USA Today: 1 in 4 college athletes say they experienced sexual abuse from an authority figure, survey finds

For Evan Cooper, who grew up playing football in Miami, becoming a star defensive back who never missed a game at a major college such as the University of Michigan was “a dream come true.”

But during his time on campus in the early 1980s, he became one of the hundreds of U of M survivors who have accused late athletic doctor Robert Anderson of sexual assault and misconduct.

Cooper, 59, who sued the university along with dozens of anonymous male athletes last August, said he wasn’t fully aware at the time that he was being abused, and he didn’t want to come forward and jeopardize his spot on the football team.

Decades later, he said, the abuse has taken a toll on his marriage and caused him to avoid doctors almost entirely.

“I felt trapped,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about what happened at Michigan. It’s very stressful.”

Cooper’s story is part of several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by authority figures on college campuses, and a new survey found the abuse may be particularly common among student athletes.

The findings come from a digital survey conducted in early June that included nearly 800 adults under the age of 45 who attended private or public universities.

More than 1 in 4 current or former student athletes surveyed reported being sexually assaulted or harassed by someone in a position of power on campus, compared with 1 in 10 of those in the general population, according to the survey commissioned by Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit group that seeks to educate parents and kids about sexual violence.

Athletes were 2.5 times more likely to say they encountered such abuse, and coaches were the group most identified as abusers, the survey found.

Colleges and universities “need to do more to keep students on their campuses safe,” said Florida state Sen. Lauren Book, a survivor of sexual assault who founded Lauren’s Kids. “It’s about holding everyone accountable and putting policies and procedures in place.”

Just 1 in 4 athletes reported the abuse to campus administrators, and nearly half said they were afraid the perpetrator would retaliate against them. Almost 40% of athletes said they felt pressured not to report because they were afraid of losing their scholarship or doubted that the abuse was bad enough to warrant reporting.

That is part of the reason Alonzo Shavers, 51, didn’t initially come forward with his sexual abuse allegations against former Ohio State University doctor Richard Strauss.

Shavers said he worked hard to earn a scholarship playing as a walk-on wide receiver on the school’s football team in the mid-90s. He said that when Strauss began sexually abusing him during medical examinations, he didn’t fully understand what was happening to him.

“Even if I was uncomfortable in the situation, it didn’t get identified because I would have had so much to lose,” he said. “When it came to light, it was a relief from that standpoint. It affirmed that you’re not crazy.”

More than 400 men have filed lawsuits since 2018, many of which allege Strauss, who died in 2005, groped them during required medical exams or treatment.

The university has apologized and reached nearly $47 million in settlements for 185 survivors. It announced an individual settlement program that could help resolve more claims from some of the remaining lawsuits.

Dozens more men sued Ohio State in May over the university’s failure to stop the sexual abuse and misconduct.

“For more than three years, Ohio State has led the effort to investigate and expose Richard Strauss’ abuse and the university’s failure at the time to prevent it,” said a statement from the university to USA TODAY. “We express our deep regret and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’ abuse.”

The survey found that almost all of the athletes who experienced sexual abuse from an authority figure suffered at least one negative financial, academic, health or social consequence.

Shavers said his military training helped him compartmentalize his abuse, but coming forward and suing the university in May dug up old feelings.

“It gives you an opportunity to put some ghosts to bed,” he said. “You can’t completely put it behind you until the moral compass of the university falls in place … the process becomes more badgering, more so than helpful with the university just dragging their feet.”

Book said the effects of abuse could “last a lifetime.”

“I still, after all of these years have gone by, deal with the very real and lasting effects of the sexual abuse that I endured,” she said. “That’s not to say you can’t heal and overcome, but those lasting effects could be forever if you don’t handle them and do the work.”

Similar to athletes, members of clubs and campus organizations were nearly twice as likely to say they were abused by authority figures and reported similar reasons for not reporting and life consequences, the survey found.

Lawyers Ben Crump and Richard Schulte, who represent some of the former students who are suing OSU and Michigan, said the survey results were not surprising but were necessary to shed light on an issue schools have not done enough to address.

“This is a small study but a very powerful one in my view,” Schulte said. “It provides real data and information for parents, people and legislatures to see what’s going on. We need more studies like this.”

Schulte said that in addition to changes in campus culture, states need to pass laws that make it easier to hold schools accountable for protecting serial abusers, create windows for survivors to come forward and require universities to be transparent about abuse on campus.

The University of Michigan apologized and commissioned an investigative report released in May, which found administrators knew about Anderson’s sexual assaults since the start of his tenure but did not take action. Anderson worked at Michigan from 1968 to 2003 and died in 2008.

“We offer sympathy to all of the victims of the late Dr. Robert Anderson,” university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said. “We again apologize for the pain they have suffered, and we remain committed to resolving their claims through the court-guided, confidential mediation process that is ongoing.”

In 2019, a report from a law firm investigation concluded Ohio State University employees were aware of concerns about Strauss as early as 1979 but didn’t stop him.

“These schools have their own health system, their own police department, and the problem is that there’s not a check on these universities,” Schulte said. “This is an epidemic that needs to be dealt with.”

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