In the days after the hazing scandal in Northwestern University’s athletics program broke this summer, school leaders homed in on this message: “Make no mistake, our student-athletes are students first,” President Michael Schill wrote in an open letter to the school community.
Former Wildcat football player Ramon Diaz says that was not his experience. Diaz, 37, is suing the university. He’s accusing the school of enabling the alleged racial and sexual abuse he endured on the team in the late 2000s. He is one of many former students who have filed suit against Northwestern since widespread hazing in its athletic department became public July 7.
Diaz now works as a therapist counseling young athletes, to provide them with the support he didn’t have as a young man. He says student-athletes, particularly those of color, are brought to universities to win on the field, with little attention paid to their academic growth or mental health.
“To leave somebody like that is really just kind of tying both their hands behind their back,” said Diaz, who is Mexican-American. “That’s why some of these Black and brown athletes are left in shame and guilt, embarrassed.”
Sitting in the Illinois farmhouse he now shares with his wife and three kids, Diaz detailed how being treated as an athlete first, with little regard for his wellbeing as a student, set the stage for his abuse and left him ill-equipped to fight back. He and most of his teammates of color came to Northwestern academically unprepared – and left that way too, he says.
In response to Diaz’s allegations, Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates said in an email that the university has “redoubled its efforts to safeguard the welfare of each and every student-athlete.” In addition to other initiatives, it has hired a former U.S. Attorney to review its processes for handling misconduct in its athletics department and to review the department’s culture to “ensure it is consistent with the university’s mission and values as a leading academic institution.”
Northwestern did not respond specifically to Diaz’s allegation that the school has treated student-athletes as athletes first and as students second.
Northwestern football eligibility
Diaz was 18 in 2005 when he left his small town in rural Illinois to play football at Northwestern.
“I didn’t realize it until arriving there, the rigor and the expectations … and how poorly equipped I was moving into the school,” said Diaz, now a father of three young children.
Diaz got the message that he was supposed to take easy classes so he could maintain a high GPA. If his grades dipped too low, he wouldn’t be allowed to play football. The year he arrived, he remembers taking three music classes.
“There wasn’t a conversation [around] how this is going to contribute to your degree,” said Diaz, who at 6’4” still carries himself like the offensive lineman he once was. “It was the eligibility part. Those were the cymbals in the background … clanging over and over again, ‘Eligibility, eligibility.’ ”
Diaz said his coaches never asked him how classes were going or if he needed help.
“No, it was just, ‘You got to get A’s,’ ” he said.Diaz could sense something wasn’t quite right, but his parents didn’t go to college and he didn’t know what the experience should look like. They also didn’t speak English, so they could not advocate on his behalf.
“I certainly was not going to have anybody to come storm the castle doors and say … ‘What are you guys doing with my son,’ ” he said. “If we don’t have gatekeepers for children, then they’re really left to be exploited and oppressed. And that’s certainly what happened.”
Diaz felt that no one at Northwestern cared about how he was doing as a student, or even as a person. He said constant microaggressions from white coaches and teammates further isolated him. Diaz said most of the team was white.
“The position coach would say things like, ‘Clean up the dirt,’ … ‘Hey, we don’t live on dirt floors here … you might have lived that way growing up, but we don’t live that way,’ ” Diaz said. “It would be one thing if it was just the coach. But what makes it, I think, so egregious of what happened is everybody else then kind of jumped in.”
He remembers a teammate telling him he didn’t need to worry about a job because he could always find work as a landscaper. These allegations and others are outlined in Diaz’s lawsuit.
In response to the cases filed by Diaz and other former athletes, Northwestern has said it is committed to addressing hazing-related issues and has already made several changes, including mandatory in-person anti-hazing training; monitoring of the football locker room; and enhancement of the university’s resources for reporting hazing, bullying or other misconduct. Northwestern also fired the head football coach and the head baseball coach.
Counseling for athletes
Diaz said a code of silence and fear of retribution kept him from seeking out help.
“I think that led to the mental health issues I started to suffer, which hit a ceiling or hit a climax at the end of my sophomore year,” he said.
Diaz said he grew deeply depressed and attempted suicide that year. After graduating, he stopped playing football and worked odd jobs. For many alumni, a Northwestern degree is a ticket to a rewarding career. But not for Diaz.
“I just began to ask the question over and over again, ‘How can someone function so well in one area of your life and function terribly in another,’ ” he said. “‘How could I keep playing football on Saturdays, and yet internally, there’s this paradox, this internal struggle of loneliness, despair, rejection, helplessness.’ ”
These questions ultimately led Diaz to a career in mental health. He earned a master’s degree in clinical counseling and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in neuropsychology and theoretical psychology. He helps student-athletes process their struggles and, in some cases, walk away from their sports.
“It’s constant – the same story, same situation. And most of these coaches are very much hostile towards mental health,” he said. “Because it’s not about that. It’s about winning.”
Diaz said time and his career have given him the confidence and vocabulary to speak out about his treatment at Northwestern. But he said that’s not the case for most of his teammates of color.
“Some of them have been very triggered since all this came out,” he said. “Two of my Black teammates who are still very close friends of mine said those very words, ‘This is too much.’ Both of them backed away from the lawsuit.”
Diaz hopes that sharing his story will show other athletes of color they can speak out so that, together, they can convince the public that their experiences are part of a systemic problem – and that college sports are in need of meaningful reform.