COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It was no secret that a team doctor now being investigated for sexually abusing male athletes decades ago at Ohio State University liked to linger in the showers alongside those athletes. But he wasn’t the only one leering at young men inside the campus recreation center where many teams practiced and university employees exercised.
Wrestlers from that era remember men peeking at them over bathroom stalls and through a sauna window, a culture of voyeurism and “cruising” for sex not unheard of in gyms even today. Some say the same men began showering when team practices ended and would touch themselves while watching athletes.
“A gauntlet of sexual deviancy” is what one former wrestler said he and his teammates faced after practice. Another said Larkins Hall, which has since been demolished, was filled with “creepy people.”
Russ Hellickson, the wrestling coach who came to Ohio State in the mid-1980s, says he often caught men having sex in the team’s practice room and a nearby stairwell. His wrestlers complained about the men’s behavior, Hellickson said.
“It became a real problem because it affected the mental state of a lot of our wrestlers,” he said on a video distributed by one of his former team members. “There were times when the athletes themselves would confront people.”
Hellickson, who coached at Ohio State from 1986-2006, said he had numerous conversations with an official in charge of campus recreation and other university administrators. But, he said, nothing changed for years until the team moved to a new training facility near the end of his tenure.
“All of my administrators recognized that it was an issue for me,” he said on the video.
Jim Jordan, who joined Ohio State in 1986 and was assistant coach from 1987 to 1995, is now a powerful Republican congressman.
Jordan has said he knew nothing about lewd behavior at Larkins Hall. He also has denied allegations by former team members that he knew about accusations that the now-dead team doctor, Richard Strauss, sexually abused dozens of student-athletes.
In an interview with Fox News last week, Jordan said faculty, professors and “everyone” could shower at Larkins. “But again, never saw any type of abuse there, and never drug anyone out,” Jordan said.
Independent investigators are reviewing allegations by men from 14 sports about Strauss. While questions remain whether coaches and administrators knew about abuse by Strauss, there’s little doubt the practice facility was an uncomfortable place for athletes.
The allegations that Strauss fondled and groped male athletes during physical examinations and medical treatment date to the 1970s. He retired as a professor in 1998 and later moved to California, where he killed himself in 2005 at age 67.
Ohio State says that more than 150 former athletes and witnesses have been interviewed so far, and that it’s “focused on uncovering what may have happened during this era, what university leaders at the time may have known, and whether any response at the time was appropriate.”
Strauss’ family has said in a statement it learned of the allegations only after news reports surfaced, adding they were “shocked and saddened.”
A handful of former wrestlers now say they think their coaches must have known Strauss was abusing athletes. But others who were on those teams say there’s no way the coaches would have allowed that to happen.
Hellickson, in the video, said he talked to Strauss about the doctor’s habit of showering with wrestlers. In statements, Hellickson has said he did not “ignore abuse of our wrestlers.”
Matt Mynster, a member of the wrestling program from 1986 to 1991, said Strauss would be “the first in and the last out” of the Larkins Hall showers.
He said his teammates joked about how Strauss treated them but avoided any serious discussions about his behavior.
“The more I thought about it, I wouldn’t say it’s sexual assault,” Mynster said. “I don’t know what it is. It’s not right.”
Nick Nutter, who wrestled in the mid-1990s, said men who appeared to be faculty and university employees would show up in the shower area just as practices ended.
“You put your head down, you walk in there, you do your business and you try to get back to the locker room as soon as you can without making eye contact,” he said.
Former Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger said this week he doesn’t remember any complaints about Strauss. But he said he did speak with Hellickson about the coach’s complaint about voyeurism in the showers at Larkins Hall.
The building, initially constructed in the 1930s and expanded over the years, was one of the busiest on Ohio State’s sprawling campus. Numerous students and university employees worked out and played intramural sports leagues at Larkins Hall.
It’s also where the wrestling, gymnastics, fencing and swim teams practiced, and where Strauss spent many hours.
Some former wrestlers have said this week that they never heard about any abuse by Strauss, but either saw or heard about lewd acts in Larkins Hall.
Jude Skove, a wrestler during the early 1980s, called it a bad environment.
“The bathroom stalls overlooked the showers, so you’d see guys peeking over the doors,” he said. “It was pretty gross.”
Gillispie reported from Cleveland, and Seewer reported from Toledo. Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Kantele Franko contributed.