LARRY LAGE and CLAIRE SAVAGE (Associated Press)
CHICAGO (TodayNews) — Allegations of hazing at Northwestern’s sports programs expanded Wednesday as attorneys said male and female athletes reported misconduct in two other sports and suggested that sexual assault and racial discrimination in 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 varsity baseball and softball players, in addition to growing complaints of abuse in the football program, which players have described as rampant and damaging.
“It’s a civil rights issue for me,” said Crump, who said 50 former Northwestern athletes — both men and women — and one cheerleader spoke to the law firm Levin & Perconti. “I think these players are entitled to respect and value, not bullying, intimidation and revenge.”
It looks like black football players have faced an additional level of abuse.
The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, accuses fired football coach Pat Fitzgerald of creating a culture of racism, including forcing players of color to cut their hair and act differently to be more in line with the “Wild Cat Way.”
“The offensive culture has been especially damaging to many players of color,” said former Northwestern quarterback and wide receiver Lloyd Yates, who is black.
Crump and Chicago attorney Steven Levin said they have not yet filed a lawsuit on behalf of any athletes. The lawyers represent 15 people, including Yates, and are in touch with dozens of former athletes. Crump said that most of them are football players.
Warren Miles Long, a running back on the Northwestern football team since 2013, said the players were caught in a culture where sexual assault and hazing was “runaway.” He said the recruits don’t understand if this is normal or restricted to the Northwest.
Lawyers declined to detail former athletes’ complaints about baseball or softball programs.
A private school in Evanston, Illinois, fired baseball coach Jim Foster amid allegations of misconduct last week, three days after Fitzgerald was fired.
Northwestern has been added to a long list of US universities facing the athletics scandal and may end up joining the trend of paying big payouts after allegations of sexual assault.
The former Wildcats football player filed the first lawsuit on Tuesday against Fitzgerald and members of the school’s management, seeking damages from the hazing scandal.
More lawsuits are expected to follow, filed by several law firms, from former football and baseball players, as well as student-athletes who played other sports at a private school.
Yates said that every member of the team was a victim, “no matter what our role was at the time” and lamented the lack of leadership in the school and the team.
“The university and football program let us down, and that’s why we’re here today,” Yates said, surrounded by several teammates who also hired a team of lawyers led by Crump.
In a letter to Northwestern faculty and staff, university president Michael Shill wrote that an outside firm would be hired to evaluate how the school identifies threats to the well-being of student athletes and to study the culture of athletics in Evanston, Illinois, and its relationship with academics at the prestigious institution.
Northwestern fired Fitzgerald last week after a university investigation uncovered allegations of hazing by 11 current or former players, including “forced participation, nudity and degrading sexual activity,” Shill wrote.
After the school initially suspended Fitzgerald, The Daily Northwestern published an article including allegations from a former player who described specific instances of bullying and abuse and suggested that he may have been aware of it.
Fitzgerald, who led the Northwest for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats, claimed he knew nothing about hazing. After being fired, Fitzgerald said he worked with his agent Brian Harlan and lawyer Dan Webb to “protect my rights under the law.”
An emailed statement from Fitzgerald’s defense team on Tuesday quoted Webb as saying: “The complaint has no effect against Coach Fitzgerald and we will vigorously defend these 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 footballer, identified in Tuesday’s lawsuit as John Doe, alleged that Fitzgerald, Schill, board of trustees and athletic director Derrick Gregg tolerated and covered up sexual misconduct and racial discrimination. The application for the player, who was on the football team from 2018 to 2022, was filed by the Chicago-based law firm Salvi.
“It wasn’t just one bad actor,” lawyer Parker Steenar told The Associated Press.
Lage reported from Ann Arbor, Michigan. AP legal correspondent Michael Tarm, Associated Press correspondent Mike Householder, and AP College Football journalist Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report. Savage is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.
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