A former Northwestern University football player has filed the first lawsuit against Pat Fitzgerald and members of the school’s leadership, as they launch new probes into the hazing scandal that cost the 17-year head coach his job.
As reported by The Associated Press, the player, who was on the football team from 2018 to 2022, alleged Tuesday in Cook County Court in Chicago that Fitzgerald, NU president Michael Schill, the board of trustees and athletic director Derrick Gragg enabled and concealed sexual misconduct and racial discrimination.
“It wasn’t just confined to one bad actor,” attorney Parker Stinar, representing the Salvi Law Firm on the player's behalf, said in an AP interview.
The lawsuit allegations include naked players in locker rooms forcing freshmen to also strip naked and then perform various acts. It also accuses Fitzgerald of enabling a culture of racism, including forcing players of color to cut their hair and behave differently to be more in line with the “Wildcat Way,” according to the AP's Larry Lage.
Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates said the school’s policy is to not comment on the specifics of pending litigation.
In a letter to Northwestern’s faculty and staff Tuesday, Schill announced a new pair of external reviews, on top of the months-long investigation that first prompted a two-week suspension for Fitzgerald and ultimately his firing. Schill wrote that an outside firm will be hired to evaluate how the school detects threats to student-athletes’ welfare and to examine the athletics culture and its relationship to academics at the prestigious institution, located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.
“In the wake of this unfortunate situation, my job is to work closely with you to not just restore trust in the athletic program, but to make it better and more closely integrated with our academic mission,” Schill wrote.
An emailed statement from Fitzgerald’s defense team quoted his lawyer, Dan Webb, as saying, “the complaint has no validity as to Coach Fitzgerald and we will aggressively defend against these allegations with facts and evidence.” Webb, a former U.S. attorney, has been one of the most sought-after private lawyers in the country for decades, according to the AP.
More lawsuits are expected to follow, as at least eight former Northwestern football players have retained attorneys, the AP reported.
Criminal charges are also possible. Illinois has criminalized hazing, which is typically a Class A misdemeanor carrying up to a one-year prison term.
Chicago's WGN published Schill's letter to faculty and staff in its entirety:
Dear members of the faculty and staff,
As you are no doubt aware, over the past 10 days, the University terminated the employment of Head Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald and relieved Head Baseball Coach Jim Foster of his duties. These actions followed investigations into hazing among our student-athletes in football and the bullying of assistant coaches in baseball. This situation is still unfolding, but the University already faces litigation related to these actions. Therefore, I hope you will understand that I am restricted in discussing specifics of these matters. I also am very concerned — as I am sure you all are — about protecting the confidentiality and rights of our students.
I write to you today to give you my commitment that I will continue to do whatever is necessary to address this situation and ensure that our athletic program remains one you can be proud of and one that is fully aligned with and reflects our values. Equally important, I give you my commitment that we will redouble our efforts to safeguard the welfare of each and every student-athlete at Northwestern.
Shortly after learning the results of the independent investigation, Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation Derrick Gragg and I 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. These steps, while necessary and appropriate, are just the start, and we will be augmenting them in the coming weeks in close consultation with faculty, trustees and other University constituents.
In my view, which I know many of you share, we must ensure that we have in place appropriate accountability for the athletic department. We will implement the Faculty Senate’s prior request that we engage an outside firm to evaluate the sufficiency of our accountability mechanism including the Committee on Athletics and Recreation and our ability to detect threats to the welfare of student-athletes. I also believe it is important to examine closely the culture of Northwestern Athletics and its relationship to the academic mission. Both of these reviews will be conducted with feedback and engagement of faculty, staff and students, and both will be made publicly available.
As I said at my recent inauguration, part of what makes Northwestern so special is its breadth and depth. We not only have the very best in scientific, humanistic, social science and professional academic research and education as well as amazing performing and creative arts, but we also have a world-class intercollegiate athletics program. In the wake of this unfortunate situation, my job is to work closely with you to not just restore trust in the athletic program, but to make it better and more closely integrated with our academic mission.
I hope your summer is providing you with time for rest and reflection.