Whistleblower Mike DiSabato Battles Ohio State and His Own Demons
The scenario sounded eerily familiar to Mike DiSabato. A team doctor who took advantage of vulnerable young athletes. Sexual misconduct masked as legitimate medical treatment. A lack of oversight by collegiate administrators. As he learned more about Michigan State University physician and USA Gymnastics team doctor-turned-sexual-predator Larry Nassar in the fall of 2017, DiSabato had a shocking realization: He was a sex-abuse victim, too.
DiSabato suddenly recalled some peculiar physical examinations as an Ohio State University wrestler from 1987 to 1991 by team doctor Richard Strauss. No matter the ailment, Strauss seemed to include a thorough inspection and handling of DiSabato’s genitals. And like Nassar, Strauss used his status and authority as a medical professional to quash the suspicions of his victims. DiSabato couldn’t help but see himself and his fellow OSU wrestlers in the more than 160 dancers, softball players, swimmers, Olympic gymnasts and other women who came forward to accuse Nassar of abuse. “That’s us,” he told a former OSU wrestling teammate.
In the spring of 2018, DiSabato went public with his claims. He reported the abuse to Ohio State officials and then shared his experiences with The Columbus Dispatch, putting additional pressure on the university to act. That initial complaint has metastasized over the past six months, spawning three lawsuits, two investigations and reams of news coverage. Amplified by the #MeToo movement, it even cast a shadow over another Ohio State controversy that emerged in its aftermath: the suspensions of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and football coach Urban Meyer for their mishandling of domestic violence allegations against former assistant football coach Zach Smith.
As “victim No. 1,” DiSabato—a mile-a-minute mouthpiece for the case—has continued to shape the media narrative since then, pushing the story into the cable news stratosphere with accusations that U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a candidate to be the next speaker of the House and a former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach from 1986 to 1994, ignored Strauss’ abuse. DiSabato also has organized conference calls with attorneys, hounded investigators and university officials and listened to the stories of dozens of victims who’ve confided in him since he first came forward. (OSU investigators so far have identified 145 victims of Strauss, who was associated with Ohio State from 1978 to 1998. Strauss killed himself in California in 2005 at the age of 67.)
Fiery and combative, DiSabato is a sports marketer who’s waged many scorched-earth battles with his alma mater, including a behind-the-scenes role in Buckeye football legend Chris Spielman’s 2017 lawsuit that accuses the university of exploiting the commercial rights of former players. Most of these crusades haven’t worked for DiSabato, often disintegrating in litigation, broken promises and nasty accusations. The Strauss scandal gave him a bigger platform, and suddenly, the university had to take him seriously. “It was sitting in front of my face all these years,” he told me in early April.
We were talking just a few days after the Strauss story broke, one of many conversations we’ve had over the past three years, and DiSabato was hell-bent for both revenge and reform. At his self-aggrandizing best, DiSabato vowed to use the Strauss case to tear apart a system that he believes victimizes collegiate athletes. “I’m the right guy at the right place to change this plantation, to burn it down,” he said. He promised to punish the university that he’s held a grudge against since it booted him from its lucrative licensing program more than a decade ago. “This Ho Chi Minh has a nuclear bomb,” he declared. He even called the Strauss case “a blessing.”
Those comments highlight DiSabato’s complicated nature. Under the glare of the Strauss scandal in recent months, DiSabato emerged as a controversial figure. His enemies—and he has plenty—question his motives and values. They say he’s a bully, not a victim; a loose canon, not a change agent; a man with a vendetta, not a friend to the powerless. In October, DiSabato was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $1,000 after a Marysville Municipal Court jury convicted him two months earlier of a misdemeanor count of telecommunications harassment. The charge stems from DiSabato’s bitter feud with Columbus sports agent Bret Adams, a former friend and business associate who also filed a defamation lawsuit against DiSabato in Union County. DiSabato faces nine additional misdemeanor counts of telecommunications harassment in connection to emails and text messages he sent to Matt Finkes, a former Ohio State football player and second cousin of Jim Jordan.
For his part, DiSabato seems to relish the hatred and infamy, calling himself the “Notorious MHD” (his initials) and inviting reporters to cover his recent harassment trial in Marysville. He’s a man of many contradictions: an idealist and an opportunist, a mystery and an open book, a loyal friend and a terrible foe, a man at war with the world and himself. DiSabato doesn’t seem to care if you think he’s unstable, arrogant or self-destructive. He’s got more enemies to taunt, more publicity to court, more wrongs to right. Justice isn’t always pretty.
I met DiSabato about a decade ago, when I wrote an article for this magazine about his thorny relationship with Ohio State. Afterward, we’d chat maybe once or twice a year, usually when I was looking for a colorful quote. DiSabato is a perceptive and informed observer of the business of sports, even if he looks like the rapper Pitbull and swears like a cast member from The Sopranos.
Yet when he called me in November 2015, DiSabato sounded different. He was reflective, polite, calm—in other words, the opposite of his usual bomb-throwing persona. What changed? He said he’d just come out of a major depressive episode earlier in the year that kept him in bed for nearly two months and caused him to lose some 50 pounds. The experience made him rethink his life. “I see my depression as a positive,” he says. “It humbled me. It made me see what was important.”
He decided to return to his first professional love: providing fair representation to former collegiate athletes. After his years in the wilderness selling wrestling and mixed martial arts apparel, DiSabato had a new idea: a group-licensing program called the College Football Players Club, which would give former athletes a share of royalties, just like his pioneering Legends of the Shoe program did in the early 2000s for former Ohio State football players before the university shut it down. What’s more, two of the biggest former Buckeyes, Chris Spielman and Archie Griffin, both of whom were part of the Legends of the Shoe program, had signed on as not only participants in the College Football Players Club but as equity partners in the overall business, the Profectus Group. “I want to be a steward of the future and do some good work and put the past behind me,” DiSabato said in November 2015.
His idea intrigued me, as did his new vulnerability. We agreed to stay in touch. Over the past three years, we spoke for about 12 hours in some 20 interviews, from quickie phone conversations to marathon sessions at his dining room table. He also supplemented those interviews with dozens of emails. That access gave me an up-close perspective of his bumpy personal and business journey over the past three years.
With the backing of Spielman and Griffin, DiSabato began to make peace with Ohio State, which had cut him loose from its lucrative licensing program in 2006 after he made disparaging comments about OSU’s plans to hand over its jersey program to Nike. DiSabato had cordial meetings with two longtime foes, athletic director Gene Smith and Rick Van Brimmer, the director of Ohio State’s trademark and licensing office, and negotiated with university business partners Nike and IMG. OSU officials seemed interested in his idea, recognizing the changing business dynamics of collegiate sports.
All of that changed in November 2016, however, when DiSabato attended his first Buckeyes football game in several years. Walking through the Ohio Stadium concourse, DiSabato was surprised at what he saw: 64 giant Honda-sponsored banners featuring photos of former Buckeye greats, including Griffin and Spielman. DiSabato texted a photo of a banner to Spielman, who, along with all the other ex-Buckeyes, received no compensation for the use of his name and image.
From the perspective of DiSabato and the former players, the banners were a breach of trust. After the university rejected an offer to settle the matter for about $1 million, Spielman, urged on by DiSabato, sued the university in July 2017. (The Profectus Group was also a plaintiff in the original suit, but it was removed in an amended complaint filed a few months later.) “Ohio State never believed that Chris Spielman was going to put his name on a lawsuit against his university, no matter what they did or how bad they mistreated him,” says Bret Adams, Spielman’s longtime agent.
Adams has had a long and volatile relationship with DiSabato. They met about 30 years ago, when DiSabato took Adams’ sports management class at Ohio State. The pair is more than a little alike—both can be ornery, outspoken and combative. Adams says they had a falling out around 2011 over an unpaid legal bill, but when Spielman wanted to move forward with the Profectus Club partnership, they made up. “Oh yeah, we’re back,” DiSabato told me in December 2015. “We’re like brothers.”
The feeling seemed to be mutual. In an email sent to Griffin, Spielman and DiSabato in January 2016, Adams praised DiSabato for some surprising restraint in negotiations with Ohio State. “The fact that Mike took my advice is scaring the crap out of me,” Adams wrote, adding, “With some newly discovered diplomacy from Mike, he can put up some big numbers with this program.” Their relationship, however, soured after the Spielman lawsuit was filed. First, they clashed over legal and public relations strategy, Adams says, along with how much money DiSabato might receive as part of any settlement. Then, DiSabato took the dispute up a notch, according to court records. During a September 2017 conference call with Griffin and Spielman, DiSabato raised concerns about financial and legal issues involving Adams, accused him of sending racist and sexist tweets to a potential investor in the Profectus Group and called for the severing of ties with Adams. Instead, DiSabato ended up on the outs. Spielman immediately sided with Adams, who vehemently denied the allegations, secured affidavits from two witnesses supporting his claims and filed a defamation lawsuit against DiSabato in response. (Spielman declined to comment through Adams, while Griffin didn’t respond to a message.)
DiSabato discussed these matters with me during a rambling, 90-minute interview at his house a few months later. He was in a manic state, restraint and diplomacy a thing of the past. His train of thought veered from a favorite song from “La La Land,” to a documentary about music producer Jimmy Iovine, to his views on wealth accumulation. “When you have money, people want to take your money, and there are more takers in this world than there are givers.” He paused for a moment, then added, “What was I saying, Dave?”
Several times during the conversation, DiSabato left the room to smoke marijuana, something I’d never seen him do before. DiSabato, 50, says he started using pot in his early 40s after seeing how it helped MMA fighters and other athletes recover physically, mentally and spiritually. “It just makes me a nicer person,” he says.
DiSabato’s wife, Trish, walked in on our dining-room table conversation, and DiSabato asked her to talk with me while he left the room. They’ve been married for 25 years, and she’s been there through all of his ups and downs. “He’s very passionate,” she said, tears in her eyes. “He wants to do good, and it’s infuriating when there are so many blockades.”
When DiSabato returned, he was even more revved up. He urged me to read a text message sent to Spielman. “I’m telling everyone he’s putting his head in the sand.”
“It’s confusing,” his wife said.
“It’s not confusing. It’s a con,” DiSabato countered.
“Has he been talking like this the whole time?” Trish asked. She urged him to calm down. “I know it’s very upsetting,” she soothed.
It didn’t work. His voice kept getting louder and louder.
“Poor Dave doesn’t need to be screamed at, Mike.”
DiSabato smiled. “You’ve got to put on a show,” he said.
Despite his confessional tone during our December 2017 talk, DiSabato did withhold something from me on that day. He didn’t tell me about Richard Strauss, even though he’d already begun to think about his experiences with the late doctor. “It took me a couple of months to really get comfortable with the fact that I was sexually abused,” he told me later.
Following his realization, DiSabato started contacting his former teammates, other OSU wrestling alumni and athletes from other sports. As a longtime board member of Ohio State’s Varsity O Alumni Society, he has lots of contacts. He heard story after story of inappropriate conduct by Strauss. He also heard descriptions of a sexually exploitative atmosphere at Larkins Hall, the now-demolished gymnasium and natatorium, where the wrestling team worked out. Once he went public, Strauss victims started contacting him. He estimated he’s heard from people in 15 sports. “I’ve kind of become ground zero,” he says.
He decided to document the stories in a video that he shared with Ohio State officials and the media. The nearly 11-minute recording features DiSabato, former Ohio State wrestling coach Russ Hellickson, former OSU wrestler and UFC champion Mark Coleman and a former OSU nursing student named Brian Garrett. Their testimony was graphic and emotional, describing “hands-on” physicals, unnecessary genital examinations, even an incident in which Strauss brought a patient to orgasm during an examination.
Strauss also had voyeuristic tendencies. He’d take long showers with the wrestling team, sometimes multiple times a day, his accusers said. And he wasn’t the only deviant at Larkins Hall. “I caught people having sex in our wrestling room, in our stairwell to the wrestling room, in the bathroom adjacent to our wrestling facility,” recalled Hellickson, who coached the OSU team from 1987 to 2006. “And I caught people masturbating. It became a real problem because it affected the mental state of a lot of our wrestlers.” DiSabato said athletes needed to pass through a “gantlet of sexual deviancy” to reach the showers.
Why didn’t the students speak up? They were embarrassed, scared and didn’t want to cause trouble, which they feared could cost them their scholarships. “I never saw myself as a victim,” said DiSabato in the video, choking up. “It’s hard for me to sit here today.”
DiSabato says his Ohio State crusades come down to power. He says collegiate athletes lack a voice. And when they don’t have a voice, they can be exploited, whether that be by a sexual predator or a profit-hungry corporation. What does he want to see happen at Ohio State? He shoots back right away with a list of demands: “transparency, accountability, justice, regime change and systematic educational change.” (Ohio State officials declined to comment for this story.)
It’s hard to disagree with the gist of DiSabato’s argument. Inequity and hypocrisy taint college sports, and power is almost always at the root of sexual abuse. What’s less clear is whether DiSabato—with all of his flaws and grudges—is the right person to deliver the message.
After the Strauss scandal ensnared Jordan, a collective of DiSabato foes led by Adams launched a PR counterattack. George Pardos, a former Ohio State wrestler, posted a video online of a laughing DiSabato dropping his pants on a bus in April while saying, “Doc Strauss in the house.” Finkes, the former OSU football player, posted on his Twitter feed a mug shot from DiSabato’s arrest in the harassment case involving Adams.
Probably the most effective critic has been Karen Mendoza, the wife of Ray Mendoza, DiSabato’s former OSU wrestling teammate and a Marine Corps major who died in Iraq in 2005. Her dispute with DiSabato stemmed from his management of a nonprofit created to honor her late husband. She says she was forced to send DiSabato a cease-and-desist letter to stop him from using her husband’s name after DiSabato refused to answer questions about how he was disbursing funds. “He was threatening to me,” she says. “He was intimidating to me. He bullied me.”
That combativeness can annoy even his supporters. “Personally, I love Mike’s style,” says former OSU wrestler Dunyasha Yetts. “I love the way he wants to go forward. But sometimes, I get frustrated with him.” DiSabato has pushed hard against university officials, as well as his own lawyers. In fact, DiSabato says his demands caused one attorney, Rex Sharp, to drop him as a client, declaring DiSabato “adverse.” Says Yetts: “I tell him, ‘You got to calm down. You got to slow down. You got to let these people handle it.’”
Garrett, the former nursing student, offers a different take on DiSabato’s flaws. “The problem with Mike is that he’s very vocal,” Garrett says. “But … unless a very vocal person like him would have pushed the envelope at Ohio State, then Ohio State would still be covering this up.”
DiSabato’s fierce competitive streak might be traced back to childhood. He and his five brothers comprised one of the state’s greatest high school wrestling dynasties, winning 11 high school state titles, a record for one family. But in his case, it’s also pushed him into silly squabbles that inflict more harm on him than his opponents, like the telecommunications harassment conviction in the Adams case, as well as the new slate of charges he faces after he was accused of flooding Finkes with unwanted emails and text messages.
During an interview in late July, DiSabato was more blatant with his marijuana use, smoking all through the more than two-hour conversation. He also was even more combative—and decided to pick another unwinnable fight.
DiSabato has a bitter rivalry with Rudis, the Marysville wrestling apparel company owned by former Ohio State wrestler Tommy Rowlands, a one-time business protégé of DiSabato, and Jeff Jordan, the brother of Jim Jordan. DiSabato loathes both Rowlands and Jordan. He also extends his animosity to Nancy Schultz, an investor in the company. Schultz is the widow of Dave Schultz, the Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler whose killing at the hands of millionaire philanthropist John du Pont inspired the movie “Foxcatcher.” DiSabato doesn’t let Dave Schultz’s tragic story prevent him from hounding his wife. In April, he sent her an email that called Rudis a “bastard brand” and included a photo of her husband’s killer.
“Poor Nancy Schultz,” DiSabato said in July, his voice filled with disdain.
“Don’t talk bad about her,” said a friend, sitting in on the interview.
DiSabato didn’t seem to care. He ignored the advice and kept on talking. He won’t be silenced.