Dr. Robert Anderson began working for the University of Michigan in 1966. As early as 1969, Bo Schembechler was allegedly aware that Anderson was sexually assaulting patients sent to him for routine physicals, including Bo’s 10-year-old son and several of his players.
The story should end there. It doesn’t.
Even before Thursday’s news conference, it was clear that Bo had failed to protect his players from Anderson. The report released on May 11 by the law firm WilmerHale demonstrated that Bo almost certainly knew about the abuse and did not do enough to prevent it. Even before the report, it would be naive to deny Bo’s knowledge — he was head coach for 21 years and athletic director for three years during Anderson’s tenure. He knew.
The most jarring aspects of the news conference were the allegations that went beyond ignorance. Coaches using sexual abuse as a motivational tool; Bo responding to his son’s allegations with violence; players joking about Anderson in the locker room; all of it points to a culture that not only failed to stop the abuse, but actively fostered it and protected its perpetrator.
We can’t talk our way around it. The allegations are not “cancel culture,” nor do they reflect the values of a “different time.” They reflect a man who, at every step, refused to defend the defenseless and instead chose to protect a serial abuser.
At this point, Bo’s statue is mostly a distraction. Of course it should come down. To leave it up would be to prioritize football wins over the safety and well-being of student-athletes. The fact that it’s still up at the time of writing this is itself a mockery of the victims whom Bo failed to protect.
But change cannot stop there. Removing the statue and renaming Schembechler Hall would not repair the lasting damage Bo allowed to happen, in the same way that renaming the C.C. Little Science Building did not cure the University from the legacy of racism (nor would renaming Yost Ice Arena alone). Addressing these circumstances requires that we pursue justice beyond just confronting one individual and instead opt to mend the institutions that abetted him in the first place.
Restorative means dismantling the culture that trivializes abuse by allowing people to joke about it or use it as a motivational tool. It means developing accountability structures for everyone in positions of power. Above all, it means believing victims and offering them the support that makes the investigation process less painful.
Of course, all of this is made more difficult because of what Bo meant to the University. Like with Joe Paterno at Penn State, there are thousands of people around the country who grew up revering Bo. Accepting the failures of a man who was hailed as nothing short of a saint will take years, even decades, for many to do. Some may never fully choose to do so, and for the players who knew him personally and felt positively impacted by him, that’s understandable.
But regardless of the man people believed Bo was, the fact remains that he did not live up to that belief when he needed to most. The most important role for people in power is to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and he failed to do so.
We cannot revere Bo. But, we absolutely must learn from him.