September 21, 2023

Northwestern caught in a mess of its own making

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald crouches on the sidelines in the first quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field on October 27, 2018 in Evanston, Illinois.  (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Pat Fitzgerald has been head football coach at Northwestern since 2006. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Except for 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 importantly, should have known — regarding locker room abuse will shape his future with a program he has led for 17 seasons. The allegations were made last year by an anonymous complainant and later “supported largely by the evidence gathered” by an independent law firm.

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

For Schill, however, the question was why he felt the school should try to address this via a Summer Friday news dump, let alone apply a suspension that took the allegations both seriously and not seriously, without giving any details about what was claimed or found? Perhaps even worse, why did the school naively think it could rely on its private status to keep those details hidden from the public?

Transparency is always the way to go here, if only because the perception that something is being obscured can sometimes be worse than what is actually being obscured. America loves an unraveling mystery. Offering one only increases interest and attention.

As a private school, Northwestern is not required to publish its independent research. However, as an elite institution, it should have been smart enough to know it had to do just that.

Instead, the scandal has gotten bigger and bigger — perhaps bigger than it ever needed to be. The full facts are still largely unknown, but that is temporary. Heck, this has failed so much that a second investigation will probably be conducted.

Here’s what the school revealed in a brief two-page “executive summary” that it clearly hoped would soon be forgotten.

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

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

Ultimately, while “players differed on their view of the behavior [it] it was found that the complainant’s claims were largely supported by the evidence gathered…including separate and consistent first-person accounts from current and former players.

In addition, the investigation “did not find sufficient evidence to believe that the coaching staff was aware of the ongoing hazing behavior. However, they determined that there had been significant opportunities to detect and report the hazing behavior.

It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a legendary linebacker at the school in the 1990s and a very successful coach there, especially by the program’s historic standards. That could mean that his otherwise mostly glowing record deserves a break when it comes to discipline. Or it could mean that he needs to know everything that happens on the spot. 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 precision necessary to make that judgment.

There was only one certainty. This would not be the last word.

FILE - In this November 11, 2015 file photo, University of Oregon President Michael Schill speaks during an interview in Portland, Oregon.  The University of Oregon plans to save $4.5 million in spending for 2017-2018.  Schill said he will save $1.5 million by reducing administrative expenses, which may include layoffs and job freezes.  Another $1 million will come from the elimination of the university's strategic investment fund and $1.4 million from the discontinuation of graduation incentive grants to dozens 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)

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

Instead, the original accuser was apparently unimpressed with Schill’s reasoning, and on Saturday he and another player anonymously gave details of the allegations in a Daily Northwestern story. Soon ESPN was also on the phone.

To say the least, the alleged actions consisted of rude, ugly, ridiculous, and sexualized behavior, including things like naked quarterback snaps, naked dry-hopping in freshman players’ locker rooms, and other such things.

“It’s just a very abrasive and barbaric culture that has permeated that whole program for years,” a former player told the student paper.

This was usually one player’s side of the story. Another side is this: According to ESPN, a current player claims that the former player who started the investigation told him about a plan to take out Fitzgerald and that “the only goal was to see Coach Fitz rot in jail.”

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

However, human nature assumes the worst, and the headlines that followed reflected the lurid details, not those who came out to defend the program.

After the story broke, Schill spoke directly to the former player and his family. On Saturday night, the president released a letter saying he “may have made a mistake in weighing the appropriate sanction” for Fitzgerald. Schill said he hadn’t really thought about Fitzgerald should Knew.

That prompted a group claiming to be the “ENTIRE” Northwestern football team to release its own statement. It claimed that “the recent allegations … are exaggerated and distorted” and were “made with the intent to damage our program and tarni
sh the reputation of our dedicated players and coaching staff. We strongly deny the validity of these allegations.” No details were offered.

Okay, so what happened?

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

It’s hard to know right now, but it’s definitely not going in the right direction for NOW.

By initially not releasing the report, Schill allowed the complicated allegations to run unchecked in a news report via anonymous quotes. It was up to the football team to try and defend itself through its own clumsy, broad (“trust us”) response.

Northwestern would certainly have benefited from the public reading the full investigative report, taking into account the breadth and depth of the actual law firm to provide context and perspective. It would have explained Schill’s initial decision.

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

Instead, Northwestern opted for a Friday news dump in the hopes that everyone would go to the lake and forget about the story.

Now it has a fully blown fire on its hands.

It could be enough to bring down the football coach. The chairman too.

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