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Opinion: Settlement confirms moral failure at Michigan

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I grew up in Thermopolis, Wyoming, a small town in the central part of the state in the 1970s and early '80s.

Sports were a big part of life in Thermopolis. There was a very active youth wrestling program, and the Little League baseball fields even had lights. I felt like a major leaguer when my team played in the late game on those summer nights.

Of course the biggest event in town was high school football, and everyone gathered to watch the Bobcats. So when the word went out that a player at our high school, punter Don Bracken, had signed with the University of Michigan, it was a matter of immense pride for the entire community. We were all Wolverine fans now and had a team to root for in the annual battle for Big Ten supremacy between Michigan and Ohio State.

Bracken had a good college career and set the record for longest punt in Rose Bowl history with his 73-yard boot in Michigan’s win over Washington in 1981. He went on to an eight-year career in the NFL where he played for the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Rams.

I couldn’t help but think about Bracken this week when it was announced that the University of Michigan had reached a $490 million settlement with more than 1,000 people following a lengthy investigation into alleged sexual assaults by Dr. Robert E. Anderson. This settlement must still be approved by the university’s board and by the claimants.

Anderson was employed at the university from 1966 until his retirement in 2003. He worked with a wide range of programs on campus and the settlement includes both male and female athletes, including many members of the famous football team.

One of those players, running back Jon Vaughn, has been outspoken about his experience with Anderson, who died in 2008. Vaughn has been engaged in a daily protest since October.

“We’ve only really scratched the surface and touched the tip of the iceberg on how insidious this atrocity is," Vaughn told The Associated Press on Friday. "That’s why I’m staying. The entire truth has not come out.”

Vaughn said during his time at Michigan, Anderson was the only doctor that scholarship players were allowed to see. Because they needed Anderson’s clearance to be able to compete, Vaughn said he and his teammates “were in a constant state of being uncomfortable but learning to compartmentalize things to get the job done.”

Thomas Easthope, the former head of the University Health Service, said he fired Anderson after he learned of these allegations in the late 1970s. But this only impacted Anderson’s work with the health service and did not disrupt his work with the athletic department.

Easthope acknowledged that he did not contact law enforcement about the allegations.

“We live in a different time, and it’s not like that today," Easthope said in an interview before his death in 2021.

That a university official knew about sexual misconduct by a doctor on campus and allowed that individual to continue to abuse his position for an additional 30 years is maddening, and no amount of money paid out to victims can make it right.

Looking at Anderson’s history at the University of Michigan, it seems likely that Bracken would have encountered him during his time in Ann Arbor. I have no idea what he would think of these allegations or if he was among those abused by Anderson. Bracken died in 2014 at the age of 52.

But I do know that no community sends its best and brightest away only for them to be victimized by an institution that is supposed to protect them. In this settlement, the University of Michigan is acknowledging that is exactly what happened to more than 1,000 young people over four decades and no one took the actions necessary to stop it.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this piece.

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