When Mike Avery joined Ohio State's men's lacrosse team as a freshman in 1988, it wasn't long before he started hearing stories about the team's doctor, Richard Strauss.
Avery, who is now an anchor for the Fox TV affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said he didn't know what his teammates were joking about until he finally saw Strauss for his first physical.
"I was shocked," Avery said. "I told one of my teammates that I felt like I had just been assaulted."
Avery said the abuse continued throughout his time at Ohio State, and he kept what he called his "big secret" into adulthood. It wasn't until the university announced years later that it was conducting an investigation into decades of complaints of sexual abuse by Strauss that Avery said he decided to share his story.
Now, in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, he and other former college athletes are working together to prevent other young people from enduring abuse by preying adults.
"If I can help one young athlete not fall into this same trap, then I feel like I've done my part," Avery said.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) announced at a virtual news conference Wednesday that it's creating a partnership with former Ohio State University and University of Michigan athletes who said they were sexually abused by team doctors.
NCMEC's goal to make youth sports environment safe for kids
The partnership will focus on NCMEC's sports safety program that will educate young athletes around the country about the dangers of sexual abuse by coaches and trainers and provide instructions on who to inform if they are targets of such abuse.
The goal is to work with survivor athletes to amplify that program and create curriculum that youth and collegiate sports teams can use to prevent future abuse, said Callahan Walsh, a NCMEC advocate.
"Put simply, the nature of youth sports gives adults access to kids," Walsh said. "The courage it takes to come forward and lend their voice and experience is unmatched and will make this world a safer place for children. Our goal is to create an environment in youth sports where children are safe, and they can just be kids."
Walsh said the program, which will hopefully roll out this fall, will include modules for both coaches and parents and have tips, best practices and discussion questions aimed at empowering children. The material will be age appropriate and have resources for little leaguers up to university athletes.
Michigan athlete: 'As players, we didn't realize what he was doing was wrong'
Using survivor voices to build out what best practices to include in the program is essential, Walsh said.
Chuck Christian, a former tight end at Michigan from 1977-81, said he wished there were more resources for athletes to safely report abuse when he was in school.
Christian said he was repeatedly raped by Robert E. Anderson, a late University of Michigan doctor accused of abusing student athletes and patients during medical exams for decades, during his time at the school.
"As players, we didn't realize what he was doing was wrong because if he was asking us to do certain things or he was doing things to us, we figured there was a medical reason for it," Christian said.
When he finally spoke to older players about what he was experiencing in Anderson's office, a teammate told Christian, "Oh yeah, you're gonna have to get used to it for the next four years," he said.
Christian, like Avery, hopes to use his experiences to inform NCMEC'S programming, especially for college athletes.
Had there been advocates within the athletic department that athletes could've reported abuse to, Christian said, "it would've saved people a lot of misery"
Avery agreed. He noted that many athletes he knew, himself included, were worried that raising concerns about a team doctor might be waved off or result in less playing time as retribution.
Program wants to change culture inside athletic departments to prevent child abuse
Callahan said that part of the program's mission, especially for collegiate athletes, is to help change the mindset surrounding child abuse. That includes changing the culture within athletic departments and teams.
"The organizations themselves need to make sure there are checks and balances for coaching staffs," Callahan said.
Otherwise, he said, abuse will be ignored for years, like in the cases of Strauss and Anderson.
Michael Wright, a Dayton attorney who has represented hundreds of survivor athletes at both Michigan and Ohio State, said he sees this partnership as a way to begin to eradicate sexual abuse from sports entirely.
"So many lives were devastated after these athletes suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of team doctors," Wright said. "While many of these athletes are using the legal process to get a measure of justice, we also wanted to provide an avenue for mentorship and guidance so that children who are just beginning their sports careers won't have to endure similar tragedies."