'Even more sickening': UM students grapple with new allegation against Bo Schembechler
Ann Arbor — Students and recent graduates of the University of Michigan are questioning their attachment to the school and its elite athletics program after the son of legendary football coach Bo Schembechler said he was a survivor of sexual misconduct that his dad was complicit in keeping under wraps.
Matthew Schembechler told The Detroit News Wednesday that he was molested more than 50 years ago by Dr. Robert Anderson, a longtime UM physician who was found to have more than 800 accusations of misconduct through a Detroit News investigation.
The new allegation, which was shared in full at a Thursday afternoon press conference, sent shock waves through UM athletic circles and added to growing calls for reform within the department — including those coming from within the campus community.
Matthew said he told his father Bo in 1969 that Anderson had molested him during a physical examination for a youth football team when he was 10. Bo was enraged with Matthew when the news came to light, telling him he had no interest in hearing about it and punching Matthew in the chest so hard he flew across the kitchen floor, according to the adopted son.
Matthew said his mother brought then-UM Athletic Director Don Canham to the house for Matthew to explain what happened. Canham quickly terminated Anderson, but Bo successfully pushed to reinstate him, according to the late coach's son.
In Ann Arbor on Thursday, some students and community members said they didn't know about the unfolding allegation. But those who had an interest in the athletic department said they were reconsidering their loyalty.
“Even before I came to the university, I was a huge football fan, so I really respected Bo as a coach,” said Steven Waganfeald, a 2020 UM graduate. “When it first started coming out about how many athletes had been potentially abused by the doctor, it was already kind of devastating, because it was someone that you wanted to look up to as a role model figure on campus.”
With the news of Bo Schembechler’s role in his son's alleged assault, “it just got even more sickening,” said Waganfeald, who still works in Ann Arbor.
Accountability is essential within the athletics department, said Davis Moyer, who will be a junior in the fall and who has been attending football games in the Big House since childhood. Moyer said it has been strange to see the allegations come to light against a titan in Michigan football, but it is important to look at new allegations against people, even if they are admired.
“One thing about being a conscious member of society is being willing to take in information, assess it and be able to change your opinion,” Moyer said. “At the presentation of this new information, you got to be able to sit down and think critically about it as opposed to just blowing it off.”
But exactly what true accountability and justice look like for the now-deceased football coach is harder to pinpoint.
Waganfeald said a first step would be removing Bo Schembechler’s statue and his name from the hall named after him on South State Street. But he said it is important that the changes go deeper since Bo is essentially synonymous with the football program.
Given that his fingerprints can be seen throughout the Big House today with sayings like “The team, the team, the team,” Waganfeald said it is important university officials listen to student-athletes and Anderson victims.
Other students struggled with the balance between accountability and fan loyalty. Matt Percival, a rising UM junior, said he wants an investigation, but he does not necessarily want to stop watching games because he wants to support the student-athletes, who are not in the wrong.
“When there's problems, that should be taken care of,” Percival said.
Addressing calls for a criminal investigation, Attorney General Dana Nessel said at a Lansing press conference Thursday that with most of the suspects or people who knew about the allegations since deceased, such a probe likely wouldn’t yield evidence that could be used in a prosecution.
The attorney general’s experience at Michigan State University, where the board withheld about 6,000 documents related to the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal under attorney-client privilege, has made her hesitant to conduct the same review at UM without a commitment of transparency from the Board of Regents.
“When we say full cooperation, that means full cooperation,” Nessel said. “… Unless and until we get that kind of commitment, I will tell you right now I won’t waste the resources of this office and I won’t waste the resources of the state in order to conduct what would be an incomplete, an inconclusive investigation.”
Whether the attorney general investigates or not, students said they are seriously considering Matthew Schembechler's allegation when evaluating their loyalty to UM. Moyer said he wants to give the school and individuals the benefit of the doubt, but it is hard to overlook the hundreds harmed by Anderson and school officials who enabled him.
Waganfeald said he kept updated on the breaking news story Wednesday night as more information came out, and it was hard to shake the sense of disappointment he felt as an alumnus and fan. This situation will be in his mind as he thinks about his connection to the team and school going forward, he said.
“It's really disappointing to think about the athletic department essentially condoning the behavior that these people were doing,” Waganfeald said. “It's hard sometimes to think about continuing to be a fan if I know that there are things like that that are potentially going on all the time in the athletic department.”
Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.