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Northwestern Coach Fired Over Hazing Allegations Sues School

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

Northwestern University recently fired Pat Fitzgerald, arguably the most successful head football coach they've ever had. These things happen. Coaches get fired and replaced all the time. But here's the thing: Fitzgerald didn't get the boot because the team wasn't doing well enough. Anyone with a passing familiarity with college football knows that the Wildcats aren't exactly strangers to a couple of back-to-back losing seasons.

Nor was Fitzgerald shown the door because of some behind-the-scenes contract negotiations gone awry. Northwestern signed him to a 10-year, $57 million contract extension back in 2021. And it wasn't because Northwestern realized they'd accidentally tacked on a couple of extra zeroes. It wasn't even because the people in charge woke up from a prolonged group fugue state and realized they were preparing to pay a man $5.7 million a year to tell strong boys in tight pants how to play a game.

Okay, that may have been a bit flippant. A lot of people like to get together and watch those boys play, and football coaches deserve to be paid 3.5 times the salary of the university president (as is the case at Northwestern). Right? After all, American football has a rich tradition that stretches back for over a hundred years – and Fitzgerald devoted most of his life to that tradition. It's sort of his thing. Unfortunately, he allegedly also turned a blind eye to another tradition with an even longer, more storied history. And as he found out on that sad day when he learned he couldn't watch his boys play anymore, not all traditions are good.

Hazing, A History

Hazing is one of those bizarre multifaceted rituals that no one can really explain beyond "well it happened to me, so now it's my turn to do it them." Call it what you want. Ritual. Tradition. Initiation. Bonding. It genuinely doesn't matter. What matters is the reality hiding behind that coyly euphemistic term.

If you're young or lucky enough to have made it to adulthood without being hazed, some congratulations are in order. Not for you, of course, but for the parents, teachers, coaches, seniors, and everyone else who stood up and said "no, we're not doing this anymore." Putting an end to the so-called tradition in all its forms was a near impossibility for many years.

Schools wrote rule after rule, levied punishment after draconian punishment to put an end to it. Expulsion was threatened, yet football players still came home from camps with phalluses shaved into their heads, and baseball players were tagged in photos at the bottom of naked human pyramids. Fraternities were threatened with dissolution, yet pledges would waddle out of frat houses in ill-fitting stilettos and vomit-stained poodle skirts. If you noticed that all of these hazing rituals mentioned are sexualized, that is not a coincidence.

Hazing was and is a self-sustaining vicious cycle of abuse perpetrated by victims turned victimizers. Rules didn't do much to stop it. Nor did the respective coaches, teachers, and other authority figures who claimed ignorance of the abuse. But was it ignorance? Or did they just not care?

The Head Coach Should Know

In case you hadn't guessed by now, Pat Fitzgerald was fired because he allegedly turned a blind eye to the culture of hazing in the Northwestern football program. According to the executive summary of the investigation, the school was first made aware of the hazing problem in late November 2022 – or at least that's when they started taking the allegations seriously enough to start investigating the claims. The investigation team spoke to over 50 people currently or formerly affiliated with the team, reviewed hundreds of thousands of emails and surveys dating back to 2014, and found separate and consistent first-person accounts that corroborated the allegations.

The official details of the investigation and what it revealed were kept confidential, as were any of the specifics of the hazing that allegedly occurred. It's perhaps for the best that all the sordid details were kept under wraps in the interest of protecting the people involved. So as much as everyone would like to know what kind of hazing was bad enough to get a head coach fired, it seems like we'll never know.

Just kidding.

"The Daily Northwestern," Northwestern University's student newspaper, published a story based on tips provided by an anonymous former Northwestern University football player. The information he provided may or may not be completely accurate, and the images and videos that the Daily obtained are not enough to fully corroborate his allegations. That said, a reasonable person could argue that the severity of the hazing he described would help explain why Fitzgerald was fired instead of just reprimanded.

The former player alleged that a lot of the abuse surrounded a practice called "running," a practice meant to punish other players that involved very little actual running. If a player was selected for "running," they would be restrained by eight to ten upperclassmen wearing "Purge-like" masks, who would then begin dry-humping the victim in a dark locker room. The practice is also known as "sexual assault" to anyone outside of Northwestern.

Fitzgerald Files Wrongful Termination Suit

Pat Fitzgerald didn't agree his termination was deserved. On October 5, he filed suit in Cook County Court, alleging the school inflicted emotional distress in terminating his contract without cause. He is seeking $130 million in damages; he was owed $68 million per his previous contract, and he alleges $62 million in future lost income. In addition to the emotional distress claim, the complaint alleges breach of oral contract, breach of employment contract, defamation, false light, and tortious interference with a business expectancy.

Northwestern is also facing several ongoing lawsuits by former players over the alleged hazing/sexual harassment incidents they experienced at the school. In response to the lawsuits, Northwestern has hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to look into the school's hazing policy and enforcement. Northwestern has promised the results will be made public.

Yikes

Whether or not you believe Fitzgerald deserved to be fired might depend on whether or not you're a fan of the Wildcats. Either way, it's a good time to look at how to prevent hazing at Northwestern or any other school.

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