Abuse and Racism Accusations Bring ‘#MeToo Moment’ to Northwestern

Abuse and Racism Accusations Bring ‘#MeToo Moment’ to Northwestern

It was the sixth lawsuit against Northwestern University in nine days, and the allegations had become, somehow, both familiar and even more appalling.

A young alumnus of the football program, Simba Short, said he had been restrained and sexually abused in a well-rehearsed hazing ritual. That he had witnessed a teammate struggling to breathe after he was sexually abused while being held underwater. That players had been forced to drink until they vomited, and that coaches could have intervened, but did not.

Short’s experiences troubled him so deeply that he attempted to harm himself and was hospitalized in 2016, according to the complaint he filed in Chicago on Thursday — only the latest to allege a pattern of sexually abusive hazing and racism in the university’s sports program.

This was supposed to have been a banner year for the Big Ten school on the shore of Lake Michigan, with the inauguration of a new president, known as a defender of free speech, and plans to start an $800 million renovation of its football stadium.

Instead, Northwestern has spiraled into an ever-deepening crisis, brought on by the hazing allegations but quickly expanding to touch challenges facing many other elite colleges: how to handle claims of sexual assault; the isolation of Black and Hispanic students within largely white institutions; and the divide between sports culture and a campus’s academic and extracurricular life.

The scandal has prompted the firings of the formerly revered head football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, and of the baseball coach, Jim Foster, who has been accused of abusive coaching practices. It has also raised questions about the leadership of the new president, Michael Schill, and the athletic director, Derrick Gragg, who joined Northwestern in 2021 and hired Foster.

“Things don’t happen in a vacuum. Things occur in a system,” said Hayden Richardson, a former Northwestern cheerleader who claimed in a 2021 lawsuit that coaches forced members of the cheer team to socialize with university donors in a sexualized manner and denied them meals to encourage weight loss.

Now male athletes, too, are telling stories of sexual abuse and racism — and speaking openly of dealing with trauma and suicidal thoughts, and of needing years of therapy to recover.

The alleged abuse has been reported, in lawsuits or through the news media, by members of at least four Northwestern teams who played during the last decade. The university said it first became aware of these issues in November through an anonymous complaint that described hazing in the football program. And on July 8, Schill said an internal investigation had largely supported those claims.

Abuse scandals are nothing new in the Big Ten Conference, which is made up mostly of large public universities from the Midwest to the East Coast that have made athletics big business. Northwestern, which is the only private school in the conference — at least until Southern California joins next year — has by far the smallest undergraduate enrollment, and has viewed itself differently.

But now, Patrick A. Salvi II and Parker Stinar, a lawyer who won a $490 million settlement last year for athletes who were sexually abused by a University of Michigan doctor, have filed four lawsuits on behalf of anonymous athletes at Northwestern.

Short’s lawsuit was filed by Levin & Perconti, a Chicago firm. Another suit was filed by Levin & Perconti and Ben Crump, who has also represented the families of Black victims of police violence, including George Floyd and Tyre Nichols.

All the lawyers have said additional plaintiffs — male and female — may come forward from Northwestern sports like softball, baseball, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse.

At a July 19 news conference, Lloyd Yates, a former Northwestern quarterback, spoke on behalf of several former football players.

“We were thrown into a culture where physical, emotional and sexual abuse were normalized,” Yates said. “Even some of our coaches took part in it.”

Yates, 26, filed a lawsuit on Monday. He played quarterback and receiver at Northwestern from 2015-18, and comes from a family of prominent Black Northwestern alumni. He said the football team’s climate had been especially terrifying for teammates who, without their athletic scholarships, would not have been able to afford a college like Northwestern, and who saw fitting in on the team as “their only ticket to a better life.”

The allegations were first detailed this month by the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, and were expanded upon in reporting by The Athletic. Former players described hazing rituals, including a practice known as “running,” in which athletes, typically freshmen who had made mistakes on the field, were held down by older players who simulated sexual acts on them while the rest of the team watched. At other times, athletes said, they were force fed Gatorade shakes until they got sick, bullied into playing football while naked and sexually harassed in the shower.

Alumni have said that players who refused to perpetrate hazing rituals would be targeted for future hazing.

Schill, who was inaugurated as president last month, initially announced a two-week suspension for Fitzgerald. But several days later, on July 10, Schill fired him, telling The Daily Northwestern that even though an investigation could not conclude whether Fitzgerald knew of the hazing, it was a leadership failure for it to happen under his watch.

“He owns that culture, and when you own a culture, that means you should take whatever steps are prudent to make sure the culture is a good culture,” Schill told the student newspaper on Monday.

Yates’s complaint states that Matt MacPherson, a coach at the university since 2006, saw players being forced to do pull-ups while naked; Northwestern is now investigating MacPherson, the university said in a written statement on Tuesday.

Fitzgerald, whose eldest son Jack had last year as a high school senior committed to play at Northwestern, indicated in a statement shortly after his firing that he may sue the university, saying Schill “unilaterally revoked our agreement” of a two-week suspension. Fitzgerald’s lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment. Northwestern did not respond to a request to speak with MacPherson and Gragg, the athletic director.

Some former athletes also detailed alleged incidents of racism, such as Black players being made to change their hairstyles and Latino players being taunted about their relatives cleaning houses.

“This is college sports’ #MeToo moment,” Crump said.

Others are not so sure.

Mike Hankwitz, who spent 13 years as the football team’s defensive coordinator before his retirement after the 2020 season, did not doubt the accounts of some athletes. But in a phone interview, he questioned the scope of the accusations because he said he had neither witnessed nor heard of hazing from coaches, equipment managers, janitors, strength and conditioning coaches, trainers and food servers — all people who would be around Northwestern football players.

“Fitz wanted to do what was right by the players,” Hankwitz said. “Our first team meeting is team rules, one of which is zero tolerance for hazing. To say he sat by as this happened? I’m sorry.”

Hankwitz said Northwestern has long had a players’ council, which was elected by the players and could have brought any concerns to Fitzgerald. “He wanted to give them ownership and leadership skills,” Hankwitz said.

But when Northwestern players sought to unionize in 2014 in a case that was ultimately rejected by the National Labor Relations Board, Fitzgerald framed a unionization vote in personal terms.

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind,” Fitzgerald wrote to the team in an email.

Locker rooms have long been the setting for initiation rites that can cross a line into hazing.

Even as most states, including Illinois, have laws banning it, hazing has continued — sometimes under the guise of team-building exercises. An N.C.A.A. survey published in 2016 found that 74 percent of college athletes experienced hazing while in college.

Casey Dailey, a former teammate of Fitzgerald at Northwestern who played briefly in the N.F.L. with the Jets, said he never experienced anything like what the recent players described. With the Jets, the rookies were expected to carry the veterans’ helmets from the practice field and fetch them breakfast on Saturdays, but were never physically abused. What he read about Northwestern shocked him.

“The thing that struck me as odd was the things they were talking about were team destroying, not team building,” said Dailey, who teaches special education near Dallas.

For decades, Northwestern football was the punchline of jokes. Beginning in the 1970s, the team endured 23 consecutive losing seasons — including four in which they went winless. When the program snapped that decades-long skid in 1995 by reaching the Rose Bowl, it felt like the rapture.

The leader of that team was the middle linebacker, a steel-jawed son of an electrical worker from Midlothian, Ill. His name was Pat Fitzgerald.

When Fitzgerald, at age 31, was elevated to head football coach, Northwestern alums could not have been more proud.

The Wildcats have been frequently competitive and occasionally formidable since, with three 10-win seasons and two appearances in the conference championship game. Even as it has succeeded on the field, Northwestern has posted the highest graduation rate among Football Bowl Subdivision schools for the last six years.

Fitzgerald, who was awarded a 10-year contract extension in 2021, was paid $5.3 million by the university in the 2021 fiscal year, according to Northwestern’s most recent federal filing.

Michigan’s attempt to poach Fitzgerald more than a decade ago served as the catalyst for an athletics spending binge. Much of the funding came from the Northwestern mega donor Pat Ryan, the founder of the worldwide insurance firm Aon. His name dots seemingly every other building on campus, from the $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center to Ryan Field, the football field once known as Dyche Stadium.

Shepherding the projects for years had been the longtime athletic director, Jim Phillips, who left Northwestern in 2021 to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

He has been named in at least three lawsuits.

Phillips released a statement last week that read in part: “Hazing is completely unacceptable anywhere, and my heart goes out to anyone who carries the burden of having been mistreated. Any allegation that I ever condoned or tolerated inappropriate conduct against student-athletes is absolutely false.”

At least one case emerged under his watch — the complaints by the cheerleaders.

Phillips was leading the athletics department in early 2021 when Hayden Richardson, the former cheerleader, filed her lawsuit, after coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment in 2019.

Also in 2021, a Black member of the cheer team, Erika Carter, told The Daily Northwestern that Black cheerleaders were told to change their hairstyles to achieve an “all-American look” — a similar complaint to those brought by the football alumni who said this month that Black players were targeted by the expectation that their personal appearance project “good, clean American fun.”

The cheerleading coach was fired and Mike Polisky, a longtime administrator, stepped down just 10 days after his appointment as athletic director.

But Richardson, whose lawsuit is pending, said deeper change is needed beyond removing a handful of “harmful actors.”

The similarities between the cheerleaders’ and football players’ accounts have been of particular concern for some faculty members, 263 of whom signed a letter demanding that the new football stadium project be halted “until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved.” They asked for the release of the full internal report on hazing — the university has provided only a two-page summary — and for the athletics department to be subjected to new accountability structures.

Luis A.N. Amaral, an engineering professor, noted that Richardson had said cheerleaders had been sexually harassed in a lounge frequented by university donors and members of the board of trustees.

Any trustees involved in a culture of sexual abuse in the athletics department should be investigated and removed, said Amaral, who signed the letter.

Northwestern declined to answer detailed questions.

“When we receive specific allegations, whether about the football program, other sports or coaches, we will investigate them,” Jon Yates, the university’s vice president for communications, said in a written statement.

On July 18, Schill, the university president, wrote a letter to the faculty promising change. He said the football locker room would be monitored and the university would set up an online reporting tool for complaints. He also promised to hire an outside firm to evaluate the university’s ability to detect threats to athlete well-being and hold bad actors accountable.

Kate Masur, a history professor, said faculty activists are looking for much more. She pointed out that the assistant coaches who worked under Fitzgerald have been allowed to remain in their jobs for the coming football season, which begins at Rutgers on Sept. 3.

The university needs “a root and branch transformation of athletics,” said Masur, who signed the faculty letter.

She also noted the poignancy of these allegations coming to light in the weeks immediately following the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action.

“It shows how difficult the course forward is for many Black and brown students,” she said, “both in getting into a place like Northwestern and staying there in a way that feels healthy.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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