By Larry Lage
A former Northwestern football player filed the first lawsuit against Pat Fitzgerald and members of the school's leadership, seeking damages stemming from a hazing scandal that cost the former football coach his job.
The player, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe, alleged Tuesday in the Cook County Court in Chicago that Fitzgerald, Northwestern University President Michael 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, had his filing submitted by the Chicago-based Salvi Law Firm.
“It wasn’t just confined to one bad actor," attorney Parker Stinar said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It wasn’t just confined to one team, like the football team. It also included a culture that was accepted and tolerated and encouraged on the baseball team and other sports teams, and also with men and women’s sports.
"So, it’s a tainted athletic department.”
The lawsuit allegations include naked players in locker rooms forcing freshmen to also strip naked and then perform various acts. It also accuses 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.”
Northwestern spokesperson Jon Yates said the school's policy is to not comment on the specifics of pending litigation.
Ryan Field during an NCAA college football game between Penn State and Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
“Protecting the welfare of every student at Northwestern University is central to our mission and something we approach with the utmost seriousness,” Yates said. “When the University was made aware of anonymous hazing complaints in November 2022, we acted immediately with an independent investigator to conduct a comprehensive review of the allegations. We have taken a number of subsequent actions to eliminate hazing from our football program, and we will introduce additional actions in the coming weeks.”
Fitzgerald’s agent, Bryan Harlan, declined comment and the office of Fitzgerald’s lawyer, Dan Webb, said Tuesday that Webb had no comment. Webb is a former U.S. attorney and for decades has been one of the most sought after private lawyers in the country, with a client list that includes multiple governors, Microsoft and tobacco giant Philip Morris.
A message seeking comment was left with Gragg.
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 Wildcats.
At least eight former Northwestern football players have retained attorneys following recent revelations that led to Fitzgerald's firing and sharp criticism of university leadership for its initial response to the allegations.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump and the Chicago-based Levin & Perconti law firm announced Monday they have “uncovered a vast array of incidents of abuse in the Northwestern football program.” They also said more athletes are expected to join the legal action and it will expand beyond Northwestern football to other college athletic programs.
A news conference is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Chicago with Crump, former Northwestern athletes and attorneys from Levin & Perconti.
Crump has represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others in high-profile civil rights cases.
Stinar represented about 200 of the 1,050 people who shared in a $490 million financial settlement last year with the University of Michigan after saying they were sexually assaulted by a late sports doctor, Robert Anderson. The attorney also had clients among the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and were part of a $380 million settlement in late 2021.
“It’s disgusting that this conduct is continuing into 2022,” Stinar said. “We fully intend to hold those that were involved, that knew, that enabled, and hold the university accountable as well.”
Northwestern may eventually join a long list of American universities that have made large payouts following accusations of sexual abuse.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald talks to reporters during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium, Tuesday, July 26, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
Fitzgerald was fired 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,” Schill wrote.
Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid-1990s, has maintained he had no knowledge of the hazing. Fitzgerald said after being fired that he was working with his agent, Bryan Harlan, and Chicago defense attorney Dan Webb, who recently represented Fox News in a defamation case, to “protect my rights in accordance with the law.”
After the school initially suspended him, The Daily Northwestern published an article including allegations from a former player who described specific instances of hazing and abuse and suggested Fitzgerald may have been aware.
“Based on the allegations that we’ve seen and the reports we’ve seen, he (Fitzgerald) knew and approved of the sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, hazing and racial discrimination,” Stinar said. “He was aware of it. It was happening under his roof. He knew what was going on and he permitted it for years upon years upon years.”