Northwestern AD Reacts to Coaches' T-Shirts Supporting Fitzgerald

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Northwestern University football coaches wore T-shirts reading "Cats Against the World: 51" during Wednesday's practice in support of former head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was fired July 10 amid a hazing scandal.

Fitzgerald, a two-time national defensive player of the year as an NU linebacker in the 1990s, wore number 51.

As reported by ESPN, Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg attended Wednesday's practice, witnessed the T-shirts being worn first hand, and in a statement called them "inappropriate, insensitive and tone deaf." Gragg added that neither he nor the university had been aware the shirts would be worn Wednesday, the first preseason practice open to the media.

Sources told ESPN that it wasn't the first time the T-shirts — made shortly after Fitzgerald's ouster — had been worn during team activities. A current Northwestern player was seen wearing the T-shirt in a photo shared on social media July 27 by wide receivers coach Armon Binns, Adam Rittenberg of ESPN reported.

Though Fitzgerald was fired days after being handed a two-week suspension based on a university investigation, his entire staff was spared like consequences in the immediate wake of the alleged hazing incidents, which have been well documented. Only one coach besides Fitzgerald has been named in any of the 14 lawsuits facing the university, and that coach — Matt MacPherson — was on the field Wednesday, Rittenberg reported.

Gragg likewise has survived.

Related: Northwestern President: No Plans to Fire AD Over Hazing Scandal

"I am extremely disappointed that a few members of our football program staff decided to wear 'Cats Against the World' T-shirts," Gragg said in his statement, as reported by ESPN. "Neither I nor the University was aware that they owned or would wear these shirts today. The shirts are inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf. Let me be crystal clear: hazing has no place at Northwestern, and we are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues, including thoroughly investigating any incidents or allegations of hazing or any other misconduct."

Wide receiver Bryce Kirtz said the T-shirts are a symbol of team unity amid a challenging time for the team, Rittenberg reported.

"[Interim coach David Braun], he's been preaching that we should stick together, especially during a time like this," Kirtz said. "The shirts are really a reminder, allowing us to stick together."

According to Rittenberg, current players and coaches have remained in contact with Fitzgerald, whose eldest son, Jack, is a freshman tight end on the team.

Braun, hired from North Dakota State by Fitzgerald in January to serve as defensive coordinator, said of the team's ongoing contact with the former 17-year head coach, "There has been a certain level of checking in on someone that, at the end of the day, provided an opportunity for me and my family. I care about his personal wellbeing very, very much."

As for the T-shirts, Braun reportedly said, "It certainly isn't my business to censor anyone's free speech."

Linebacker Bryce Gallagher, among the players speaking for the first time since the firing, said players were "devastated" upon learning of Fitzgerald's fate.

"We're not addressing any past hazing allegations," Gallagher said. "What I can tell you is right now we have a great culture in our locker room and the guys are really sticking together through all this. The older guys are really just focused on helping these younger guys out, helping each other get through this, and just leaning on our relationships."

According to Rittenberg, only seven players — mostly incoming freshmen — entered the transfer portal in the 30 days following July 10.

"It just shows that what we have here is valued," defensive back Rod Heard II said. "The players that stayed, they want to be here. And the players that left, we fully support their decision in doing so."

Northwestern players went through a mandatory, in-person anti-hazing seminar last week, Rittenberg reported, adding that Braun said hazing has "no part" in the team's activities going forward.

Related: Northwestern Will Add Mandatory Anti-Hazing Seminars

"We've had a great training camp so far," Gallagher said. "It's been really nice getting up there on the field and just competing, helping each other out, helping [Braun] and the younger guys out and help develop them."

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