A Sports Illustrated story on sexual abuse at Ohio State.

Content warning: This story contains alleged accounts of sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual abuse, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or at https://www.rainn.org.

HBO has aired a lot of sports documentaries in the past several years, and they’ve shown a willingness to take on difficult subjects there. That includes sexual abuse, which they covered in At The Heart of Gold (Larry Nassar with USA Gymnastics and Michigan State) and Paterno (Jerry Sandusky at Penn State). Now, they’re set to air a documentary on the sexual abuse allegations spanning decades against former Ohio State doctor Dr. Richard Strauss.

Those allegations saw a 2019 university-commissioned report conclude that Strauss abused at least 177 male student-patients, and that some Ohio State officials were aware of that abuse as early as 1977. As per that report, Strauss was suspended from his duties in 1996, but opened a private off-campus clinic and continued to abuse students there until 1998; 1998 saw him also voluntarily retire from his position as a  tenured faculty member in the School of Public Health. He committed suicide in 2005.

Ohio State paid out $40.9 million to 162 survivors in May 2020. Some further lawsuits were settled in April, bringing the total of survivors who have reached settlements to nearly 290.  Other lawsuits remain pending.

This documentary was first announced last February as a documentary series from Sports Illustrated, 101 Studios, and George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures. It’s based off  an October 2020 SI story by Jon Wertheim (who is also an executive producer on this project), titled “Why Aren’t More People Talking About the Ohio State Sex Abuse Scandal?”  That story (cover seen above) led with “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,” and cited 350-plus survivors; since then, many more have come forward, including some with new lawsuits.

This is now heading into production as a feature film, with Academy Award winner Eva Orner (she won in 2008 as a producer on Taxi To The Dark Side) directing. The as-yet-untitled project will air on HBO and HBO Max at a to-be-announced date. Here’s more from a HBO release:

HBO, Smokehouse Pictures and Sports Illustrated Studios/101 Studios announced today the start of production on a feature documentary based on Sports Illustrated’s groundbreaking cover story of the alleged sexual abuse scandal at Ohio State University (OSU) that spanned three decades. The film, produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Pictures and David C. Glasser of 101 Studios, will debut on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.

Academy Award and Emmy® winner Eva Orner will tell the story through the experiences of the victims of OSU’s former athletics physician, Dr. Richard Strauss. Those voices will include some of the hundreds of male student athlete victims, including All-American wrestlers and football players, many of whom have not spoken out until now. One of those voices – who spoke out for the first time to Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim for his explosive cover story – is UFC Heavyweight Champion and OSU alum Mark Coleman. The film will also examine the university’s failure to act and the allegations that school officials and staff knew about and ignored Dr. Strauss’s crimes.

“I’m honored to join this incredible creative team,” said Orner. “This film is about the largest sexual abuse scandal in the history of American Higher Education. It will give the courageous men who were abused a powerful and clear voice.”

“Grant and I are very proud to be working on this project with HBO,” said Clooney. “It’s a devastating story about people in power abusing and then covering up their criminal actions against students. The fact that it hasn’t been resolved as-of-yet is deeply disturbing.”

“This story of power, abuse and enabling has been concealed for far too long,” said David Hutkin, COO of 101 Studios. “It is because of the courage of these men who have decided to finally speak out that we can finally hold the abusers accountable. We are honored to be able to provide a platform to amplify the voices of these victims.”

It’s significant that this project is now heading into production, and that in addition to production involvement from prominent figures like Clooney, Heslove, and Glasser,  it now has a notable director in Orner. Orner has directed five documentaries, including 2019’s Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator  (on the rise and fall of hot yoga founder Bikram Choudhury), so she certainly has experience handling these kinds of sensitive stories.

Another notable element of this project is the discussion that “The film will also examine the university’s failure to act and the allegations that school officials and staff knew about and ignored Dr. Strauss’s crimes.” Allegations of that kind were a large part of both the Penn State and Michigan State scandals as well, and both of those cases led to significant administration turnover. That’s less likely in this particular case given how long ago these allegations are from, but some of the figures here are still very important nationally, perhaps especially Jim Jordan (a Buckeyes’ assistant wrestling coach from 1987-94, he’s been a Republican congressman since 2007). Jordan has repeatedly denied that anyone informed him of sexual abuse, but as per Wertheim’s story, Coleman initially accused Jordan of knowing about this before walking that back. So it may be quite interesting to see what this documentary says about Jordan.

There isn’t yet a release date for this documentary, but this will be one worth keeping an eye on. Given the notable figures involved, it’s sure to get some attention when it comes out.

[HBO; image from Sports Illustrated]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.