A new lawsuit to hit Northwestern University, filed by former player Lloyd Yates, is the first to describe acts of alleged hazing that assistant football coaches not only witnessed, but — in at least one instance — were subjected to personally.
The revelations made public Monday are of particular interest, given that former head coach Pat Fitzgerald's entire defense centers on his contention that he was not aware that hazing was part of the Wildcats' culture.
Later Monday, Fitzgerald's attorney, Dan Webb, released a statement noting that the lawsuit "does not name our client as a defendant," according to ESPN.
"In addition, while the complaint makes detailed, factual allegations about student athletes' behavior, it fails to show that our client, coach Fitzgerald, had actual, contemporaneous knowledge of the behaviors described in the complaint. Rather, it asserts facts that lead plaintiffs' lawyers to merely assume and insinuate that our client somehow must have known that such behavior was occurring. Assumptions and insinuations are not legal arguments, however."
Yates, a former quarterback and wide receiver who played at for Fitzgerald from 2015 to 2017, became the first plaintiff to identify himself in a lawsuit against the school — targeted by three unnamed former players in lawsuits last week based on allegations that the Northwestern football program under Fitzgerald fostered a toxic culture of abuse.
As reported by ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, Yates' complaint detailed several alleged organized hazing rituals at Northwestern that had been previously highlighted, including "running," where a group of players restrained a teammate and engaged in dry-humping and other sexualized acts. But unlike the other complaints, Yates alleges in his 52-page complaint that defensive backs coach and associate head coach Matt MacPherson, a Northwestern assistant since 2006, witnessed several alleged hazing incidents, including naked pull-ups during preseason training. MacPherson is also accused by a former player, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 2, of showing a social media profile of John Doe 2's girlfriend on a screen during a position meeting, commenting on her appearance and asking about their sexual experiences.
"Like the previous lawsuits against Northwestern, Yates' complaint did not identify any players as leading the hazing activities," Rittenberg wrote. "Other than MacPherson, the complaint didn't identify any other assistant coaches, although it lists several instances where white coaches made comments to Black players to 'bully, intimidate and make these players of color feel inferior.' "
The lawsuit also highlighted two instances in which coaches were victims of "running," including an unnamed strength and conditioning coach during a training session in 2015 or 2016. Yates' attorneys declined to say whether those coaches had been contacted to verify the claims, Rittenberg reported.
"No young teenager should have to bear what we did as freshmen students," Yates said. "We were conditioned to believe that this behavior was normal, which was sickening and unacceptable."
He said he only felt comfortable coming forward after a former Northwestern player, whose allegations prompted the university to initiate the hazing investigation, went public with details in a July 8 story published in The Daily Northwestern student newspaper. That coverage is credited with blowing the scandal wide open.
Yates said he was a victim of "running" by 12 to 15 older players as a freshman in August 2015. The experience caused him to feel "embarrassed, ashamed, dehumanized, powerless, dirty and anxious." The lawsuit states that while coaches were not present for the incidents at the team's preseason training camp in Kenosha, Wis., they would tell players to "keep it down" in the dormitory, suggesting they were aware of what was happening.
According to Rittenberg, Northwestern is reviewing the claims made against MacPherson. After receiving allegations of hazing from a former player in November, the university initiated an external investigation that did not find evidence coaches knew of hazing incidents, but concluded that they had opportunities to learn of the incidents and report them.
"We are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues and ensure that our athletic program remains one that our entire community can be proud of and one that is fully aligned with and reflects our values," the school said in a statement to ESPN.
Based on the initial six-month investigation, Northwestern suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks, then fired him days later, on July 10. He remains the only coach impacted by the scandal. The school announced that all assistants would return for the 2023 season.
Later Monday, in another statement to ESPN, Northwestern confirmed that "MacPherson has not been suspended. We continue to review the allegations and will take the appropriate measures based on the outcome of that process."
Longtime head strength coach Jay Hooten, whose name is mentioned in Yates' lawsuit, also remains with the team.
Yates alleges that after he admitted to Hooten that he and others were out partying the night before a workout, Hooten informed Yates' teammates that he had "ratted them out." Following the workout, Yates alleges that he was later "ran" in the team locker room.
Other details outlined in the Yates complaint:
- A freshman singled out to be "run" was carried naked into a shower by 10 to 15 teammates, who "dunked him upside down in the ice bath and ran him while he was naked, upside down with his head underwater." Former Northwestern linebacker Simba Short, who is expected to file his own lawsuit against the university, stated that he hid in a closet for an hour because of the emotional distress and anxiety from witnessing the incident.
- The "Dredge," a social event following the team's winter conditioning program, had the purpose to "haze members of the team with excessive alcohol intoxication and drinking games."
"I am committed to supporting our student-athletes and to re-building any damage our athletic program may have experienced," Northwestern president Michael Schill wrote Monday in a letter to the campus community, as reported by ESPN. "Part of that commitment is to protect our students' safety and well-being. That commitment includes thoroughly investigating any instance or allegation of hazing or mistreatment. That commitment includes creating processes and safeguards so that what happened in football can never happen again at Northwestern. That commitment also includes celebrating, defending and caring for both students and staff who are unfairly implicated by a broad brush."