April 18, 2024

LARRY LAGE and CLAIRE SAVAGE Associated Press

CHICAGO — Allegations of hazing in Northwestern’s athletic programs broadened Wednesday as attorneys said male and female athletes reported misconduct within two other sports and suggested sexual abuse and racial discrimination within the football program was so rampant that coaches knew it was happening.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said he and other attorneys have received disturbing details from former baseball and softball players at the university, in addition to growing complaints of abuse in the football program, which players described as widespread and devastating.

“This is a civil rights issue for me,” said Crump, who said 50 former Northwestern athletes — male and female — have spoken to the Levin & Perconti law firm. “I think these players have the right to be respected and valued and not hazed, intimidated and retaliated.”

Black football players appeared to have faced an additional layer of abuse.

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A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses fired football coach Pat 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.”

“The abusive culture was especially devastating for many players of color,” said former Northwestern quarterback and receiver Lloyd Yates, who is Black.

Crump and Chicago-based attorney Steven Levin said they have not filed a lawsuit yet on behalf of any athlete. The attorneys represent 15 people, including Yates, and have been in touch with dozens of former athletes. Crump said the majority of those are football players.

Warren Miles Long, a running back on Northwestern’s football team starting in 2013, said players were put into a culture where sexual violence and scorn was “rampant.” He said new recruits had no sense of whether it was normal or limited to Northwestern.

The attorneys declined to detail the former athletes’ complaints about the baseball or softball programs.

The Evanston, Illinois-based private school fired baseball coach Jim Foster amid allegations of misconduct last week, three days after Fitzgerald was dismissed.

Northwestern has been added to a long list of American universities to face a scandal in athletics and may eventually join the trend of making large payouts following allegations of sexual abuse.

A former Wildcats football player filed the first lawsuit against Fitzgerald and members of the school’s leadership Tuesday, seeking damages stemming from the hazing scandal.

More lawsuits, filed by multiple law firms, are expected to follow from former football and baseball players as well as from student-athletes who played other sports for the private school.

Yates said every member of the team were victims, “no matter what our role was at the time,” and lamented the school and team’s lack of leadership.

“The university and football program let us down and that’s why we are here today,” Yates said, surrounded by some teammates who have also retained the Crump-led team of attorneys.

In a letter to Northwestern’s faculty and staff, University President Michael Schil 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 in Evanston, Illinois, and its relationship to academics at the prestigious institution.

Northwestern fired Fitzgerald last week after a university investigation found allegations of hazing by 11 current or former players, including “forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature,” Schil wrote.

After the school initially suspended Fitzgerald, The Daily Northwestern published an article including allegations from a former player who described specific instances of hazing and abuse and suggested he may have been aware.

Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats, has maintained he had no knowledge of the hazing. Fitzgerald said after being fired that he was working with his agent, Bryan Harlan, and his lawyer, Dan Webb, to “protect my rights in accordance with the law.”

An emailed statement Wednesday from Fitzgerald’s defense team quoted Webb responding to the allegations, saying: “no arguments were made that would present any substantive, detailed, factual allegations, let alone evidence, about Coach Fitzgerald’s conduct,” and that Fitzgerald’s legal team “will aggressively defend against these and any other allegations with facts and evidence.” Webb, a former US attorney, has been one of the most sought-after private lawyers in the country for decades.

The former Northwestern football player, identified in the Tuesday lawsuit as John Doe, alleged Fitzgerald, Schil, the board of trustees and athletic director Derrick Gragg enabled and concealed sexual misconduct and racial discrimination. The player, who was on the football team from 2018 to 2022, had his filing submitted by the Chicago-based Salvi Law Firm.

A second lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of another former Northwestern athlete who was on the football team during the same period, identified as John Doe 2. It was named Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner James J. Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director until 2021, as a defendant. Phillips did not immediately respond to a text request for comment.

“It wasn’t just confined to one bad actor,” said attorney Parker Stinar, adding that he expects to file several more related lawsuits.

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