CHICAGO – Allegations of corruption in Northwestern’s athletic programs spread 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 the university’s former basketball and softball players, as well as mounting complaints of abuse in the football program, which players have described as widespread and devastating.
“This is a civil rights issue to me,” said Crump, who said 50 former Northwestern athletes – men and women – have spoken to the law firm Levin & Perconti. “I think these players have a right to be respected and valued and not be threatened, intimidated and retaliated against.”
Black football players seemed to face an extra layer of abuse.
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 better fit the “Wildcat Way.”
“The abusive culture was devastating for a lot of players of color,” said former Northwestern quarterback and 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 attorneys represent 15 people, including Yates, and have been in contact with many former athletes. Crump said most of those people were football players.
Warren Miles Long, who was running back on Northwestern’s football team starting in 2013, said players were forced into a culture where sexual violence and whistleblowing were “rampant.” He said new recruits had no idea if it was normal or limited to Northwestern.
The attorneys declined to elaborate on 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 fired.
Northwestern has been added to a long list of American universities to address an athletics scandal and could 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 on Tuesday, seeking damages stemming from the hazing scandal.
More lawsuits, filed by multiple law firms, are expected to come from former football and baseball players and student athletes who played other sports for the private school.
Yates said that every member of the team was a victim, “no matter what role we played at the time,” and lamented the lack of leadership of the school and the team.
“The varsity and football program put us down and that’s why we’re here today,” said Yates, surrounded by several teammates who were also retained by the Crump-led team of attorneys.
In a letter to Northwestern faculty and staff, University President Michael Schill wrote that an outside firm will be hired to evaluate how the school detects threats to the welfare of student-athletes and to examine the athletic culture in Evanston, Illinois, and its relationship with 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 sexual acts of a degrading nature,” Schill wrote.
After the school initially suspended Fitzgerald, The Daily Northwestern published an article including allegations from a former player that described specific instances of harassment and abuse and suggested he may have been aware.
Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats, insisted he had no knowledge of the stone. Fitzgerald said after he was fired that he was working with his agent, Bryan Harlan, and his lawyer, Dan Webb, to “protect my rights according to the law.”
An emailed statement from Fitzgerald’s defense team on Wednesday said Webb responded to the allegations, saying: “No arguments have been made that present any detailed substantive allegations, let alone evidence, about Coach Fitzgerald’s conduct,” and that Fitzgerald’s legal team will vigorously defend against these and any other allegations with facts and evidence. Webb, a former United States attorney, has been one of the most popular private lawyers in the country for many years.
The former Northwestern football player, identified in the lawsuit Tuesday as John Doe, alleged that Fitzgerald, Schill, 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, filed the law firm Salvi, based in Chicago.
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 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 limited to one bad actor,” said attorney Parker Stinar, adding that he expected to file several other related lawsuits.