Northwestern caught in a mess of its own making

Northwestern's handling of hazing allegations might end up taking down a football coach and the university president, too.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald squats on the sideline in the first quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field on Oct. 27, 2018, in Evanston, Illinois. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Pat Fitzgerald has been the head football coach at Northwestern since 2006. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Besides the obvious — what exactly happened here? — there are two pressing questions in the fast-moving, fast-growing Northwestern football hazing scandal.

  1. What did head coach Pat Fitzgerald know?

  2. What was university president Michael Schill thinking?

For Fitzgerald, a determination of what exactly he knew — or, more important, should have known — concerning abusive locker room behavior will determine his future at a program he’s led for 17 seasons. The allegations were made last year by an anonymous complainant and later “largely supported by the evidence gathered” by an independent law firm.

He’s currently suspended for two weeks without pay, although Schill himself has now said he may have gone too lightly.

For Schill, however, the question of why he thought the school should attempt to handle this via a Summer Friday news dump, let alone apply a suspension that spoke to both taking the allegations seriously yet not seriously without offering any details on what was alleged or found? Perhaps worst, why did the school, naïvely, believe that it could lean on its private status to keep those details out of the public?

Transparency is always the proper path here, if only because the perception that something is being covered up can sometimes be worse than what is actually covered up. America loves an unraveling mystery. Providing one just ramps up the interest and attention.

As a private school, Northwestern is not required to publish its independent investigation. As an elite institution, however, it should have been smart enough to know it needed to do just that.

Instead, the scandal has grown bigger and bigger — perhaps bigger than it ever needed to get. The full facts are still mostly unknown, but that is temporary. Heck, this has been botched to the point that a second investigation will likely be commissioned.

Here is what the school revealed in a brief, two-page “executive summary” that it clearly hoped would get quickly forgotten.

On Nov. 30, 2022, Northwestern received an anonymous email alleging hazing within the program. The school quickly hired an outside law firm to investigate.

Some 50 people affiliated or formally affiliated with the football program, including the initial complainant, were interviewed. Emails were scanned. Years of player surveys were combed through.

In the end, while “players varied on their perspective of the conduct [it] was determined that the complainant’s claims were largely supported by the evidence gathered … including separate and consistent first-person accounts from current and former players.”

Additionally, the investigation “did not discover sufficient evidence to believe that coaching staff knew about the ongoing hazing conduct. They determined, however, that there had been significant opportunities to discover and report the hazing conduct.”

It’s worth noting Fitzgerald was a legendary linebacker at the school in the 1990s and a highly successful coach there, especially by the historic standards of the program. That could mean his otherwise mostly glowing track record merits a break when it comes to discipline. Or it could mean he should know everything that is happening at the place. Or both.

Schill gave Fitzgerald a two-week summer break. Maybe that was fair. Maybe it wasn’t.

At this point, we don't know what happened with the necessary precision to make that judgement.

There was only one certainty. This wasn’t going to be the last word.

FILE -In this Nov. 11, 2015, file photo, University of Oregon President Michael Schill talks during an interview in Portland, Ore. The University of Oregon plans to cut $4.5 million in spending from its 2017-18 budge. Schill said he will cut $1.5 million by reducing administrative spending, which potentially could include layoffs and hiring freezes. Another $1 million will come by eliminating the university's strategic investment fund and $1.4 million by ending graduation incentive grants to scores of students. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
Michael Schill has been president of the University of Northwestern for less than a year. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

Maybe Schill and Northwestern thought they could thread the needle here — it’s a big deal but not a big deal but don’t ask about what actually happened.

Instead, the original complainant was apparently unimpressed with Schill’s reasoning and by Saturday he and another player were anonymously detailing the allegations in a Daily Northwestern story. Soon ESPN was on the phone as well.

To put it mildly, the alleged actions consisted of rude, ugly, ridiculous and sexualized behavior including things such as naked quarterback snaps, naked locker room dry humping of freshman players and other items like that.

“It’s just a really abrasive and barbaric culture that has permeated throughout that program for years on end now,” a former player told the student paper.

This was mostly one player's side of the story. Another side is this: According to ESPN, a current player claims the former player who initiated the investigation told him of a plan to take down Fitzgerald and that "the sole goal was to see Coach Fitz rot in jail."

"The truth is none of that stuff happened in our locker room," the current player told ESPN.

Human nature is to assume the worst, however, and the headlines that followed reflected the lurid details, not those who came out in defense of the program.

After the story broke, Schill spoke directly to the former player and his family. By Saturday night, the president released a letter stating he “may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction” for Fitzgerald. Schill said he didn’t fully consider what Fitzgerald should have known.

That caused a group that purports to be the “ENTIRE” Northwestern football team to release its own statement. It claimed “the recent allegations … are exaggerated and twisted” and were “made with the intention of harming our program and tarnish the reputation of our dedicated players and coaching staff. We firmly deny the validity of these accusations.” No details were offered.

OK, so what happened?

Was this “barbaric”? Or “exaggerated”? Or somewhere in the middle?

It’s hard to know at this point, but it sure isn’t trending in a good direction for NU.

By not releasing the report initially, Schill allowed the complicated allegations to run, unchecked, in a news story via anonymous quotes. It was up to the football team to try to defend itself via its own clumsy, broad-based (“just trust us”) response. And now more allegations are coming out.

Surely Northwestern would have benefitted from the public reading the full investigative report, allowing for the breadth and depth of the actual law firm's work to provide context and perspective. It would have helped explain Schill’s initial decision.

The more details the better. That’s always the play with these things.

Instead, Northwestern chose a Friday news dump in the hopes that everyone went to the lake and forgot about the story.

Now it has a full-blown fire on its hands.

It might wind up being enough to take down the football coach. The president, too.

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