The Ohio State wrestling scandal could imperil Jim Jordan’s House speaker election. | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

Republican Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan is trying to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives. On Tuesday, he lost his first vote on the full House floor to assume the role, with 20 of his fellow Republicans voting against him. As of this writing, further votes are being prepared, and it’s unclear whether or not Jordan will ultimately succeed Kevin McCarthy as the chamber’s leader. Jordan, who voted against certifying the 2020 election and often rages against the Biden crime family, will not get the support of any Democrats and will likely continue to face at least some Republican opposition.

But there’s also a group outside Congress that’s opposed to him becoming House speaker: Ohio State University wrestlers. Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State between 1987 and 1995, a period during which team physician Richard Strauss sexually abused male athletes at the school. As Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim has reported, at least 11 former wrestlers have said that Ohio State coaches, including Jordan, knew about the abuse and chose to do nothing. Jordan, meanwhile, has denied knowing anything about what Strauss was doing and has personally attacked the wrestlers who’ve said otherwise. Over the past week, the wrestlers have been firing back. One of them, Mike Schick, told NBC news, “Do you really want a guy in that job who chose not to stand up for his guys? Is that the kind of character trait you want for a House speaker?”

This week, on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Wertheim joined the hosts to discuss the wrestlers’ choice to speak out, Jordan’s time at Ohio State, and what both could mean for his prospective leadership bid in Congress. A portion of the conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh Levin: You have a piece out now about Jim Jordan and the wrestlers speaking out against him. But your first big reported story was published three years ago, and it was headlined “Why Aren’t More People Talking About the Ohio State Sex Abuse Scandal?” Can you start by just telling us the baseline facts? What happened at Ohio State?

Jon Wertheim: For 20 years, a team doctor, Richard Strauss, was essentially a serial predator. He worked in the athletic department, and this was clearly—this was an open secret. There were coaches that even joked, If you don’t run your wind sprints fast enough, we’re going to make you see Dr. Strauss. He had a series of nicknames, and essentially every physical examination he gave athletes—all of them male, critically—it ended up in some instance of sexual assault, which ranged from inappropriate touching to outright rape. These are athletes, mostly nonrevenue sports, though some football. Middle America, ’70s to late ’90s, and there’s power dynamic issues. There’s a vocabulary issue. This obviously predates #MeToo. And essentially, these athletes later came to the realization that they had been sexually assaulted, sexually abused by this doctor. In 2018 there was a study commissioned, an independent investigation. Hundreds and hundreds of athletes came forward. There’s since been more than 100 settlements.

Jim Jordan was the wrestling coach. A disproportionate number of the survivors were wrestlers, and Jim Jordan has absolutely denied ever having knowledge of Richard Strauss, despite—I think it’s more than a dozen of his wrestlers now saying that’s not the case. And I think, more importantly, as you referenced, Josh—what I think a lot of people find particularly galling is not only has he denied ever having heard of this, but has since essentially taken the institution’s side and, by extension, taken the perpetrator’s side and has sort of, one by one, dismissed these wrestlers.

A lot of times, these are guys he coached. These are guys he recruited. And he has, one by one, explained why these survivors are not to be believed, why they have motivations for lying. And this has really caused quite a schism, certainly within the wrestling community and, I think, within Ohio State athletics. But for some reason, this has not seemed to have done anything to impede Jim Jordan’s political career.

Stefan Fatsis: Jon, it beggars belief that Jim Jordan didn’t know what was going on. Ohio State contested none of the findings of that internal report, right? And they’ve settled with more than 300 people, spending more than $60 million to settle cases. And there are still dozens and dozens of complaints outstanding. Why hasn’t this gotten more traction and become more of an issue for him? Why has he been able to go on Fox News, as he did a few years ago, and accuse the victims of lying, effectively?

Wertheim: My sort of overarching theory here is that the same forces at play that enabled this predatory doctor to abuse athletes for 20 years—the lack of a vocabulary; the power imbalance, where these athletes didn’t want to stir anything up or even risk not being medically cleared—the same reasons why this was able to persist for 20 years are the same reasons why this story never quite got the attention it deserved.

It’s sort of indelicate and crass, perhaps, to compare scandals, but certainly in terms of sweep and scale and number of athletes impacted, this is far larger than what happened with Larry Nassar at Michigan State, or Joe Paterno [at Penn State], or even at the University of Michigan. I think the fact that these are man-and-man, I think there’s something about the culture of a locker room.

As I said, there’s really been a split within the Ohio State wrestling community, where some of these athletes find it fiercely disloyal that Jim Jordan never said anything, that he denied doing anything, he breached every possible standard of care. But there also is this faction that thinks it’s disloyal to bring this up. “Hey, look, one of ours is this high-ranking congressman. This could be the guy who literally is third in line to be the president of the United States, and you are going to upend this by trotting out these old charges.”

So, the long answer is, I think, that a lot of the same factors that have enabled this scandal and enabled this horrible predation to persist for so long for all these years, I think that’s the same reason why this hasn’t got the attention it probably deserves. And it’s certainly the reason why I think Jim Jordan is able to continue his political ascent in spite of what would be some pretty damning fact pattern on its face.

Pablo Torre: But the ascent, Jon. It’s not merely “Wow, there’s a tonnage of moral horrors in this guy’s background, allegedly.” It’s also that he is himself alleging those same horrors upon others, right?

The narrative richness here is so on the nose and absurd. The idea that the guy who is alleging groomers and pedophiles everywhere is himself the assistant coach to a head coach, Russ Hellickson, who you write did attend some sort of reunion, right, with the wrestlers in which the head coach said, “At the very least, I should have known more.” And he had to grapple with all of this testimony firsthand.

Wertheim: That’s a great point, Pablo. Here you have a politician, certainly a flank of a political party, that has absolutely weaponized sexual predation. It’s “groomers” and “pedos,” and a lot of times it’s without any basis of fact. But this is so vile—it can be weaponized to effective political use. It’s Marjorie Taylor Greene. How many times has she thrown around that accusation? It’s Elise Stefanik talking about “pedo grifters were responsible for the shortage in baby formula.”

And here, a few seats down, your colleague actually had a real-life encounter with a sexual predator. And what did he do? According to more than a dozen athletes that he coached, he did nothing. And then, when he was confronted about these allegations years later, he not only continued his denial, but then is trying to tell us why the victims and the survivors all had an ulterior motive to lie. They know the truth; this guy had financial distress. This guy’s been in prison. It’s really … hypocrisy and irony don’t quite paint the dimensions of it. It’s galling.

Levin: Just so people know even more of the background: These aren’t just vague suggestions that maybe Jim Jordan knew. There’s a couple of specific things that you cite, Jon.

Dunyasha Yetts, a wrestler, says that he complained to Jordan that Richard Strauss attempted to pull down his shorts when he went to see Strauss about a thumb injury. He told Jordan about this, and Jordan told Dunyasha Yetts if Strauss ever approached him in a sexual manner he’d kill him.

Another wrestler, Dan Ritchie, says he was present when Jordan was informed of abuse from Strauss, and Jordan’s response: “If he did that to me, I’d snap his neck like a twig of dried balsa wood.”

Now, these sound like things that Jim Jordan would say; I obviously wasn’t there. But just the level of specificity here, for these people—just to be conjuring it from thin air just completely defies logic. And yet, as we’ve been saying, Jordan [has persisted with] deny, deny, deny, and it doesn’t seem to have impeded him in any way despite these extraordinarily specific recollections of these men.

Wertheim: The usual conversation in sports is sort of like, “Should they have known? Did they know? Did the coach set up this plausible deniability?” Here, you have guys who are recounting, with startling levels of exactitude, dialogue—“And actually, I said this and he said that”—with real specificity. There’s also a referee who has absolutely zero incentive to lie—he wasn’t even a team member—who says, “Yes, Jim Jordan knew.”

You just look at the fact pattern. You look at how long Richard Strauss had this reign of predation. You look at the physical dynamics: He was in the locker room. Pablo, you mentioned that there was a summit a few summers ago where the wrestlers got together and said, “Listen, this is creating this rupture in the program.” Who are now middle-aged men, some of them 50 and 60 years old, and said, “We need to resolve this.”

They were able to get together in central Ohio in a high school and have one of these [reckonings]. I think no one at the high school knew why there were a large number of middle-aged men in letter jackets wearing somber expressions walking into the high school. They were able to have what was like this tribal summit.

And Russ Hellickson, who is sort of this hidebound coach who’s now in his mid-70s, who has been denying this all along—I have multiple former wrestlers essentially say he didn’t want to make a public statement, but at some level [at the summit] he admitted this dereliction of duty. He kept using the word: “I knew he was quirky.” But clearly, they had reached some sort of meeting of the minds. And the coach, without outright saying it, sort of admitted that there was an issue and he didn’t address it as he should have.

Jim Jordan did not show up. Jim Jordan has never said anything. Mike DiSabato, one of the whistleblowers—there’s one thing he said to me that I think we ought to ponder even if you didn’t know, which, again, is implausible bordering on impossible based on the facts. But even if you want to give this guy every benefit of the doubt and say “Jim Jordan didn’t know,” the fact that when he did know, he didn’t pick up the phone and say, “Oh my God, how are you doing? I’m so sorry. What can I do to be supportive?” His first instinct was to go on national TV and explain why everyone making an allegation had a motivation to lie. That is almost more damning than his initial denial.

You look at the fact pattern and it is absolutely galling. At one point, Jim Jordan commissioned some sort of group to try and give these wrestlers talking points for why they ought to support him. Mark Coleman was an NCAA champion, this towering All-American wrestler for Ohio State, actually the UFC’s first heavyweight champ. He had given a quote that essentially said, “If Jimmy’s saying he didn’t know, he had dementia. We all knew. It was an open secret.” That was consistent with the account of dozens of other wrestlers. And soon, Mark Coleman told me—he faced all sorts of pressure he wouldn’t specify, but then he ended up walking that statement back and saying that actually, he didn’t have firsthand knowledge; he was just speculating. Clearly, someone had gotten to him. Whatever Jim Jordan’s errors of omission were in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I think what he’s done subsequently is much more grievous.

Listen to the full conversation on Hang Up and Listen here.

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