money. It’s a flag to a reader that tells them what the potential conflicts are. Cards on the table.
Mitch Albom filed a hand-wringing column about Saint Bo Schembechler in the Free Press Thursday, his second in a week. And for a second time, I looked for the full-disclosure note pointing out that Albom was co-author of Schembechler’s autobiography. It’s titled “Bo: Life, laughs, and lessons of a college football legend” and that should give you an idea what its, shall we say, tone is. If you still need clarification of their relationship, you can look up the overwrought, disjointed, tear-stained obituary Detroit’s multimedia superstar wrote after the ol’ coach dropped dead the week of the OSU-Michigan game in 2006. Full disclosure: I used it in a writing class once, a compare-and-contrast exercise with a far superior piece written by a far less successful columnist when Woody Hayes kicked the bucket, but my dislike for Albom's output is no secret.
More full disclosure, which must be mentioned in this context: I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Didn’t go to OSU, never gave a fat rat’s ass about the Buckeyes, but there it is. In Columbus, Bo Schembechler was a nemesis, burned in effigy every November, but you wouldn’t catch me at those pep rallies. Every time one of my Columbus friends refers to “that team up north,” I cringe.
But my disregard for the Buckeyes is matched by my keen interest in sexual assault, being the gender upon whom it is most often visited. I walked through dark parking lots with keys clenched between my fingers as a makeshift stabbing tool, looked in the back seat before I opened the door, never left a first-floor window open all night – every woman out there knows the drill.
What we know
In the years since we all learned those self-defense strategies, we’ve learned more about sexual assault. That it is often perpetrated not by the guy in the parking lot, but by someone you know. That it doesn’t just happen to females. That people don’t behave one way after being assaulted, and their post-assault behavior might be confusing. That it doesn’t even necessarily look like an assault, but something that would, coming from a different party, even be a caress.
And its perpetrators can be professionals, even doctors. Larry Nassar ground his fingers in the vaginas of dozens of gymnasts, some while their mothers stood in the room, believing their daughters were receiving pelvic-floor therapy. And, we now know, Dr. Robert Anderson jerked off a Wolverine running back to “collect a sperm sample for science,” which may be the one paragraph in Albom’s most recent column that is truly indelible. He fondled testicles, stuck his finger in their anuses. All under the cover of medical examination.
Here’s something else we know about sexual assailants: They don’t stop. They develop a taste for it. They get better at it. And Anderson perpetrated his for decades. You know how a guy like that gets away with it, entirely unpunished, for all those years? By having people like Bo Schembechler on his team. Or Joe Paterno. Or the men and women who supported Larry Nassar and his sidekick, gymnastics coach/sadist John Geddert. Or the parents who looked the other way while Michael Jackson took their children to bed in the room down the hall.
Albom can’t bring himself to say this, however. His column rains down hellfire on the late Dr. Anderson, but can’t even mildly criticize his ol’ pal Bo, just throws out unanswerable questions and concludes, sadly, I guess we’ll never know. He does reserve a measure of contempt for another dead man, former U-M athletic director Don Canham, in this passage:
(Richard Goldman, a student who had been assaulted) went straight to Canham and loudly complained that nothing had been done.
To which Canham, according to Goldman, replied, “Go (expletive) yourself.”
Goldman said that Schembechler was so upset by that, he marched into Canham’s office and behind closed doors, screamed about Anderson still being there.
“Bo read him the riot act. I could hear Bo clearly. … He was telling Canham ‘What in the hell are you doing? Why hasn't this man been fired? This is the third time that this has happened. Why have you done nothing?’
“Whatever one thinks of Bo Schembechler doesn't matter. Can we laser focus on the fact that the employee went to the employer (and) the employer was Don Canham?’
I may not know much about football, but the idea that a beloved, superstar, winning, Big 10 football coach must bend to the will of an athletic director is, honestly, laughable. Woody Hayes feared English professors more than any AD. Paterno raised a nine-figure sum for Penn State over the years; he probably had his ADs doing his laundry.
I had a conversation with a U-M athlete of this era after the Anderson story broke. I asked if he knew what the guy was about, and he replied, basically, that everyone knew. Upperclassmen made jokes about him, and warned the freshmen what they could expect in their physicals. The idea that Schembechler didn’t know simply beggars belief. Why he kept him on the payroll, however, is something he took to his grave.
I doubt it’s as simple as leverage or even denial; attitudes about homosexuality were a lot murkier then, more entangled with shame and guilt than they are today. And we can’t forget the lesson we’ve learned over and over in recent years, from the Catholic church to American universities: When individuals are abused under the umbrella of a powerful institution, the institution’s first and often only move is to protect itself.
I was discussing all this with a sportswriter friend who covered Paterno’s downfall. He told me about the “Joe-bots,” the superfans who simply would not, could not believe their hero could have a flaw, any flaw at all.
Joe. Bo. Bo-bots. It fits Albom, and a whole lot of others. Full disclosure: Not a fan.
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