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Tipsheet

On Northwestern Football's Hazing Scandal and Its Fallout

Dear Reader, please indulge me.

I'm a diehard Northwestern sports fan and have been since the day I stepped foot on campus as a freshman in the fall of 2003.  The summer before my senior year, the Wildcats' head coach, Randy Walker, died of a heart attack at just 52 years of age.  The thunderstruck program and fan base mourned his passing -- myself included.  At the time, I was a leading member of the sports department at WNUR, our campus radio station.  Having interviewed Walker on several occasions, I flew back to Evanston for the funeral that summer.  It was held at the church I often attended, and it was packed to the gills.  

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Aside from the stream of Big Ten dignitaries who filed into the sanctuary to pay their respects that morning, what I remember most vividly is how an assistant coach rallied the members of the stunned, grieving team during a spirited and moving eulogy.  Everyone present heard his message, but it was unmistakably directed at the wet-eyed young men occupying a full section of pews.  The words were delivered by NU linebacking legend Pat Fitzgerald.  I turned to a friend and whispered, "that's the next head coach." Despite his youth and inexperience, it turned out I was right.  

'Fitz' took the helm that following season, and the team stunk.  Certain forms of adversity can be insurmountable.  Temporarily.  The following year, they got to .500, then rattled off three winning seasons in a row.  They won ten games in 2012.  They did so again in 2015.  Between 2016 and 2020, they won the division twice, and triumphed in four bowl games.  They finished in the top ten nationally after the 2020 COVID campaign, having crushed Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.  But 2019, 2021 and 2022 were disastrous years; the 'Cats have only won four of their last 24 games, including an 11-game losing streak to end last season.  At many other schools, despite the previous unprecedented success, that tailspin may have been enough to chase the head coach out of his post.  But not at Northwestern.  Not with Fitz.

Fans debated his future, arguing over whether this old school Southsider was going to be able to adequately adjust to the brave new world of major college football -- the transfer portal, NIL, etc.  Hats off, but it's time for him to go.  Others pointed to his record-setting number of wins as a player and coach in purple, major completed and coming facilities upgrades, the multiple high profile NFL draft picks he produced, and the squeaky clean program he ran -- including the top player graduation rate in the nation, at a notoriously selective institution, no less.  Give him more time; he's earned it.  Despite my frustrations, I resided in the latter camp, and wanted to see how a few new assistant coaching hires would pan out.  I told friends I was still on the Fitz bandwagon, pending the next season or two of gridiron results.  Perhaps I was biased, I admitted, having gotten to know NU's head man a little bit on a personal level.  And because the guy absolutely bleeds purple.

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And now, in a flash, he's out.  Fitzgerald was fired by newly-installed NU president, Michael Schill, following allegations of hazing within the football program.  An independent investigation, conducted over months, looked into the claims of a handful of former player whistleblowers and concluded that many of the allegations had merit.  The probe did not prove that the head coach was aware of what was going on, but suggested that he could have. He should have.  The school quietly announced Fitz would serve a two-week suspension in July, then would return to his position, along with a few other minor reforms.  When the primary whistleblower subsequently detailed his allegations to the student newspaper, an uproar ensued, and the administration updated its decision from a relative slap on the wrist to a permanent firing.  Head-spinning.

I'm trying to be as objective about this as I can be, but my capacity for objectivity is limited.  I've cared passionately and deeply about this football program for 20 years, and Fitz has been its public face for all but a handful of those seasons.  From soaring thrills in victory, to stinging agony in defeat, I've always had pride in the school and its commitment to doing things the right way.  Our fight song was played at my wedding, for goodness sake.  I'm one of those.  So the developments of the last week have been startling and incredibly disappointing.  On one hand, some of the allegations are serious and corroborated.  Though I suspect such things are, shall we say, not unheard of  in major conference college football locker room culture, that's not an excuse.  The 'boys will be boys' mindset and its infamous excesses are no longer tolerated in our society. This is a positive development overall, despite some overcorrection. 

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If my suspicion is correct, then at least some form of wider reckoning is due, and if any program were in a strong position to take the lead in doing so -- even if its leadership's collective hand was forced by accusations and an investigation -- it would be Northwestern's.  Having read the university's various pronouncements about this scandal, as well as much of the student journalism about the specifics of the claims, my guess (and that's all it is, an educated guess) is that much of the claimed hazing, horseplay, initiations and humiliation did occur, to varying extents.  I doubt Fitzgerald knew nothing about any of it.  He'd been a player, after all, during an era in which sensitivities around such things were undoubtedly much less pronounced. Whether it was turning a blind eye, or giving a wink and a nod to the players' off-the-books actions -- shenanigans or abuse, in the eye of various beholders -- it's hard to buy the idea that he had zero awareness. As a hands-on chief executive of the program over the better part of two decades, he certainly should  have had some awareness.  

Based on what we know, some of the alleged actions simply don't strike me as terribly scandalous.  These are 18-22 year old men who eagerly, voluntarily compete in a violent contact sport.  'Toughness' is a big part of the game. Other accusations are more disturbing, such as rough, naked hazing rituals forced upon some players who explicitly did not consent to taking part.  That is sexual, non-consensual misconduct -- and it's utterly unacceptable.  One former player said he witnessed racism within the program, against which numerous black players have forcefully pushed back.  Indeed, current and former players -- from walk-ons to NFL stars -- have voiced strong support for Fitzgerald.  An open letter attributed to the entire current roster called the whistleblower characterizations "twisted" and "exaggerated."  A small number of program alumni have spoken out about what they agree has been an intolerable culture of hazing over many years (predating Fitzgerald and even Walker).  But the vast majority of those who've sounded off in public have ardently and emotionally defended Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern football.  In a public statement vowing to pursue legal options against his beloved alma mater, Fitzgerald himself estimated that 99 percent of his current and former players fall on that side of the ledger.  That might be an overstatement, but perhaps not by much.

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The student newspaper story prompted one backlash, which triggered another.  The serious, confirmed allegations of some ex-players matter, and it seems like accountability and reforms are definitely in order.  But the impassioned denials and defenses of many other Wildcat players, past and present, also matter.  Quite a few of them are charging that the whistleblowers are distorting the facts and dramatically embellishing the resulting harm.  With an imperfect, partial view of what actually happened, and the severity of the hazing, it's impossible for me to render a clear-eyed judgment about the firing.  I'm open to the notion that after extremely poor seasons in three of the last four years, coupled with this stain on his 'Wildcat Way' preaching, Fitz deserved to lose his job.  I'm also open to the idea that a more fitting form of discipline would have stopped well short of outright termination, even if the initial two-week glorified vacation was woefully insufficient.

What I'm not open to is any argument that the university's 'leadership,' to employ that term generously, handled any of this appropriately, or even remotely competently.  To my knowledge, no new facts emerged between the university's suspension announcement and its firing reversal.  The facts were known internally.  The brain trust decided that 14 days of unpaid leave and some other tweaks represented an acceptable resolution to what was detailed in the independent report.  They hoped the penalty would be served and largely ignored in the realm of public opinion.  Only when more facts leaked into public view, with outrage pouring in, did they frantically reconsider the choice.   Again, this was based not on new facts being furnished to the decision-makers, with Schill ultimately making final calls.  It was based on new reaction to what they already knew privately.  A real profile in courage.  They dropped the axe after legions of Fitz's players rushed to his defense (particularly on his character and the extent to which he helped mold them into good men), inflaming and infuriating many of them.

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Players on the current roster posted on social media that Athletic Director, Derrick Gragg -- who was offered the job only after a prior announced candidate was dubiously ousted by a small but loud mob of students and faculty responding to accusations from a former cheerleader that she'd been harassed by drunk fans -- informed the team that their head coach had been fired. Via Zoom.  Allegedly from vacation.  They said he took no questions and logged off.  Even for a man some fans have accused of being a 'MIA' or 'no-show' director of athletics, this is an astoundingly weak showing.  Another real profile in courage.  Gregg returned to town yesterday, in damage control mode. The team is reportedly and understandably very upset.

So what now?  The man who has been one of the most prominent faces of the university, dating back to his playing days in the mid-90's, is gearing up for an ugly legal battle with his own school.  Unthinkable.  The integrity and stability of the program, marketed as a major selling point to recruits and their families in an age of upheaval, is in complete turmoil.  The interim captain of the adrift ship is a (well regarded) 30-something defensive coordinator who's never coached a snap of FBS football and who arrived at NU this off season following the firing of his inept predecessor (don't get the fans started on that misadventure).  It seems likely that this firestorm will demoralize the current team, precipitate a spate of transfers, and negatively impact recruiting.  The final decision, and its embarrassing execution, is already tearing the Northwestern community and fan base apart.  

NU, a small private school, was the doormat of the conference for many years in the 1970's to early 90's.  That era is spoken of as the 'dark ages' among the Wildcat faithful.  This week marks the lowest point for the program since I became a fan.  New fears of the potential arrival of a new dark age may be overwrought, but they don't seem baseless.  We're a national story, for all the wrong reasons.

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For our fairly small base of committed fans, this has all happened so quickly.  It's jarring.  It's surreal.  And no matter what 'side' one takes on the firing, what's especially galling is that almost all of it has been self-inflicted by members of the university community.  My expectations for this coming season were already tempered, to use a polite word, but when the band first strikes up 'Go U Northwestern' this fall, the rah-rah joy that the pageantry and tradition usually bring won't feel quite the same.  I'm not sure how or when this gets fixed, or by whom.  The actions of the university's so-called leadership do not inspire confidence, another understatement. 

None of it sits right with me, which may sound like an indecisive cop-out, but it's how I feel.  Pat Fitzgerald's storied tenure at the top of our shared alma mater's football program began amid shock and mourning in Evanston 17 years ago.  It ends with a different sort of shock and mourning.  And for those of us who care, the grief and its aftermath may last quite awhile.  

Go 'Cats.

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