First Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Female Northwestern University Athlete; Former Quarterback Also Files Suit

Video: Joining “Chicago Tonight” are Levin & Perconti’s Steven Levin, who is representing former football players with co-counsel Ben Crump; and Jennifer Cascio of Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, who represents the women’s volleyball player who filed a lawsuit Monday. WTTW News invited attorneys for Northwestern University and Coach Pat Fitzgerald to appear on the show; they declined. (Produced by Alexandra Silets)

The hazing scandal at Northwestern University has widened to include a volleyball player who on Monday became the first female athlete to sue the university over allegations she was retaliated against by the coach for reporting her mistreatment.

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The player, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, says she was physically harmed to the point of requiring medical attention during a hazing incident in early 2021.

“She suffered physical injuries that required medical attention, and obviously suffered severe emotional distress in response to this,” said attorney Jennifer Cascio of Salvi, Shostock & Pritchard, one of the firms representing the former student athlete, who added that many former players are just now coming forward “because of the devastating emotional impact that this type of abuse has on these student athletes.”

According to the lawsuit, Jane Doe contracted COVID-19 in February of that year, despite following the team’s COVID guidelines. Despite this, she says, Northwestern volleyball coach Shane Davis and an assistant coach informed her she would need to undergo a “punishment” for violating the guidelines.

A day later, on March 2, 2021, the coaches permitted the volleyball team’s captains to pick the punishment: She was forced to run “suicides” in the gym while diving to the floor each time she reached a line on the court. As she did this, the suit says, volleyball coaching staff, team members and trainers watched.

Campus police were made aware of the incident, as was the athletic department, the lawsuit says. Jane Doe says she was isolated from the team and Davis forced her to write an apology letter to trainers. The lawsuit also says the player met with athletic director Derrick Gragg to discuss the culture of the volleyball program but he “did nothing in response” to her concerns.

Davis did not immediately respond Monday morning to messages seeking comment.

The school announced in December 2021 that it had signed Davis to a multi-year contract extension. A year later, in December 2022, the player medically retired from the sport.

The lawsuit was submitted in Cook County by the Chicago-based Salvi Law Firm and names as defendants Davis and Cragg as well as the university, its current and former presidents and the board of trustees. The suit also names Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner James J. Phillips, who was Northwestern’s athletic director until 2021. Phillips, who has been named as a defendant in two other lawsuits, has said he never “condoned or tolerated inappropriate conduct” against athletes while he was Northwestern’s athletics director.

Cascio said she and her colleagues have also spoken to former baseball players, men’s soccer players, and women’s softball players, and have received information about alleged hazing and abuse in the women’s lacrosse and field hockey programs.

“The athletic department had a decade-long pattern of allowing, condoning and actively participating in hazing for student athletes across sports and across genders,” Cascio said. “These student athletes are coming to a prestigious university to fulfill their lifelong dreams, both in the athletic arena but also in the academic arena. … It really does seem as if (Northwestern’s) academic reputation allowed the school to shield the misconduct in the athletic department.”

Also Monday, civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced another lawsuit against Northwestern over allegations of “physical and sexual violence, hazing and extreme mental abuse” in the school’s football program.

The suit, filed on behalf of former Northwestern quarterback and wide receiver Lloyd Yates, details an array of alleged forced rituals, including players holding down a teammate while the players rubbed their crotches in the teammate’s face; naked drills and workouts; new players made to strip and run through a line of naked teammates covered in soap, known as the “Car Wash”; trading insults during rap battles and team dinners; and players made to drink protein shakes until they became sick.

The suit also alleges that coaches and staff knew or should have known of the hazing, and that many in authority also subjected players to racist and discriminatory comments.

Crump and other attorneys joined Oak Park native Yates and his parents at a Monday afternoon press conference in Chicago. While Yates said it’s difficult to speak out publicly, he hopes that by doing so the suit can help to “finally hold Northwestern accountable.”

“I want justice for all the victims of this horrific hazing. I want closure for myself and hundreds of other Northwestern football players who suffered in silence. Too often many of us have blamed ourselves for things that were beyond our control,” said Yates.

Yates also said the school must protect future student-athletes, and said that he stands by any current and former players thinking of speaking out: “you have my unwavering support.”

Yates is among more than 15 men and women who have retained Crump and the Chicago-based Levin & Perconti law to seek damages against Northwestern due to its hazing scandal.

Crump described the Yates lawsuit, the first with a named plaintiff, as part of “college sports’ ‘me too’ movement.”

“We hope we will provide awareness around the issue and support to victims, and the eradication of physical, psychological, and sexual hazing in college sports,” said Crump, who added that he and his colleagues plan to file more than 30 individual lawsuits in the coming weeks and months.

Football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired after a university investigation found allegations of hazing by 11 current or former players, including “forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature," school President Michael Schill said.

In the complaint brought by Yates, attorneys write that Fitzgerald “knew or should have known that over time, ‘initiations’ and ‘traditions’ in the Wildcat football program had developed into a culture of violent, intimidating, sexualized abuse and hazing and extreme mental abuse.”

“It’s an institutionalized problem. The university had an anti-hazing policy and Coach Fitzgerald has given recorded public service announcements regarding his zero tolerance policy,” said attorney Margaret Battersby Black. “In reality, there was no system to enforce the policy or monitor these activities, and the university failed these student-athletes.”

Another previous lawsuit accuses Fitzgerald of enabling a culture of racism, including forcing players of color to cut their hair and behave differently to be more in line with the “Wildcat Way.”

Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats, has maintained he had no knowledge of hazing. Fitzgerald said after being fired that he was working with his agent, Bryan Harlan and his lawyer, Dan Webb, to “protect my rights in accordance with the law.”

In a statement Monday, Fitzgerald’s attorney, Dan Webb said that “this complaint (and, we assume, the 30 others that plaintiffs’ lawyers say they will file) does not name our client as a defendant … (and) it fails to show that our client, Coach Fitzgerald, had actual, contemporaneous knowledge of the behaviors described in the complaint.”

“Coach Fitzgerald implemented and followed numerous procedures and protocols to ensure that hazing would not occur, and he repeatedly emphasized to Northwestern’s student athletes that hazing was forbidden and, if anyone was aware—or was the victim—of hazing, that they should immediately report it so that he could stop it,” Webb added.

The hazing allegations have broadened beyond the school’s football program as attorneys said last week that male and female athletes reported misconduct within its baseball and softball programs. They also suggested that sexual abuse and racial discrimination within the football program was so rampant that coaches knew it was happening, with the suit brought by Yates identifying an assistant coach who allegedly saw hazing and sexualized abuse and didn’t report it.

Northwestern has been added to a long list of American universities to face a scandal in athletics and may eventually join the trend of making large payouts following allegations of sexual abuse.

Attorney Cascio said it’s time for the university to embrace transparency by investigating its athletic top to bottom.

“There really needs to be an overhaul in the way that the culture has existed, and a path forward so that these student athletes are able to be comfortable sharing their stories without fear of retaliation,” she said.

Note: This article was published July 24 and updated with video July 25.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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