And yet, this scenario has in recent years proven more common than one would think, considering the crime seems so obvious and so devastating: People in charge failing to act — either carelessly or willfully — and victims falling through the cracks, even when they are courageous enough to come forward, as in Matt Schembechler’s case. Here was a child who managed to tell an adult about his experiences, only to be told, essentially, that he should have kept it quiet.
That’s likely because the notion of men as victims — or displaying any sort of weakness at all — is too often unwelcome in our society. This is one reason why the allegations against Anderson were covered up by so many for so long — and perhaps why this scandal has come to light only after most of the relevant parties have died, including Anderson, Bo Schembechler, and Thomas Easthope, the university’s former assistant vice president of student services, who allegedly failed to respond to countless accusations
It’s one reason, too, why the allegations were dismissed as “locker room talk” and why athletes who reported Anderson to Bo Schembechler were told to “toughen up,” according to the university-commissioned report. There remains a powerful shame and stigma attached to sexual abuse of men, which is often rooted in homophobia and rigid definitions of masculinity that perpetuate a sense that, if it happens, the response should just be to “get over it.”
This reluctance to acknowledge the prevalence of male sexual abuse is only heightened in a male-dominated environment where masculinity and “toughness” are celebrated and rewarded — culturally and often financially — such as in college and professional sports. In a way, to a predator, male athletes may be perfect victims.
Whether Bo Schembechler’s gross negligence in allowing Anderson to abuse hundreds of young men, including, allegedly, his own son, was rooted in evil or professional ambition doesn’t matter. He should be considered an accomplice to sexual violence, as culpable as Anderson himself.
And while Matt Schembechler’s reluctance to share his story of abuse until after his father’s death is understandable, one hopes that his example in coming forward will help more men have the courage to do the same — earlier and loudly.
We might see that shift if we create institutional avenues to come forward and foster a culture where victims are not punished when they do. As seen in the case of the Boston Boy Scout, who told his story after learning that several other men had begun to come forward with similar accounts of abuse at the hands of their troop leaders, one person’s strength can pave the way for many others. It is imperative that institutions and organizations through which adults and children interact have clear and effective systems in place for reporting, investigating, and addressing incidents of abuse, and that those systems are checked regularly.
It’s also important for parents of boys do their best to encourage open communication with their sons — and daughters — to make it clear that abuse of any sort is never their fault. And that if they aren’t sure, the best way to be sure is to share the story with a trusted, safe adult.
Sadly, in the case of Matt Schembechler, despite his mother’s failed attempt to intervene, the parents allegedly offered no protection, ultimately. This is why although institutional systems are necessary, it’s important to remember that the responsibility for keeping children safe can come down to a single individual. Chances are good that if a child reports once to an adult to little, or detrimental effect, he will not report again — which could allow a cycle of abuse to continue.
And, of course, the more the world can begin to understand that any male can be a victim of sexual abuse, whether a college football player, a pilot, or a little boy, the more likely it will be that behavior by men like Robert Anderson, and Bo Schembechler, does not go unchecked in the future — that perpetrators of such abuse are punished and their victims are given the support and care they need to make them whole.