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Physiotherapist working examining treating injured leg of athlete patient

Dr. Anderson Sex Abuse Survivors Protest for Accountability

He was the team doctor for one of the most revered athletic programs in the country – yet student athletes (mostly male) suffered his sexual abuse for decades. Staff members who knew of the assaults and did nothing, including top coaches and administrators, only added to the tragedy.

Almost 60 years after the University of Michigan first hired Dr. Robert Anderson, his victims are rallying in Ann Arbor. Throughout the fall semester, they have joined forces with sex abuse victim advocates to hold school officials accountable for past failures and ensure future students’ safety from rape and other sex crimes on campus. 

Many have traveled hundreds of miles and taken leave at work to spend many a chilly Michigan night away from their loved ones. Some have even set up temporary living quarters outside University President Mark Schlissel’s home, holding round-the-clock vigils that have drawn hundreds of supporters.

Most of all, the victims hope to confront the university’s top brass face-to-face.

The university’s annual Security & Fire Safety Report, detailing three years of statistics, was released in early October. More of Anderson’s victims came forward in 2020 than ever before, despite the fact that he passed away in 2008. The report noted 1,194 allegations of on-campus rape, 916 alleged incidents of fondling and one alleged off-campus rape, all attributed to Anderson; the total count came to more than 2100 alleged incidents, the most publicly acknowledged in school history. 

There is growing frustration at both the university’s secrecy regarding its knowledge of Anderson’s high number of incidents and lack of direct communication between victims and the board of regents, which occurred Sep. 23 during the first in-person board meeting since the pandemic. 

Just before the meeting at the Richard L. Postma Family Clubhouse, about a hundred victims gathered outside attempted to speak directly to the regents as they filed in for the meeting, sharing their personal experiences of abuse under Anderson one by one. None of the officials spoke directly to the group. Instead, they issued a blanket joint statement.

Frustrated by the impersonal response, the victims organized more gatherings and protests. Another continuous vigil at President Schlissel’s home hosted by Jon Vaughn, a former running back for U-M, began Oct. 8. Vaughn, who also played in the NFL and led the New England Patriots in rushing yards during their 1992 season, has said that Anderson repeatedly abused him from 1988-1990, performing testicular and rectal exams. As a student, Vaughn was unaware such exams were neither necessary nor appropriate. 

Vaughn’s makeshift home – a small tent – has since become a gathering place for victims and advocates alike.

Vaughn was joined soon after his arrival by Chuck Christian, a former tight end at U-M who played from 1977-1981 and was the first football player to publicly say Anderson abused him.[Vaughn] is striking the match,” said Christian, who drove 15 hours from Boston to be there. “Now, there’s a fire going. And that’s what people don’t understand. Nobody wants to be the one that strikes the match. Nobody wants to be the one that sacrifices. Nobody wants to be that first one.”

Christian, 61, is currently undergoing treatment for late-stage prostate cancer. Last year, he told a New York Times reporter that he believes being molested by Anderson led him to a lifetime aversion to doctors. If not for Anderson’s abuse, he said, his cancer may have been caught much earlier.

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Both athletes intend to keep their protest going until, as Vaughn told the Michigan Daily, “…every male or female feels safe at this university.” 

Another large vigil was held on Oct. 14. In attendance was Trinea Gonczar, a former Michigan State University gymnast victimized by Larry Nassar, the former MSU and USA Gymnastics physician currently serving back-to-back life sentences in federal prison.

Gonczar, now the director of development at Wayne County SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners), told the crowd she was there in solidarity. “I showed up here with Jon because no survivor should stand alone, ever, and being in want to give somebody else a voice,” she said. 

After the event, Vaughn was asked by NPR how he felt about the “larger” amount of attention the Nassar case has received than Anderson’s. In response, he described the cases as “…basically one case.”

“Larry Nassar did his student training here at the University of Michigan in 1985,” Vaughn said. “There were so many similarities to Anderson and Nassar. So really, it’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the largest sexual abuse, rape and cover-ups in sports are literally miles away from each other.’’

However, Vaughn also pointed out that Anderson’s victims included a key demographic that Nassar’s did not.

“I think there’s been a stigma of mainly African American males that the general population can’t believe could be rape victims. But in our case, everything that happened to us was under the guise of medicine,’’ he said. “I should have never had my first prostate exam at 18, and I should have never had 49 more before I left at the age of 20.”    

Although he still has not reached out for a face-to-face meeting with Vaughn, President Schissel did acknowledge the ongoing protests during a Board of Regents meeting at UM Flint on Oct. 21.

“Through public comment sessions with investigators, to the news media, and in demonstrations – including the one on the Ann Arbor campus in front of my house – the regents and I have heard them,’’ he said. “We’re listening intently and encourage any survivors to speak out. We value their voices.”

For protestors like Vaughn, the president’s response was far from strong enough. After Schissel’s statement from Flint, Vaughn told reporters, “You drive 55 miles and you can mention my presence but you can’t acknowledge my presence personally.”