The University of Michigan, my alma mater, has been rocked by an unthinkable sexual-abuse scandal. Dr. Robert Anderson served as an athletic team doctor for thirty-five years and throughout that time, he sexually abused male students so frequently that it was a running joke among athletes. Except for those who were traumatized, of course.
This story has been out there for a while. But the latest disturbing turn is that several former football players — and many observers of Michigan athletics — say that legendary coach Bo Schembechler absolutely knew about Anderson’s abuse. Some say they told Bo; others say that he kept such a tight fist on his program that he couldn’t possibly have been ignorant. Just like Joe Paterno at Penn State.
And just like Paterno, the statue of Schembechler that adorns the athletic campus will almost certainly be removed sometime.
But what does this have to do with Vermont politics, you say?
These scandals have become so commonplace that I can’t help but believe that there are many more like them, so far undiscovered. And if you think this state is exempt, well, check your Vermont exceptionalism at the door.
A few years ago when I was employed by an actual news organization, we had a staff meeting to discuss story ideas. At the time, one of these youth-abuse scandals was in the headlines. And I said, someone should take a look at Vermont institutions that serve children and teens. Schools, obviously; but also organized athletic programs and summer camps and sports camps and scout troops, among other things. Churches, and not just Roman Catholic.
The response from my peers was what I call The Vermont Stare. You can almost see your words whizzing over their heads as they just don’t process what you’re saying. It’s not even denial, it’s just incomprehension. My suggestion died as quickly as it was born.
But I would be amazed if there isn’t a full-bore scandal or three lurking in our weeds. It’s simple math. In past times when where such things were kept secret, some percentage of those who worked with children were abusing their charges. And some percentage of institutional leaders actively covered it up or looked the other way.
I don’t know if our scandals (besides the Burlington diocese’s) will ever be revealed. Maybe not, since Vermonters do like to ignore the elephants in the room and our news media is barely able to do anything more than cover the daily grind. Not much room for investigative journalism in these parts.
But odds are, we’ve got skeletons in our attic.
Until now, Bo Schembechler was completely above reproach. He was an icon of Michigan football, which has its own Vermont-sized streak of exceptionalism. (In Ann Arbor, they sell T-shirts that say “Harvard: The Michigan of the East.”) He was a hard man, but his integrity was unshakable. He preached character-building. He had no patience for those who didn’t live up to his standards. During his tenure, everybody believed that Michigan football “did things the right way.”
Turns out, Schembechler was just like all those bishops and archbishops: A pristine outer shell concealing who-knows-what within. There’s a lot of those shells everywhere, and some of them are hiding some really nasty stuff.