Wrestler scandal fuels rising concern on how schools, teams protect kids

buckeyes-300x295Soon, many young people  will be back to school and signing up for  sports teams. Many will have to undergo physical exams before they can play.  And it’s a tragic reality that grown-ups may need to think a lot how to protect young people from sexual predators who also are doctors.

That’s because Ohio State University, sadly, has joined the University of Southern California, Michigan State-USA Gymnastics, and Penn State University in the notoriety of dealing with a sexual abuse scandal involving adults and students. In the case of the Buckeyes, it’s Big Ten male wrestlers.

OSU said it had hired an outside law firm to investigate the allegations against Richard Strauss, who had blue-chip credentials and served as the team doctor to university wrestlers roughly from 1979 to 1997. The doctor killed himself in 2005. Lawyers interviewed more than 200 one-time OSU students, with 100 of them accusing Strauss of sexual misconduct, “including former athletes from 14 different sports teams.”

Investigators said they plan to interview 100 more former students, the New York Times reported, adding, “the scope of the inquiry has widened beyond the athletic department to investigate whether Dr. Strauss abused high schoolers, as well as claims that he brought college students to his personal off-campus office to abuse them.”

The slowly developing Ohio State case, experts say, shows that burly collegiate male athletes also can be vulnerable and subject to exploitation by those in power, such as a team doctor. One-time wrestlers clearly struggle even now, decades later, as they describe their victimization in crude fashion by a physician, who became notorious for telling them that no matter their medical needs, including for a rib injury, they needed to “drop their pants” to receive medical care from him.

It may take some time to determine which school officials knew what about and when the sexual abuses may have occurred with the OSU wrestlers, though several, including in lawsuits, have said they told coaches and athletic officials about Strauss’ creepy conduct, including his groping them, ogling them in locker rooms, and even taking long showers with them after team practices.

The scandal also has swept up Jim Jordan, now a leading Republican conservative congressman and onetime OSU assistant wrestling coach. His credibility has come under fire as various, one-time team members argue over what he knew or might have known about Strauss and whether he might better have protected athletes.

The controversies about sports programs and universities and their failures to prevent the sexual assault and exploitation of young athletes has raged on both news and sports pages. More than 140 young female gymnasts created a dramatic moment during ESPN’s Espy Awards, when they received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and asked the poignant question why no adult had intervened during years to safeguard them when Larry Nassar, who has been convicted on dozens of charges and will be behind bars for a long time, molested them in purported medical exams as team physician at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I find it unacceptable that these sexual abuse scandals keep growing in number and scope at institutions nationwide. High schools, colleges, universities, and sports organizations need to redouble their efforts to not only screen all personnel working with young people, they need to open their ears and eyes to the slightest hints of inappropriate speech or conduct by grown-ups working with youths, including and not exempting doctors.

It’s hard to fathom how leaders at Penn State or OSU thought it appropriate for a coach or team doctor to shower regularly with boys or young men. How did other caregivers think it right that a USC gynecologist took many pictures of the genitals of coeds in his care? How have sports and school officials allowed these scandals to inflict such tolls  — more than 100 victims in the cases of MSU-USA Gymnastics, reports of at least 100 at OSU and more than 200 plaintiffs at USC, and just under a dozen convictions at Penn State?

Parents often are far removed from campuses, and adolescents — especially when they head off to college — may be more than reluctant to talk to moms and dads about unseemly behaviors by grown-ups at their school. There are published resources, though, that may be helpful to concerned adults, including from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the New York Times. Moms and dads may wish to check in with schools and athletic programs to see if any medical services their youngsters may need may be done with trusted pediatricians or family physicians, not with team doctors or caregivers far away.

Meantime, it may be worth taking a second or two to try to have a thoughtful chat with young women and men for moms and dads to let them know there are reasonable boundaries to what doctors, coaches, and teachers do. It also may be worth reminding adults who work with and around youngsters that most of them also bear legal responsibilities, including their role as “mandated reporters” in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland, meaning they are obligated to report suspicious conduct about possible harms to their young charges.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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