Lawyers say Northwestern’s hazing is in the athletic program

July 19, 2023, 12:02 PM ET

CHICAGO — Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said his law firm and other attorneys had received reports of hazing within Northwestern University’s athletic program, impacting not only the Wildcats football team but also baseball and softball teams.

Crump and Chicago attorney Steven Levin said they have not yet filed a lawsuit on behalf of any athletes but plan to do so soon. They claim to represent 15 people and have been in touch with dozens of former athletes, the majority of whom played football at the school.

Warren Miles Long, a running back for the Northwestern soccer team starting in 2013, said the players were being put into a culture where sexual assault and hazing were “rampant”.

A second lawsuit against Northwestern and its current and former leaders was filed Wednesday on behalf of an anonymous player, alleging hazing and abuse in the program. The suit is similar to Tuesday’s filing, also on behalf of an anonymous player, but adds former longtime Northwestern athletic director and current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips to a list of defendants that includes the school, trustees, former football coach Pat Fitzgerald, current athletic director Derrick Gragg, varsity president Michael Schill and former varsity president Morton Schapiro.

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Attorneys for Pat Salvi and Parker Stinar, who filed the two lawsuits, said they had heard from former Northwestern athletes in several sports, including volleyball. Both groups of lawyers described a widespread culture of alleged physical and psychological abuse at Northwestern, but they did not identify the specific individuals who presided over or knowingly condoned hazing.

Northwestern’s six-month investigation into hazing allegations found no evidence that Fitzgerald or any other coach was aware of the behavior, nor did it identify the main culprit.

“I find it hard to believe that [coaches] not knowing what was going on,” Lloyd Yates, quarterback at Northwestern from 2015 to 2017, said during a press conference Wednesday. “A lot of coaches partake in it in many different ways, and his explicit behavior is very explicit. It’s loud. It happened near where a lot of staff, coaches were. It’s kind of hard to close my eyes.”

Andrea declined to say how coaches or staff would participate in the hazing.

Dan Webb, Fitzgerald’s lawyer, said in a statement that the allegations made Wednesday were “broadly based” and “imprecise” and that there were no facts or evidence to suggest that Fitzgerald “had any knowledge” of hazing in the football program. Webb also said that they would proceed to drop the civil lawsuit filed against the coach.

“No arguments made [Wednesday] which would present substantive, detailed, factual allegations, let alone evidence, of Coach Fitzgerald’s conduct,” Webb’s statement read.

Crump said several Northwestern athletes he spoke to said they attempted to report abuse allegations to coaches and administrators and were “responded with hostility and retaliation.”

“It wasn’t easy for us going forward,” Yates said. “A lot of this is embarrassing, hurtful, and we know we are making ourselves targets of criticism. But we feel very strongly that we must do our part to ensure that this type of behavior is not just in Northwestern, but across college sports. We are here to support and validate Northwestern’s current whistleblower allegations regarding the true nature of harassment from hazing.”

Schil announced Tuesday that Northwestern will launch two new external investigations into the culture of athletic programs and how the university detects threats to its athletes and implements accountability.

Long said the new recruits don’t know if hazing is normal or limited to Northwestern.

Long and the other players who spoke on Wednesday referred to “running”, in which a group of seniors hold younger teammates and perform sexual acts on them.

“This is something as an athlete, we go in, we hear about it, we don’t know what that looks like,” Yates said. “It’s something where you say, ‘That’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to fight back, I’m going to do something, I’m not playing with that kind of thing.’ But when it happens, it gets out of control. You are dominated by culture.”

Yates, who is Black, said the culture was “deeply damaging to a lot of players of color”. He said the players were “beaten physically and emotionally” and some “had contemplated suicide” as a result.

Northwestern may eventually join a long list of American universities making big payments following allegations of sexual harassment.

“This is a civil rights issue for me,” said Crump, who said 50 former Northwestern athletes — men and women — have spoken to the law firm. “Because I think these players have the right to be respected and valued and not to be bullied and bullied and bullied.”

More lawsuits, filed by several law firms, are expected to follow from former football and baseball players as well as from student athletes who played other sports for the private school.

The private Big Ten institution is now in another line with other schools in the conference, including Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota, with investigations and allegations related to sexual harassment.

And connections can be expensive. Crump said that because some players arrived at Northwestern as minors, they could be entitled to additional protections under Illinois law.

Illinois, like nearly all states in recent decades, has criminalized hazing. This is usually a Class A offense, which can carry up to one year in prison. Under Illinois law, failure by a school official to report hazing is also a crime – a misdemeanor – and can carry a maximum sentence of between six months and one year in prison. Crump and Levin declined to say whether they would press criminal charges.

The “hazing prevention” page on Northwestern’s website includes a description of Illinois’ hazing laws.

“Everyone hears the saying: There are two sides to every story. There are not two sides to this story,” says Levin. “There’s only one side. The behavior happens. It’s deplorable and demeaning. It’s widespread. And it’s at least impossible for people to know.”

Andrea said every member of the team was a victim, “no matter what our role was at the time,” and lamented the lack of school and team leadership.

“College programs and football let us down and that’s why we are here today,” said Yates, surrounded by a few teammates.

In a letter to Northwestern faculty and staff, Schil wrote that an outside company would be hired to evaluate how the school detects threats to the well-being of student-athletes and to examine the athletic culture in Evanston, Illinois, and its relationship with academics at the prestigious institution.

Northwestern fired Fitzgerald last week after a university investigation uncovered allegations of hazing by 11 current or former players, including “forced participation, nudity, and degrading sexual acts,” Schill wrote.

After the school initially suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay, The Daily Northwestern published an article including accusations from the former player that described specific instances of hazing and harassment and suggested coaches may have been aware of it.

Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was the star quarterback for the Wildcats, stated that he was not aware of hazing. Fitzgerald said after being fired that he worked with his agent, Bryan Harlan, and Webb, one of the most sought-after private attorneys in the country for decades, to “protect my rights according to the law.”

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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