It’s been 20 days since reports first surfaced about Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) ignoring allegations of sexual abuse when he was an assistant coach for the Ohio State wrestling team. Because of the trumped-up nature of these modern times, most reporters who are tied to the political news cycle have moved on, resigned to the fact that Jordan will remain in his prominent leadership position within the Republican Party.
With each new revelation about Dr. Richard Strauss’s decades of abuse during his time as a team doctor at Ohio State, the story is framed in one of two ways: Either as “bad news for Jordan,” by those inclined to believe survivors, or as the work of the “deep state” by those on the far right.
But this is not a story about politics. And it is absolutely not a story that should be viewed through the distortion of a partisan lens.
Yes, Jordan should be held accountable for any abuse his silence helped enable. But if we don’t look at this story systematically, we’re missing the entire point.
In the last week, two class action lawsuits have been filed against Ohio State by former wrestlers who allege they were abused by Strauss. Documents filed as part of those suits provide invaluable, sickening insight into the crimes that were committed and the toxic culture that enabled them. And, hard as it is to read these documents in detail, it’s absolutely crucial that we do. Because the atrocities outlined in this case are not confined to one college campus 20 years ago; we’ve seen recent stories unfold at the University of Southern California, Michigan State, Penn State, USA Gymnastics, USA Diving, USA Taekwondo, USA Swimming, among many others.
This is why we should put the conversation about Jordan’s political future on the back burner for now, and focus instead on the scope of Strauss’s crimes, the environment that enabled him, the reasons his victims were afraid to speak up, and the ways in which they were ignored when they did.
Because while more victims feel empowered to come forward today, that doesn’t guarantee change. Change is a deliberate act, one that has to be made over and over again. It doesn’t happen by default just because time passes.
The abuser, Dr. Richard Strauss, might have victimized thousands
Ohio State University hired Strauss in 1978 to work as an assistant professor of medicine, and from 1981 to 1995, he served as the school’s team doctor. In that role, he treated athletes in baseball, cheerleading, cross country, fencing, football, gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track, volleyball, and wrestling. Just like the Nassar abuse scandal encompassed far more than just gymnastics, Strauss’s abuse was not confined to the wrestling team.
One of the class-action lawsuits estimates that during his time at OSU, Strauss “sexually assaulted, abused, battered, molested, and/or harassed 1,500 to 2,500 male students.” That is an absolutely staggering number.
The lawsuit says Strauss — or “Dr. Jelly Paws,” as the student-athletes nicknamed him — would use the showers in the locker room as a way to gawk at and harass student-athletes. He wasn’t very discreet about it, either.
Strauss also assaulted his patients in the exam room, where he “forced male student athletes to undress from the waist down and submit to invasive and medically unnecessary exams, during which he would touch and fondle their genitalia and digitally penetrate their anuses, often telling athletes that he was checking for hernias.”
To make matters worse, these examinations were required. Every student-athlete at OSU had to undergo physical exams by Strauss at least once per season. He was also the go-to doctor for all illnesses or injuries — and survivors of his abuse have said he found a way to sexually assault them no matter the ailment.
“Indeed, OSU fed student-athletes to Dr. Strauss, and they were powerless to stop him,” one lawsuit reads.
The entire campus was a “cesspool of deviancy”
While Strauss is the subject of the lawsuits and an investigation, it seems he wasn’t the only one at OSU who exhibited predatory behaviors. In fact, one former wrestling coach called the campus a “cesspool of deviancy.”
According to the lawsuit, Larkins Hall — a dorm where many athletes lived — was a location where sexually aggressive men regularly harassed student-athletes. The lawsuit mentions claims from Politico, which talked with six former OSU wrestlers about the culture of abuse on campus.
This is particularly horrifying because it means that Strauss’s behavior didn’t exist in a vacuum — his deviant behavior was out in the open, and widely accepted as part of being an athlete at OSU during that time. If you believed the authorities knew about the abuse and did nothing about, that would make it so much harder to report.
The victims were afraid to speak up out of fear of punishment
One of the most horrifying “defenses” of Jordan came from his colleague Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who said that, “Unlike the Olympians who were minor children at the time they were abused, these former wrestlers were adults at the time they claim they were sexually abused by the Ohio State team doctor.”
But this gross statement completely dismisses the predatory grooming that took place, and the way power dynamics actually work in practice.
Strauss groomed and stalked his prey. He once moved his locker so it was directly next to his favorite wrestler’s locker. He’d schedule his shower times and work hours to coincide with the schedules of the men he wanted to harass. He exposed and exploited their vulnerabilities — many of his victims were teenagers from low-income areas who were living away from home for the first time.
Plus, many of the student-athletes abused by Strauss were at OSU on medical scholarships. Running afoul of the rules at OSU meant jeopardizing their scholarships, and their college degrees. That necessitated a close following of the rules — and getting a physical by Strauss was a rule.
These institutions are extremely powerful and influential, and they automatically bestow credence and prestige upon anyone they employ. Far too often, that status is used to shame and silence.
Top officials at Ohio State knew about the abuse, but did nothing to protect student-athletes
Despite the barriers, there were some victims who tried to come forward. Way back in 1978, the first year Strauss was employed at Ohio State, Strauss allegedly sexually assaulted a former captain of the wrestling team during an exam. That wrestler says he went directly to the student health center and told another doctor about Strauss’s abuse, but that doctor didn’t do anything.
Had that complaint been taken seriously, it’s possible that thousands of young men would have been saved from abuse.
Fifteen years later, another former wrestler complained about Strauss’s abuse to former head wrestling coach Russ Hellickson — the same man who is cited above as dragging “gawkers” out of the locker rooms. According to the lawsuit, Hellickson approached Strauss about his behavior.
The second class-action lawsuit filed last week says that Dunyasha Yetts, another former wrestler, directly informed Jim Jordan about the abuse around this time — a claim that Jordan denies.
Then, during the 1994-1995 season, two wrestlers met with then-athletic director Andy Geiger and complained about “voyeuristic and lewd conduct of the men in the lockers and saunas of Larkins Hall, including that of Dr. Strauss.” They presented him with drawings of changes to the wrestling and gymnastic locker room they thought would enhance privacy and safety. Geiger promised to look into it, but did nothing. (The only change that happened after that meeting, according to the lawsuit? “The locker room carpet was cleaned.”)
In 1997, OSU did hold a hearing on Strauss, but it seems that no legal or disciplinary action was taken against him as a result. He quietly resigned after the hearing.
Time doesn’t automatically change things for the better
Strauss committed suicide in 2005. Many of the people who were in charge at Ohio State when the abuse occurred have long since left the school. It can be easy to view this case as history, and assume that things are much better now.
But going forward, the Strauss case should be treated with the same sense of urgency as it would if this information were coming out while Strauss was still alive and actively abusing people in the present. That’s because this is about much more than one man; it’s about the systems that enabled him to cause so much destruction. And those systems still exist everywhere.
Ohio State now says it has interviewed more than 100 people who say Strauss sexually assaulted them, and the investigation is still ongoing. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But it can’t stop there.
A writer for The Federalist argued, “It’s important not to hold people 20 years ago to the standards of today,” as though sexual assault were somehow acceptable only until recently. It’s tempting to dismiss this an extremist position — because, you know, it’s the Federalist — but unfortunately, it’s a pervasive thought.
People knew that sexual abuse was wrong decades ago — a survivor tried to report Strauss 30 years ago! The only real difference was, back then, the people who were in power at those institutions felt assured there would be zero personal consequences for failing to act on these allegations.
Honestly, despite the #MeToo movement, despite the courage of the Nassar survivors, I’m not sure things have changed that much in that regard. The only way to make sure change does come is to continue to amplify the voices of the survivors who are speaking up, and to continue to demand those who knew about the abuse and looked the other way face justice. Not for partisan or political purposes, not as a way to showcase morality, but because the systemic enabling of sexual abuse has endured for far too long, and ruined far too many lives. This is the only way to stop it.