COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Five former student-athletes on the Ohio State University wrestling team claim the school did not protect athletes from a team doctor accused of sexually abusing potentially hundreds of students over two decades.
Former team physician Dr. Richard Strauss committed suicide in 2005, leaving behind a black hole of “rampant sexual misconduct” after 20 years working at the university as team doctor until his retirement in 1998, according to a class action filed Monday in Columbus federal court.
A university investigation in 1997 led to nothing, and the plaintiffs allege Strauss acted with impunity and may have sexually assaulted as many as 2,500 student-athletes at OSU.
The four former students, unidentified John Doe plaintiffs, say that Strauss abused student-athletes participating in 14 different sports. Their lawsuit alleges the university and a former athletic director were well aware of Strauss’ conduct but did little or nothing to protect them from the doctor who abused them under the guise of medical treatment.
Kansas attorney Rex Sharp, California attorneys Robert Allard and Steve Estey, Indianapolis-based lawyer Jon Little and Columbus attorney Simina Vourlis filed the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status and damages against OSU for alleged Title IX and due process violations.
“Our investigation has conclusively demonstrated that Ohio State turned a blind eye to Dr. Strauss while he freely used his position of trust and authority to regularly sexually assault, batter, molest, and harass male athletes over the entire course of his career at Ohio State,” Allard said in prepared remarks.
On Tuesday, a fifth John Doe plaintiff added to the claims against the under-fire university by alleging in a separate lawsuit in Cincinnati federal court that Strauss abused him at least 20 times during medical appointments in the 1980s.
OSU spokesman Ben Johnson called reports that coaches and administrators did not respond appropriately to complaints during Strauss’ tenure “troubling” and said that it is part of the school’s ongoing investigation. He said the school is reviewing the wrestlers’ lawsuit.
“We are deeply concerned for everyone who may have been affected by Richard Strauss’ actions 20 years ago or more. The independent investigative team has received confidential reports of sexual misconduct committed by Strauss from former varsity men student-athletes in 14 sports, and from former patients of Student Health Services. These reports date from 1978 to 1998 during Strauss’ time at Ohio State. Ohio State remains committed to uncovering what may have happened and what university leaders at the time may have known,” he said.
Johnson added that anyone with information pertaining to Strauss should email an independent investigatory team at the firm Perkins Coie at email@example.com.
In April, the school announced that it had launched an investigation into the sexual abuse allegations. The probe recently netted hardline conservative Jim Jordan, an Ohio congressman and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. Some athletes have said Jordan, an assistant wrestling coach from the mid-1990s to mid-1980s, must have known about Strauss’ conduct. The politician has denied the charges.
According to the Columbus class action, Strauss inappropriately touched students’ genitals and penetrated their anuses with his fingers under the pretense that he was checking for hernias. He also allegedly took excessively long showers to ogle at male students.
During Strauss’ tenure, Larkin Hall, the sports facility where athletes practiced, became a “cesspool of deviancy,” according to the former students, leading to one head coach pleading with administrators to move athletes to a private facility.
The school demolished the building in 2005, the same year that Strauss killed himself.
Allegedly nicknamed “Dr. Jelly Paws” by his victims, Strauss joined the university in 1978, and within a year the team captain of the wrestling team had complained that Strauss had fondled him, the complaint states.
A doctor at the Ohio Student Health Center ignored the captain’s complaint, according to the lawsuit, but over the years sexual misconduct allegations against Strauss piled up. Two more students complained to then-Athletic Director Andy Geiger in the mid-1990s, and although he said he would act, the school allegedly did nothing. Reached by phone Tuesday, Geiger, who is not a party to the lawsuit, declined to comment.
Eventually, the school summoned Strauss to a hearing in the spring of 1997 but did not discipline the physician or take any further action, according to the complaint. Strauss retired soon after.
“Someone had to make that decision [to let Strauss continue conducting physicals],” one former athlete told the university newspaper The Lantern in April. “Let’s say he’s a great doctor, fine. He doesn’t have to do the physicals, because it’s like someone was pretty much feeding us to him. I didn’t have a choice to say, ‘I want somebody else to do my physical’ because I didn’t feel like I had any power in that position.”
The four former students allege that they were sexually assaulted, battered, molested and harassed by Strauss during examinations or in the locker room of Larkin Hall in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Attorneys Little and Sharp are part of the legal team that mounted a class-action lawsuit against USA Diving last week. Their complaint alleges that the organization had failed to adequately investigate a teen girl’s claims of sexual assault against a former USA Diving coach and member of the OSU diving team.