In early July, Northwestern University fired head football coach Pat Fitzgerald after allegations of hazing in the school’s football program were made public — first through the university’s own announcement of the findings of an internal investigation, then through an article in the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, which published graphic details of sexualized hazing rituals.
The fallout has been swift and relentless: The university’s president, Michael Schill, was widely criticized for failing to fire Fitzgerald right away; another scandal in the athletics program came to light, resulting in the sacking of Jim Foster, the baseball coach; Fitzgerald denied any knowledge of the hazing and retained veteran trial lawyer Dan Webb to possibly sue Northwestern for breach of contract; several former football players filed lawsuits against Northwestern; and Ben Crump, a high-profile civil rights attorney, jumped into the fray, representing one former football player and announcing that athletes in other Northwestern sports programs have made allegations of hazing and sexual assault.
Here’s how Northwestern got here — and what the impact of the scandal may be:
November 2022: In response to an anonymous hazing complaint from a student-athlete, Northwestern initiates an independent investigation into the football program.
July 7: Northwestern releases a two-page summary of the internal investigation and announces that Fitzgerald has been suspended for two weeks.
July 10: The Daily Northwestern publishes a second story, this one focused on allegations of racism in the football program from the late 2000s.
July 10: Fitzgerald is fired. In a letter to the Northwestern community, President Schill writes: “The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening.”
July 18: A former Northwestern football player files the first lawsuit against Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern leaders.
July 21: A second former player files a lawsuit related to alleged hazing in the football program.
July 24: A former Northwestern volleyball player files a lawsuit against the university related to alleged hazing that took place two years ago. This is the first lawsuit since the scandal broke from an athletic program outside of football.
July 25: Attorney Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, announces a lawsuit on behalf of Lloyd Yates, the first former Northwestern football player to come forward as a named plaintiff.
The Athletic has a complete timeline of the allegations and subsequent investigation.
What are the hazing allegations?
A former Northwestern football player told The Daily Northwestern the hazing that took place on the team included coerced sexualized acts involving a practice called “running.” A player would allegedly be “restrained by a group of 8-10 upperclassmen dressed in various ‘Purge-like’ masks, who would then begin ‘dry-humping’ the victim in a dark locker room.”
A second player confirmed the details to the student newspaper.
The first player added that Fitzgerald may have known about the hazing. However, the former coach said he was unaware of any hazing and defended his work as a mentor: “I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to nurturing our players, not only as athletes but as exemplary students and members of the community,” he said in a statement released to ESPN. “The overwhelming majority of players we coached, 99% to be precise, have provided positive feedback that affirms our efforts.”
At least four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of former Northwestern football players as of July 25. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump says he plans to file “more than 30 lawsuits on behalf of former players from other Northwestern teams, including one person who was a mascot,” the Sun-Times reported.
“Whether the coaches at Northwestern approved or participated in the harassment of these players or not, they are responsible for allowing and enabling a toxic, disgusting, and damaging culture in their programs,” Crump said in a statement.
Who is Pat Fitzgerald?
Fitzgerald was Northwestern’s head football coach for 17 seasons. The university credits him with turning around the football program. Under Fitzgerald’s leadership, the team won five bowl games and Big Ten West titles in 2018 and 2020. Fitzgerald attended Northwestern as a student and played on the football team in the 1990s. Although sidelined with a broken leg, Fitzgerald played on the team that head coach Gary Barnett took to the Rose Bowl in 1996, Northwestern’s first bowl appearance in more than four decades. His contract was set to expire after the 2026 football season. Fitzgerald’s lawyer told ESPN the university still owes the former coach more than $40 million.
What’s going on with the Northwestern baseball team?
First-year head baseball coach Jim Foster was accused of “bullying and abusive behavior,” the Chicago Tribune reported just days after the football allegations came to light.
A separate university investigation found “sufficient evidence” that Foster “engaged in bullying and abusive behavior,” according to an internal HR document obtained by the Tribune, with people close to the baseball program saying he “made an inappropriate comment regarding a female staff member, and spoke negatively about his staff to other staff members.”
Foster was fired on July 13. Assistant coach Brian Anderson will serve as head coach “during this time of transition,” according to a university press release.
What rights do student-athletes have?
State Rep. Kam Buckner is working on a “college athlete’s bill of rights,” which he said would “codify what true protection should look like” against hazing and sexual assault.
“They’re not just numbers on a jersey that win you money through your favorite sportsbook, stroke your pride or gin up your school spirit,” Buckner said in a Tweet. “These are humans. Protecting college athletes is not just about economics; it’s about education, health, wellness, justice and safety.”
Because the anti-hazing rules go beyond school policy, those who participated in the behaviors could face charges, legal analyst Michael McCann writes for Sportico, a sports business publication.
“The alleged perpetrators could be charged with sexual abuse, hazing or other crimes under Illinois law or Wisconsin law, given that the team trains for a week each year in Kenosha, Wisc.,” McCann wrote in the analysis. “The interstate quality of the team’s practice arrangement could even create the possibility of a federal charge if, for example, the plan to abuse a player and the carrying out of that abuse occurred in two states.”
Will the scandal scuttle the $800 million Ryan Field renovation project?
Northwestern wants to rebuild Ryan Field to make it suitable for concerts and other events — but has gotten pushback from the Evanston community.
The $800 million plan was already controversial because it could mean noise and traffic in a residential area. Now, the hazing scandal has complicated the school’s campaign to get the renovation approved, David Roeder wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The hazing scandal could also prompt the university to reevaluate the direction of the program, said Vincent Peña, a professor of sports communication and media at DePaul University.
But Peña said he still sees Northwestern forging ahead with the renovation plans.
“The wheels are in motion … and maybe it’ll help them kind of overlook, move on from this scenario,” Peña said. “From a crisis management standpoint, you want some good news coming out of this program.”
Who will replace Fitzgerald?
Defensive coordinator David Braun was named acting head coach on July 14.
Braun joined the Wildcats in January. Before Northwestern, he spent four years at North Dakota State, a member of the coaching staff that led that team to two national championships in its division. But even his interim appointment has been mired in controversy: On July 21, the Chicago Tribune reported that, in the process of fact checking, the newspaper discovered Braun did not, in fact, hold a master’s degree in sports management and educational leadership.
What is the long-term impact on the football program?
Besides fans and alumni throwing out their purple paraphernalia and ripping up season tickets, the hit to Northwestern’s football program remains to be seen.
On the recruiting front, at least two incoming freshmen bailed at the last minute — offensive lineman Julius Tate from South Carolina and Payton Stewart of Washington state. Fitzgerald’s son Jack is an incoming freshman tight end for the team.
“It was already tough for people to want to go to Northwestern,” Peña said. “They’re rigorous academically, they’re in the Big 10 but they’re not a traditional powerhouse even though they’ve had some recent success. But in the most recent times, they’ve had two or three straight losing seasons.”
It’s unlikely Northwestern will face sanctions from the NCAA, he said. Those restrictions typically happen because of allegations of sexual violence or when programs break recruitment policies.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ.