A group of former college football players at Northwestern University who have alleged physical, sexual, emotional and racist abuse as part of a larger pattern of hazing while they were student-athletes have retained legal representation in a sign there may be preparing to sue.
It was the latest fallout following Northwestern University head football coach Pat Fitzgerald getting fired last week stemming from an investigation that found claims of hazing in the football program to be all but substantiated.
Fitzgerald lost his job after allegations of hazing of a sexual nature – and his apparent tolerance for it – were detailed by one of his former players in a report published in the university’s student-run Daily Northwestern.
“The head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team,” university President Michael Schill wrote in an open letter to the Northwestern community. “The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening. Either way, the culture in Northwestern Football, while incredible in some ways, was broken in others.”
On Monday, civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced he was among two lawyers who had been retained by eight former players.
“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, who along with Steven M. Levin, founding partner of Levin & Perconti, are representing the former players, said in a press release emailed to NewsOne. “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. It’s time for a reckoning to protect young athletes.”
The press release gave examples of what some of the former student-athletes claim happened to them as part of Northwestern’s football program:
Allegations include forced naked acts, termed “bear-crawls,” “car-wash,” and “under-center snap”. Perhaps the most concerning is a ritual known as “running,” where eight to ten upperclassmen wearing masks would restrain a player and “dry-hump” them in front of the rest of the team. Other incidents include the “Gatorade Shake Challenge,” causing physical discomfort to the extent of sickness and vomiting. Furthermore, at least three former players have alleged a culture of racism within the program, with black coaches and players pressured to cut off longer hairstyles to fit the “Wildcat Way.”
After the hazing allegations earlier this month, the Daily Northwestern published the accounts of three former players who claimed they were part of a football program with “a certain culture of enabling racism and other microaggressions.”
Specifically, Fitzgerald is accused of lending preferential treatment to white players and ordering Black players with dreadlocks and other Black hairstyles to change their looks in order to comply with “the Wildcat way,” a reference to the team mascot. A familiar refrain from Fitzgerald was that he wanted the Black players to have “good, clean American fun” in ways that were not imposed on white players, including allowing them to have long hair, the former players said.
One of the former players, two of whom requested anonymity, said that type of treatment should be considered hazing, too.
“The racist stuff… the stuff that refers to how Black players are treated, in my mind, that was a form of hazing,” one anonymous former player told the Daily Northwestern.
It’s unclear if the former players alleging racism are part of the group of former players who Crump represents.
Following the reports of racism, a spokesperson for the university suggested those claims would need to be investigated further.
“The alleged ‘racist commentary and behavior toward non-white players’ by Coach Fitzgerald and members of his staff would be entirely unacceptable and inconsistent with our culture and values, if true,” Jon Yates said in an email. “As we do with any allegation, we will immediately address the accusations and any findings will be considered.”
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