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Multiple Legal Battles Brewing Over Northwestern Abuse Allegations

  • The abuse, considered "hazing," has led to at least ten lawsuits so far.
  • Nine football lawsuits either have been filed or will be filed, as well as a lawsuit from a former volleyball player.
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Editor’s Note: This story will be updated.

The Northwestern athletics “hazing” scandal has inspired former players to file a flurry of legal action against the school, including both current and former officials.

As of August 2, former Northwestern players have filed or are ready to file nine lawsuits against the school over allegations of sexual, physical, emotional, and racist abuse on the football team — and multiple lawsuits allege coaches were aware of certain toxic practices, if they didn’t engage in them themselves. One anonymous volleyball player has also filed a lawsuit.

These are only the beginning. One of the legal teams, led by prominent lawyers Ben Crump, Steven Levin, and Margaret Battersby Black, told reporters that they will file more than 30 individual lawsuits against the school.

The lawsuits, spawned by a school-sponsored investigation and two Daily Northwestern articles, claim players not only suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, but that athletic department officials — including head coach Pat Fitzgerald — were aware of the toxic behavior.

Crump is calling the litigation “the MeToo movement of college athletics.”

All of the lawsuits filed ask for $50,000 in damages.

Breaking Down the Litigation

Two main groups of lawyers have begun filing civil complaints against the school.

Prominent lawyers Ben Crump, Steven Levin, and Margaret Battersby Black have filed seven lawsuits so far against the school on behalf of football players. Named plaintiffs include former players Lloyd Yates, Warren Miles Long, Simba Short, and Tom Carnifax. The group has also filed three lawsuits on behalf of anonymous players.

The allegations included, but are not limited to, players being forced to do drills naked and engaging in multiple rituals (without their consent) involving sexual contact — abuse that took place both on campus at at Camp Kenosha, the Northwestern training camp. Players described instances of racist abuse as well.

The first complaint, for example, echoes allegations reported by The Daily Northwestern, including rituals of sexual assault called “running” and the “car wash.” One instance describes a player being held underwater in an ice bath while being sexually assaulted. Players were also forced to drink as many Gatorade shakes as possible until they threw up.

Yates’ lawsuit alleges that assistant coach Matt MacPherson witnessed the behavior himself and did not report or stop it. He allegedly participated in harrassing a player by showing an entire position group a Facebook page of the player’s girlfriend, while making inquiries about their sex life. Nutritionists were aware of one type of abuse in particular. Two other unnamed assistant coaches were allegedly victims.

The complaint also accused the team of creating a culture of silence and fear, whether underclassmen were conditioned to believe that the activities were “normal,” so that they would perpetuate them one day as well. Players were abused if they spoke out.

After Fitzgerald was fired, the complaint alleged, former players who wanted to speak out were contacted by other team alumni who pressured them to stand behind Coach Fitzgerald at all costs.

Another group of attorneys, Parker Stinar and Patrick Salvi, have filed three lawsuits on behalf of anonymous players, and one on behalf a named plaintiff: former offensive lineman Ramon Diaz. Stinar worked on cases related to the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar.

All but the first name former athletic director Jim Phillips, now the ACC Commissioner, as a defendant.

Fitzgerald and other administrators “were negligent in failing to prevent hazing traditions, failing to intervene in hazing traditions, failing to protect students from acts that were assaultive, illegal, and often sexual in nature,” the attorneys summarized in the original press release about their first lawsuit.

The three anonymous complaints are near-identical and include gruesome allegations detailed from The Daily Northwestern article as well as the executive summary of the Northwestern investigation. Diaz’s lawsuit corroborates claims of sexual abuse disguised as “hazing.” He also described being subject to racial abuse at the hands of one coach, and having players forcibly shave his head to read “Cinco de Mayo.”

At a press conference on July 19, the attorneys also said their clients told them that Fitzgerald was made aware of the racist abuse and that he knew about the hazing practices. 

Oct 29, 2022; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats team before the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.

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“The head football coach knows about everything that happens in this football program,” Stinar said.

Fitzgerald has continued to state that he had no knowledge of the toxic behavior — something his attorney, Dan Webb, reiterated in a statement to ESPN on Tuesday.

Northwestern does not comment on ongoing litigation as a matter of policy. But a spokesperson said: “Protecting the welfare of every student at Northwestern University is central to our mission and something we approach with the utmost seriousness…. We have taken a number of subsequent actions to eliminate hazing from our football program, and we will introduce additional actions in the coming weeks.”

Phillips, who issued a statement through a spokesperson for the ACC, said: “Any allegation that I ever condoned or tolerated inappropriate conduct against student-athletes is absolutely false. I will vigorously defend myself against any suggestion to the contrary.”

Far Beyond Football

On July 19, Stinar and Salvi told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that they’ve also learned of “incidents” in multiple other Northwestern sports programs. Northwestern athletics’ culture of hazing and abuse is “so widespread that it goes well beyond the football program,” the attorneys said.

The following week, they announced their intention to file a lawsuit on behalf of a former Northwestern women’s volleyball player, who accused coach Shane Davis of perpetuating a culture of hazing.

The anonymous plaintiff claimed that Davis had forced her to endure “punishment” drills where the entire team watched, and that she incurred injuries that required medical attention as a result, according to court documents reviewed by FOS. The lawsuit stated that she had brought this to the attention of Northwestern officials, but despite a short-lived suspension and an investigation, no other action was taken. She “medically retired” in 2022.

The lawsuit noted that there was evidence of mistreatment in the softball and men’s soccer programs as well, though details were not provided. In 2021, a lawsuit had been filed against the school over the treatment of a cheerleader. In addition, baseball coach Jim Foster was fired for perpetuating a toxic culture. 

In a statement to FOS, a university spokesperson said the school had, in fact, conducted an investigation which “confirmed that hazing had taken place.” The spokesperson added that “appropriate disciplinary action was taken,” including suspensions of coaches, cancelling matches, and implementing anti-hazing training. The statement was also careful to note that President Schill and current athletic director Derrick Gragg were not in their roles when the incident took place.

A Disturbing Timeline

News of the scandal first broke on July 7, when the university’s president, Michael Schill, handed down a tepid two-week suspension to Fitzgerald in the wake of an investigation commissioned by the university. The investigation was unable to prove Fitzgerald had any knowledge of the hazing activities — why Fitzgerald’s punishment was so mild. 

But Stinar and Salvi, however, have accused the firm that conducted the investigation — ArentFox Schiff LLP — has a “close relationship with the general counsel’s office at Northwestern.” A spokesperson for ArentFox Schiff did not respond to an FOS request for comment.

After two Daily Northwestern articles detailing the toxic culture were published over a period of four days, Schill decided to fire Fitzgerald on July 10. Fitzgerald then said in a statement that he was blindsided by the firing and had retained counsel. 

A week later, Stinar and Salvo filed the first lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous player.

In response, Schill announced the school would launch two separate investigations into the athletic department, both of which will become public.

The school was then hit with three other lawsuits — two from anonymous players that Stinar and Salvi represent, and one with multiple named players that Crump, Levin, and Black represent.

Multiple college athlete advocates told Front Office Sports that the toxic culture with the football team could have been prevented by a formal union, which players attempted — and failed — to launch in 2014.

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