Northwestern hazing scandal: 12 former football players take legal action against school

Twelve former Northwestern University football players are taking legal action against the Evanston school in the wake of a hazing scandal that resulted in the dismissal of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald last week.

Chicago law firm Levin & Perconti have partnered with civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent the former players in a scandal that called into question Fitzgerald's leadership of the program and damaged the university’s reputation after it mishandled its response to the allegations.

More players are expected to join the legal action in the coming days, according to a statement from the firm.

Crump said lawyers have uncovered a "vast array" of abuse incidents within the Northwestern football program, and the legal action is expected to expose hazing incidents in other collegiate athletic programs.

"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. "Sadly, our research suggests that this kind of abuse of student athletes may be far more common on college campuses than we know, because there is tremendous pressure to keep quiet."

The scandal first became public when the university announced on July 7 that Fitzgerald had been suspended without pay for two weeks after an independent investigation into hazing allegations in the football program led by attorney Maggie Hickey of law firm ArentFox Schiff.


The school said the investigation did not find "sufficient" evidence that the coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing - though there were "significant opportunities" to find out about it.

The next day, The Daily Northwestern published a story detailing allegations from two former players who described specific instances of hazing and sexual abuse. The report also indicated that Fitzgerald "may have known that hazing took place."

That led Northwestern President Michael Schill to write a letter to the university community in which he acknowledged focusing "too much on what the report concluded (Fitzgerald) didn’t know and not enough on what he should have known."

The 48-year-old Fitzgerald was fired two days later after serving as head coach of his alma mater for 17 seasons.

"These former Northwestern football players are participating in this legal action because they want to support and validate the allegations of abuse made by the two players who spoke to the Daily Northwestern about the true nature of the so called hazing," said Steve Levin, founding partner of Levin & Perconti. "The physical, emotional and sexual abuse not only violated Northwestern's own policies, but also numerous laws, and worse, has led to irreparable harm, with some players even experiencing suicidal thoughts."

A former player told The Daily Northwestern the incidents included acts of sexual misconduct, among other "absolutely egregious and vile and inhumane behavior."

He said players, mostly freshman, would be "dry-[humped]" by several upperclassmen who were dressed in "Purge-like" masks in a practice called "running." A player would be "ran" usually if he made mistakes at practice.

The player also said team members were forced to strip naked and perform various acts, including bear-crawling and slingshotting themselves across the floor with exercise bands. A freshman quarterback also had to take a snap from a freshman center while both were naked.

"This type of conduct is physical and sexual abuse of a degrading, demeaning, and deplorable nature," said Steve Levin of Levin & Perconti. "It has inflicted permanent harm on the victims of it. Period."

Another alleged incident included the "Gatorade shake challenge," where players would have to drink as many Gatorade shakes as possible in 10 minutes. The player said he's "never seen anyone not throw up" as a result.

"The word 'hazing' unfortunately sugarcoats and even gives a tiny shred of legitimacy to this type of conduct," Levin said.

The Daily Northwestern published another report that said at least three former players have accused the program of enabling a culture of racism, where Black coaches and players were pressured to cut longer hairstyles to fit the "Wildcat Way."

"For many of the players, their exposure to this abusive culture began when they were being recruited at ages 16 or 17. They were just kids at that time," said Margaret Battersby Black, managing partner at Levin & Perconti.

The law firm asked any other players who suffered abuse within Northwestern's football program or other collegiate sports programs to reach out to them.

"We are not focusing our investigation and our lawsuit on one individual," said Levin. "This is an institutional problem that existed at Northwestern for well over a decade."

Northwestern sent a statement to FOX 32, saying in part, "When the University was made aware of anonymous hazing complaints in November 2022, we acted immediately with an independent investigator to conduct a comprehensive review of the allegations. We have taken a number of subsequent actions to eliminate hazing from our football program, and we expect to introduce additional actions in the coming weeks."

Fitzgerald went 110-101 in 17 seasons as Northwestern’s head coach. He led the Wildcats to Big Ten West championships in 2018 and 2020, plus five bowl victories. But they went 4-20 over his last two seasons.


Northwestern fires head baseball coach Jim Foster following Pat Fitzgerald's termination

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Fitzgerald said in a statement provided to ESPN that he had instructed his attorney to "take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law."

Many current and former players rushed to Fitzgerald’s defense after suspension was announced.

Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski tweeted: "When it comes to being a man I admire and respect, Coach Fitz has always been that man for me in my time at Northwestern! He always offers an ear when I need to talk and a hand whenever I need help up! I’ve got his back like he always has had ours."

Former quarterback Trevor Semien, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, tweeted: "Fitz emphasized integrity, sacrificing for others, respect, and accountability. These are values that I strive to uphold now as a husband and father. While I won’t speak for anyone else, I can say that my experience at NU did not reflect what I read in the Daily Northwestern."

A letter circulated on social media, signed by "The ENTIRE Northwestern Football Team" but without disclosing an author, said that "throughout his tenure, Coach Fitzgerald has consistently prioritized the well-being and development of his players, and we stand behind him in his unwavering commitment to our team."

The turmoil within the football program comes after the school unveiled plans in September to build a new Ryan Field. The plans call for a state-of-the-art facility featuring a reduced seating capacity and greater emphasis on the fan experience.

The Wildcats, who went 1-11 last season, open the coming season Sept. 3 at Rutgers.

The Associated Press and FOX News contribute to this report.