The most sweeping sex abuse scandal in the history of American higher education—to say nothing of the history of college sports—played out over nearly 20 years on one of the largest campuses in the country. Most of the survivors were athletes. Most of them didn’t entirely grasp until later in their lives that they had been assaulted and raped. Most of them were like Mark Coleman, whose interactions with Dr. Richard Strauss would create a smog, lingering over his life for decades.
A native of Fremont, Ohio, Coleman was an All-America wrestler at Miami of Ohio before transferring to Ohio State in the fall of 1986 for his senior season. Having played competitive sports his entire life, Coleman had experienced enough preseason athletic physicals to know the minor discomfort they entailed. But he was completely unprepared for what came next as he stood alone in a room with Strauss, then the official doctor for five OSU sports programs and consulting physician for at least 10 others. Strauss asked Coleman to undress and, under the guise of a medical examination, inappropriately touched Coleman. “He examined me pretty good. It was an eye-opener,” Coleman says, pausing. “I don’t want to go further than that.”
At practice, Coleman inquired about Strauss. His questions were greeted with levity and laughter. The slightly-built doctor with the heavily gelled hair who could be alternatively charming and prickly, and spoke in an effeminate voice edged in awkward nervousness? Who would not only lurk during practices, sitting naked on locker room benches, but then shower alongside the athletes? Who fondled athletes’ genitals during examinations, regardless of their injury? For years, Strauss and his “handsiness” as more than one former Buckeye athlete put it to Sports Illustrated, made for both an open secret and a running joke within the OSU athletic department.
So much so that each sport seemed to have coined a different shorthand for Strauss. For athletes in one sport he was “Dr. Feel Good.” For another, he was “Dr. Jelly Fingers.” There was also “Dr. Balls,” “Dr. Nuts” and “Dr. Drop-Your-Drawers.” Some OSU coaches used the mock threat of “having to see Dr. Strauss” as motivation to make their athletes run faster or practice harder.
Coleman was new on campus, new to the wrestling program. And the team doctor was, well, the team doctor. As a varsity athlete on scholarship, Coleman wasn’t inclined to, as he puts it, “stir shit up.” And, like most OSU athletes, he didn’t fully process that he had been sexually assaulted. For one, it was the late 80s, still a benighted era for sexual assault awareness, much less same-gender assault, when comprehension and vocabulary didn’t exist. “We never thought a man could sexually abuse a man,” says Coleman. “We just played it off. We joked about it. But I don’t think we were really joking.”
Coleman was also confused, ashamed and embarrassed, and a novice adult trying to balance sports and studies, inclined to believe and trust a team doctor. “This guy controlled my future,” Coleman recalls. “We all put up with it. For me, it was like, just clear me so I can go win an NCAA title and make the Olympic team, you know?”
Coleman would do both. He’d go on to win the NCAA wrestling title in 1988, and would compete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, finishing seventh. He would then marry his ground skills with boxing, kicking, knees, elbows and head-butts and reinvent himself as a fearsome mixed martial arts fighter. Nicknamed “the Hammer,” Coleman would become the UFC’s first heavyweight champ. For all his successes, he was haunted by Strauss.
Now 55, Coleman recalls his spasms of rage, inexplicable at the time: “I didn’t know how bad it was affecting me, but now I look back and I was very angry. I went into practice very angry a lot of times, storming into the wrestling room and screaming. I was confused. I spun it as, well, it’s good to be angry, I’m gonna have a hell of a practice and kick someone’s ass. But now I realize, it wasn’t good and I realize why.”
All the locker room banter and nicknames masked the reality. Dr. Richard Strauss was a serial sexual predator, an unchecked terror, stalking the Ohio State campus for nearly two decades. And his power over young athletes, Sports Illustrated has learned, was even greater than previously known. Four independent sources confirmed that Strauss was a major source on campus for performance-enhancing drugs and frequently counseled athletes on how to use them. There is no known connection between Strauss's decision to abuse an athlete and whether he furnished him with PEDs—Coleman, for instance, confirmed first-hand knowledge that Strauss discussed the topic with athletes but adamantly denied that the doctor provided him with steroids. But sources tell SI that Strauss’s distribution of banned and illegal drugs gave him significant leverage over many athletes and potentially some coaches, likely helping to conceal his abuses.
Strauss’s victims would span two decades, from 1978 to 1998, and include athletes who would go on to play in the NFL and fight in the cages of UFC. They would include athletes in nonrevenue sports from tennis to wrestling to cheerleading. They would also include—critically, it would turn out—male undergraduates from the general student population, unencumbered by the OSU athletic department, the athlete culture, or fealty to “Buckeye Nation,” making them more likely to speak out. Strauss had access to them all. According to a report commissioned by Ohio State, before he was done, he would commit at least 1,429 instances of fondling and 47 instances of rape.
The scale of Richard Strauss’s abuses was comparable to those of another Big Ten doctor who assaulted athletes, Larry Nassar, the central figure of scandals encompassing Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. Why, then, has the OSU scandal drawn a fraction of the same attention and national outrage? Why is Ohio State taking a strikingly hard-line stance with so many of the 350-plus survivors, including Coleman, who have sued the school? And why are former OSU athletes negotiating settlements for dimes on the dollar, measured against the amounts received recently by the victims of Nassar and other campus predators?
One likely answer: because of the same collision of factors and social norms that enabled Strauss’s predatory behavior to persist for so long in the first place.
Richard Strauss was crowding age 40 when he came to Columbus in 1978 as an assistant professor in the college of medicine. His reputation was as impeccable as his pedigree. After receiving his medical degree in 1964 from the prestigious University of Chicago, Strauss served as a medical officer on a nuclear submarine. He spent the next 14 years practicing medicine at various colleges and universities, including Penn and Harvard.
“He was a very bright guy—as you would expect from a full professor at a major medical school,” says Dr. Charles Yesalis, a longtime Penn State faculty member who knew Strauss through conferences and once co-authored an academic article with him. “He was well-rounded, not [academically] a one-trick pony.”
While Strauss was no athlete and weighed barely 140 pounds, not long after he was hired at OSU, he began volunteering to work with OSU teams at Larkins Hall, then the school’s main physical education building. Witnesses—and some of the few remaining records—reveal that it was also not long before he began his reign of sexual abuse. Many sexual predators groom their targets over a period of years, building relationships and trust before committing their violative acts. Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced Penn State assistant football coach, is a classic example. In Strauss’s case, he was more brazen and less patient.
Joe Bechtel was a freshman in the fall of 1979, a hockey player on partial scholarship. Playing sports at OSU was not only a dream realized, but a continuation of a family tradition. His father had played football for OSU under Woody Hayes. After contracting mononucleosis as a sophomore, Bechtel visited Strauss to be examined. “I needed him to clear me so I could get back to playing,” Bechtel recalled to SI. “The coach was going to take the doctor’s advice.”
In the course of the examination, which Strauss performed alone in his office, the doctor fondled Bechtel’s testicles. He also volunteered that his medical research was in sperm production. Bechtel recalls feeling deeply uncomfortable by Strauss’s examination. But not completely surprised.
At an OSU hockey game that season, Strauss served as the doctor on call for both teams. Bechtel recalls being in the training room for postgame treatment when a member of the opposing team entered, complaining of a toe infection. Strauss instructed the player to drop his pants, in front of all present, and began groping his penis and testicles. When Bechtel informed the team’s trainer about the doctor’s inappropriate behavior, it triggered a joke about the creepy new doctor.
Around the same time, Dave Mulvin, captain of the OSU wrestling team, was fondled by Strauss during a physical. He abruptly ended the exam, saying to the doctor that his behavior was “weird.” Mulvin says he went to the student health center to finish the exam with a different doctor and explained what had happened with Strauss. His account, he says, was shrugged off.
As was another Strauss interaction with an OSU athlete from the same sports season, recounted in a lawsuit. A two-sport athlete on OSU’s wrestling and football teams––who has requested anonymity––saw Strauss in early 1979, after the athlete became dehydrated from a prolonged training drill. His urine was discolored, and he was in serious pain on account of a kidney infection. Trainers in Larkins Hall noticed that the athlete looked “extremely ill” and summoned Strauss. When the other trainers had left the room, Strauss gave the athlete what he said was pain medication.
Soon, the athlete says he began to feel groggy, like he was going to pass out. But Strauss told him to pull his pants down. Positioned behind the athlete, Strauss began raping him. As the athlete came to, Strauss asked him, “Are you okay?”
The following day, the athlete says he reported the sexual violation to OSU’s wrestling coach, Chris Ford. According to the lawsuit, the athlete and coach had an explosive argument, with Ford telling the athlete he would take care of it. But there was no follow-up, and instead of helping the athlete, Ford “shunned and blacklisted” him, kicking him off the team.
Ford died in 2016. In response to a detailed set of questions from SI, Ohio State replied with a general statement, similar to others the university has made on Strauss. “We express our deep regret and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’s abuse,” the statement read, in part. “Ohio State is a fundamentally different university today and over the past 20 years has committed substantial resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct.”
For two decades, though, Strauss’s abuse continued unchecked, the roster of affected athletes growing each year. Freshman arriving for routine physicals would end up having their penis and testicles pawed. Athlete after athlete came to see Strauss for sore throats and headaches and foot injuries; and left having been fondled or otherwise assaulted. Nick Nutter, an All-America OSU wrestler in the 1990s, recounts that he made a simple calculation before deciding whether to see Strauss: “I turned a blind eye to injuries because I didn’t want the co-pay to be a stroking session,” he says. “I would ask myself: Is this injury bad enough that I’m willing to get molested for it?”
As Strauss surely recognized, it would have been hard to scheme a set of circumstances more conducive to serial sexual abuse. His position as a doctor allowed him to cloak his assault as legitimate treatment, mirroring the tactic employed by Nassar as he preyed on gymnasts.
“If Richard Strauss had done what he had done in a bar or in a back alley, I think many of the survivors would have responded differently,” says Kristy McCray, an Otterbein (Ohio) University associate professor of health and sports sciences, specializing in college sport and sexual violence prevention. “How do you punch a doctor in the face when he’s [claiming to be] ‘treating’ you?”
Strauss’s mere title of doctor conferred a level of status and authority. He was not only certified by OSU, but he became a member of the medical commission of the International Olympic Committee. He was smart and manipulative,” recalls Nutter. “When I did question him—‘You really need me to undress me to treat my elbow, Doc?’—he’d say, ‘Nick, I’m a doctor. Who are you to question me?’ ”
And in the dynamics of college sports, he held the ultimate gatekeeping power over his victims: Athletes required his clearance before they could play their sport, often the reason they were at OSU. For instance, Michael Murphy, a Buckeyes pole vaulter violated by Strauss in the late ‘80s, worried that without his scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to continue as an OSU student. “Strauss,” Murphy says, “held all the cards.”
For some athletes, Strauss may have held more than cards. Apart from his avowed specialization in sperm research, Strauss was also an expert—a pioneer, even—in the field of steroids. While mainstream sports medicine experts were still waking up to the powers of anabolics, Strauss was publishing a series of academic articles on PEDs in respected journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. According to multiple former OSU athletes, Strauss was a source for PEDs and a fount of knowledge on their use.