WASHINGTON – The former wrestling coach at Ohio State University is defending Republican Rep. Jim Jordan against allegations made by seven former wrestlers that Jordan ignored sexual abuse by the team doctor when he was an assistant coach decades ago. But Russ Hellickson also said he confronted the team doctor over concerns about his behavior.
Hellickson said he was aware Dr. Richard Strauss made the athletes "uncomfortable" and he brought it up with the doctor directly. Hellickson has said that at the time, neither he nor Jordan had any idea that Strauss was abusing students and “if we’d have known it we’d have said something.” Jordan has denied allegations that he knew of claims of sexual abuse.
In a phone interview with USA TODAY Monday, Hellickson said he told Strauss that some of the athletes were "uncomfortable" with him showering with them and that the doctor responded that Hellickson also showered with the athletes. “I said, 'Not for an hour, Doc,'” Hellickson said.
“I said 'When you’re doing weigh-ins, you’re too hands on, Doc,'” Hellickson said. But the former coach told USA TODAY there there didn't appear to “a red flag" indicating that Strauss' behavior amounted to abuse.
Jordan, R-Ohio, is a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of roughly three dozen conservative Republicans that wields influence on issues from spending to immigration to immigration. He has often been a thorn in the side of Republican leaders because of his willingness to break ranks. With House Speaker Paul Ryan planning to retire, Jordan has said he is considering a run for speaker.
President Donald Trump and Jordan’s conservative allies in Congress are standing by him. A spokesman for Ryan, R-Wis., has said the allegations were “serious” but the speaker was awaiting results of a review Ohio State is conducting.
Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1987 until 1995. He was elected to Congress in 2006.
In the interview with USA TODAY, Hellickson said he wasn't sure if Jordan knew how some of the athletes felt about Strauss because they never discussed the team doctor during coaches meetings.
'Never saw any abuse'
When asked about Hellickson's account, Jordan spokesman Ian Fury forwarded a statement from last week that said Jordan "never saw any abuse, never heard about any abuse, and never had any abuse reported to him."
Hellickson's comments were similar to those he made in a video, seen by USA TODAY, that was produced by one of the wrestlers who has accused Jordan of turning a blind eye. But Hellickson has also has been a vocal defender of Jordan's character.
In the interview with USA TODAY, Hellickson described Jordan as "tough," "caring" and "committed" and said he was "proud to say I was part of his life." He paused and then added, "Oh my God, and what they're trying to do to him."
Hellickson was one of six former OSU wrestling coaches who worked with Jordan during his time at the school and released a statement in his defense Monday. The group which included Hellickson and five assistant coaches said the allegations against Jordan were "absolutely wrong.
"None of us saw or heard of abuse of OSU wrestlers. The well-being of student-athletes was all of our concern. If we had heard of any abuse, we would have spoken up," the group said.
Jordan told Fox News Friday that conversations about Strauss amounted to locker room banter which he said "are a lot different than allegations of abuse or – or reported abuse to us."
Michael Alf, who wrestled at Ohio State from 1988-1992, described the locker room conversations, this way:
"If someone said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go see Doc Strauss,’ it would be like, ‘Oh, prepare to drop your pants,’” said Alf. “That was the locker room talk. I’m going to see Doc Strauss. It was always the joke, prepare to drop your pants. We kind of all said it.”
"We don’t blame Jimmy, but the guys are saying, ‘Jim, why don’t you just tell that you heard about this as it was going along? We know you were young and you didn’t put it together,'" Alf said.
On Tuesday 15 former wrestlers – most of whom were at OSU when Jordan was there and all of whom were there during Strauss' time at the school – released statements backing Jordan. Some of the athletes said they were abused by Strauss while others said the doctor "always treated me in a professional manner," but all of the men said that Jordan was unaware of Strauss' behavior.
"I absolutely believe that Jim Jordan had zero idea about Dr Strauss’s behavior," said Matt Mondalek, who was at OSU from 1995-1999. "Dr. Stauss conducted his transgressions behind closed doors and regretfully, I never told anyone except for my father."
A test of Jordan’s support with his colleagues will come Tuesday night when the rest of his colleagues return to the Capitol for their first vote after the Fourth of July break. Many rank-and-file Republicans have not had to address the allegations and will face reporters’ questions.
On Monday, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., became the first member of Republican leadership Monday to ally himself closely with Jordan after the allegations.
“I have always known Jim Jordan to be honest, and I’m confident he would stand up for his athletes, just like he’s always stood up for what’s right,” Scalise said in a statement.
“I’m glad that Jim is committed to working with the investigators to see that the full truth comes out and justice is served," he continued.
Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for Ohio State, said the investigation into Strauss, who committed suicide in 2005, would include a focus on “reports that individuals at the university did not respond appropriately" to the complaints about sexual abuse.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Merdie Nzanga and Christine Brennan