A Hazing Scandal Rocks Northwestern University Athletics Department
A hazing scandal in the Northwestern University athletics department that has already cost two coaches their jobs is no closer to subsiding as lawsuits against the Chicago area university are beginning to pile up.
On July 10, Northwestern fired longtime head football coach Pat Fitzgerald amid revelations that he had overseen a culture that allowed for extensive hazing and sexual abuse. Three days later, the school fired baseball coach Jim Foster, citing a culture of bullying on the team he led for only one season. The firing of Fitzgerald came days after the university president, Michael Schill, had initially suspended him following an independent investigation of the football program.
High-Profile Firings Draw Greater Scrutiny
The two high-profile firings shook an athletic department that has prided itself as one of the nation’s premier collegiate sports programs, boasting numerous alumni in professional sports. But the firing of the two coaches has only served to draw greater scrutiny to the embattled university as the scandal has invited a growing avalanche of lawsuits from current and former football players as well as a women’s volleyball player.
Patrick Salvi II, a partner at the law firm Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, told the Washington Examiner in an interview that the four lawsuits filed by his firm are just the beginning and to expect more in the future.
“We’re preparing complaints right now to be filed,” Salvi said. “I expect more people to come forward.”
Salvi’s firm is currently representing three football players who have sued the Northwestern University athletics department due to the football team’s alleged culture of hazing and sexual abuse. The lawsuits describe a wide range of behaviors common on the team that included forcing student-athletes, usually freshmen, to engage in several activities while naked.
In one incident described in a lawsuit, freshmen players on the football team were forced to “rub up against a line of [naked] men to get to their showers” in a tradition called “the carwash.”
“This is a case that’s going to grow in size,” the attorney said in the interview. ”And I see it being a reckoning at Northwestern and the hazing culture generally that exists in sports.”
The four lawsuits filed by Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard are not the only complaints filed against Northwestern. Ben Crump, a prominent attorney who has represented several high-profile litigants, including the family of George Floyd, has also filed a lawsuit against Northwestern and said Monday that he expects to file as many as 30 individual lawsuits against the school for hazing in the sports programs.
Salvi told the Washington Examiner that issues of hazing and abuse were not contained to one program, indicating the athletic department had allowed the culture of abuse to fester across sports programs and that the school had taken a haphazard approach to addressing the reported cases of abuse before the scandal becoming public news. He specifically pointed to Schill and the athletic director, Derrick Gragg’s decision to initially suspend Fitzgerald from the team for a period of time before later firing him. Schill became president of the university last year, and Gragg has led the school’s athletic department since 2021.
In a statement to ESPN, university spokesman Jon Yates noted that an incident of hazing in a lawsuit brought by a women’s volleyball player predated Schill and Gragg. But Salvi said he sees more of the same from the new administration, which replaced former president Morton Schapiro and former athletic director Jim Phillips. Both are named in the lawsuits.
“I have to wonder why we would think that [the culture changed] in light of [Schill’s] handling of the Fitzgerald matter [and] why it was a suspension to start with,” Salvi said. “That sounds like it was from the same playbook, sweep it under the rug, hope it goes away, and we don’t have to address the problem. But now there’s a reckoning because the truth is coming to light.”
The attorney called the state of Northwestern’s athletics “sad” and said the school “has a lot of work to do in order to restore its reputation in the wake of this scandal.”
“I can’t get over the fact that these are just kids,” Salvi said. “I think now that we’re getting into some of the nitty-gritty details of what is occurring and the lasting effect it can have on young people. It’s just gotta stop.”
In a statement to the Washington Examiner, Yates said the university has taken steps to address the hazing concerns after the details of the independent investigation were made known to university officials.
“Shortly after learning the results of the independent investigation into hazing on the football team, the university announced a series of steps including the monitoring of the football locker room, anti-hazing training, and the establishment of an online reporting tool for complaints,” Yates said. “These steps, while necessary and appropriate, are just the start, and we will be augmenting them in the coming weeks.”
The university spokesman said the university intends to hire a firm to investigate the athletic department at large “to evaluate the sufficiency of our accountability mechanism and to detect threats to the welfare of our student-athletes.”
“We also will examine the culture of Northwestern Athletics and its relationship to the academic mission,” Yates said. “Both of these reviews will be conducted with feedback and engagement of faculty, staff, and students, and both will be made publicly available.”
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