On Friday, Ohio State University released the findings of an independent law firm’s investigation into the sexual abuse committed by former university physician Richard Strauss. During his time at the school from 1978 until 1998, the investigation found that Strauss abused at least 177 male student-patients, many of them athletes, with acts that ranged from overt fondling to more subtle abuse under the guise of proper medical treatment. Complaints about Strauss were never elevated beyond the Athletic Department or the Student Health Center until 1996, after which the University took some disciplinary action but did not take away Strauss’s status as a tenured faculty member. Strauss died in 2005, while still Faculty Emeritus at OSU.
Perhaps the most notable part of the report is that Jim Jordan, the U.S. representative from Ohio who was formerly an assistant coach with the wrestling program from 1987 to 1995, is not implicated by any evidence uncovered by the investigation, despite multiple former wrestlers alleging to the media that he knew about Strauss’s abuse.
With the exception of former fencing coach Charlotte Remenyik—who raised concerns about Strauss in 1994—there is no available documentary evidence showing that any OSU coach was aware of what Strauss did. While 22 coaches confirmed to investigators that they heard rumors and/or complaints about Strauss, Jordan has denied ever knowing, and says he would have acted if he had. This is the closest the report comes to contradicting Jordan, outlining how common it was to hear something or other about Strauss’s abuse:
Rumors about Strauss were pervasive for years, but never treated with the seriousness they deserved. When Remenyik raised concerns about Strauss, OSU Medical Director/Head Team Physician John Lombardo wrote in a letter that “her concerns are based on rumors which have been generated for 10 years with no foundation.” Many former OSU employees who spoke to the investigation said it was a topic of discussion that Strauss took long showers at Larkins Hall, where several teams practiced, and many also knew that he took showers with the student-athletes. Later in Strauss’s tenure, some witnesses said, he was required to have a third person in the room for certain examinations, but it’s clear that, if this rule existed, it was never followed consistently.
Lombardo, who works for the NFL as an advisor on PEDs, is a clear figure of blame in these accounts. Six different people told the investigation that they reported concerns about Strauss to Lombardo, but he didn’t respond with any urgency. One trainer, the report says, “suspected that Lombardo had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of attitude regarding Strauss, given that things always remained ‘status quo’ with Strauss.” Lombardo declined to be interviewed by the investigation.
Aside from Lombardo, five different witnesses interviewed by the investigation said that they told longtime Head Team Physician Bob Murphy, who died in 2003, about Strauss’s abuse. The most Murphy ever did about those complaints, according to one Team Physician, was ask him to take over for Strauss on that year’s wrestling physicals, due to “issues” with Strauss. Three witness also say they brought complaints to former Director of Athletic Training Bill Davis. Davis told the investigation that he did not recall any of that, but allowed that he “may have” heard “secondhand” or “thirdhand” remarks about “odd things” that happened during Strauss’s exams.
Ohio State’s athletic directors throughout Strauss’s tenure generally get off without any blame. One student says he told AD Jim Jones that Strauss “liked to touch our balls,” but the student did not go into specifics with Jones, and the AD was dismissive. That student also said that his coach reported multiple cases of Strauss’s sexual assault to Jones and his successor Andy Geiger, but the coach denied these claims. The student is the only witness in the entire report who says he brought complaints about Strauss’s abuse to an OSU athletic director.
Strauss finally caught some discipline only when a student seeing him at the Student Health Center filed a complaint in 1996 about an abusive examination with the Vice President of Student Affairs. Strauss was placed under administrative leave and investigated by Student Affairs and Human Resources. This eventually led to Strauss’s removal as a physician from Student Health and the Athletic Department, though he remained a tenured professor. After his appeals failed, Strauss retired in 1998 and was appointed Faculty Emeritus.
The mountain of witness accounts in the report implies that Strauss’s abuse was an open secret at OSU for years, one that nobody in authority took adequate action against. Just a rundown of reactions from various head coaches described in the report—who remained anonymous in an effort to protect the identities of the survivors, according to the school—shows how easily Strauss got away with his abuse:
- One head coach said that he personally confronted Strauss about his showering with student-athletes, and also said that he was “too hands on” when dealing with them, but he did not escalate those issues because he felt that conversation addressed the problem adequately.
- Another head coach did nothing when his players told him that Strauss was showering with the team, because there were other faculty members who showered at Larkins Hall also.
- Another head coach, upon hearing comments about Strauss’s abnormal hernia exams, said his strategy for dealing with it was loudly saying, “That’s not happening on my watch” so Strauss and everyone in the training room could hear him. The coach said he believed this action alone was effective in deterring Strauss from abusing his athletes, but it’s unclear whether that’s true.
- One head coach said that a student-athlete complained to him that Strauss’s groin exams were “very uncomfortable,” but the coach brushed it off because he believed groin injuries were generally uncomfortable.
While there are a few clearly responsible parties identified by this investigation—namely Lombardo—the picture painted is a sadly familiar one, of an institution where responsibility was diffused and nobody showed much desire to find out what was going on. The anonymity of the various coaches in this report, and the lack of hard evidence showing who heard what about Strauss, is still frustrating. The witness accounts of Strauss’s abuse in the report are overwhelming, but they’re still only the first step in the process of deciding how justice can be served. This report can only be the very beginning of Ohio State’s reckoning.