Two former Northwestern football captains on Friday discussed their experiences of racial discrimination within the program and being forced as young Black men to conform to the “Wildcat Way,” which they say was “coded white culture.”
“Northwestern not only treated players of color differently than our white teammates, but they tried to conform us in our appearance to resemble our white teammates, or what Northwestern would consider, the Wildcat Way,” former Northwestern football player and NFL running back Noah Herron said at a news conference Friday.
“Northwestern recruited me as a football player but refused to see me and accept me as a man, a Black man who was, and is, proud of my race and culture.”
Herron was joined at the news conference by former teammate Rico Lamitte, who said he and fellow players of color were “teased, humiliated, threatened, hazed and abused” for refusing to conform to the “Wildcat Way.”
While white players were allowed to have long hair, according to Herron and Lamitte, Black players with longer braids or dreadlocks were told they had to cut their hair.
“Coaches, trainers and staff told us that we needed to change the way we dressed, acted and styled our hair,” Lamitte said. “As a freshman, I was told I’d never see any playing time unless I cut my hair, and if I did not cut it myself, coaches would instruct upperclassmen to hold me down and shave it.”
Herron said he and fellow Black players were threatened with a loss of playing time, starting positions, scholarships and the ability to transfer.
He recalled after the team’s appearance in the 2005 Sun Bowl that two Black players were singled out and physically punished in such a severe manner it was known on the team as the “Christmas massacre.”
“The head coach told two white position coaches that if these two Black players were able to walk off the field after their punishment, that they themselves would be fired,” Herron said.
Lamitte said players were also forced to participate in “insensitive, racially undertoned activities” like watermelon-eating contests and recounted a time when a coach used a racial slur when referring to the team’s Asian-American kicker.
News of the hazing scandal within Northwestern’s football program broke in early July and head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired about 10 days later.
Northwestern now faces dozens of lawsuits from players across multiple sports, with allegations including sexual and racial abuse. Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard represent seven former athletes, mostly football players.
The school has hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to lead an investigation into the culture of its athletic department and its anti-hazing procedures.
Fitzgerald has also sued the University, claiming he was ‘‘wrongfully and illegally terminated’’ by the school ‘‘without any legitimate or rational reason whatsoever.’’
Fitzgerald is seeking the $68 million that remained on his contract and an additional $62 million in lost future income.
Neither Herron, who played for Northwestern from 2000 to 2004, nor Lamitte, who played from 2001 to 2005, has sued the university.
Lawyers acknowledged that statutes of limitations might be issues with reports from the 1990s or early 2000s, but did not rule out Herron or Lamitte filing suit.
“Northwestern created, enabled and tolerated a toxic culture of sexualized hazing and racial discrimination,” Lamitte said. “Northwestern’s culture must be exposed, they must be held accountable, and the culture must change.”
The law firm Salvi, Schostok and Pritchard organized the news conference Friday ahead of the Northwestern-Iowa football game Saturday at Wrigley Field.
“These individuals gave blood, sweat and tears for that university, for their program,” attorney Parker Stinar said. “They produced tremendous revenues for the University, and we demand that the story is not silenced by football season.”