There was a widespread, well-known culture of hazing and sexualized abuse in the Northwestern University football program and other university sports, attorneys and former players allege.
Those former players are vowing to hold the university accountable and support those who speak out.
“As an athlete, (hazing is) something that we hear about ... but it’s something you say, ‘that’s not going to happen to me. It’s not. I’m going to fight back,’” said Lloyd Yates, who played quarterback and wide receiver at Northwestern for three seasons. “When it happens it’s uncontrollable … you’re overpowered by, you’re dominated by the culture.”
Yates and three other former players spoke out at a news conference Wednesday morning. They’re among 15 ex-Northwestern athletes represented by civil rights lawyer Ben Crump and Chicago-based colleagues, who say they plan to file suit against the university in the near future.
Crump said most of the plaintiffs were in the football program, though some played baseball or women’s softball. He added that attorneys have been in conversation with some 50 former Northwestern athletes across multiple programs.
This planned suit, and two others already filed, come on the heels of an anonymous whistleblower’s bombshell accusations against the Wildcat football program broken by the Daily Northwestern student newspaper.
“We just thought that this was part of playing college football, playing Big Ten, and we wanted to be accepted. We wanted to fit in. We wanted to earn trust and respect, and if you went against that you were an outcast ... and it warranted further abuse,” Yates said.
That abuse allegedly included a variety of hazing rituals, many of a demeaning sexual nature – including forced nudity, dry humping and more. Attorneys and ex-players say members of the coaching staff were aware of the hazing, and in some instances took part.
“It’s hard to explain to you guys what we went through,” said former football player Tom Carnifax. “We know because we saw it for four years straight. The words we have to tell you and best describe it is not even touching a fraction of it.”
Former players and attorneys say student-athletes who spoke out at the time were ignored, gaslighted or retaliated against, and that the abuse has taken a heavy psychological toll.
“People broke down crying on the phone when we talked to them about how mad this made them and how they blame themselves now for not having the courage to talk,” attorney Crump said.
The two lawsuits already filed against Northwestern, former coach Patrick Fitzgerald, and university officials are on behalf of two separate John Does, with accusations largely along the same lines.
Attorneys say Northwestern knew – or should have known – about the toxic culture in its football program.
“Northwestern’s football program has had longstanding issues involving hazing and bullying that takes on a sexual and/or racist tone,” lawyers said in a complaint, arguing the school “endangered, enabled, and concealed the exploitation of Northwestern student athletes under the supervision of (former football coach) Patrick Fitzgerald.”
Fitzgerald was initially suspended after a university investigation into hazing in the football program, then swiftly fired after the whistleblower’s allegations came out. He’s retained longtime attorney Dan Webb to represent him, reportedly for a possible wrongful termination lawsuit.
In a statement this afternoon, Webb called today’s charges “broad-based, imprecise, and sweeping allegations ... no arguments were made that would present any substantive, detailed, factual allegations, let alone evidence, about Coach Fitzgerald’s conduct.”
Northwestern officials have said they won’t comment on pending litigation. But in a publicly released letter to faculty and staff yesterday, university president Michael Schill vowed “to address this situation and ensure that our athletic program remains one you can be proud of ... we will redouble our efforts to safeguard the welfare of each and every student-athlete at Northwestern.”
Schill wrote that includes approving a faculty senate request to hire an outside firm to evaluate the university’s “accountability mechanism” and “ability to detect threats to the welfare of student-athletes.”
Attorneys called on Northwestern to release the full report on the hazing investigation, and said the university has the chance to take a stand that would benefit student-athletes nationwide.
“Northwestern needs to ... take action, make a safe place for the players to share their experiences, and make sure it never happens anywhere again,” said Chicago-based attorney Steve Levin. “It is a correctable situation on a go-forward basis, but they also have to respect what their student-athletes went through.”