Allegations by at least 11 current or former Northwestern University athletes have shed a stark light on the dangers and consequences of hazing. While players, coaches, and administrators may try to paint it as team building, bonding, and a rite of passage, hazing becomes dangerous when individuals are subjected to sexual assaultphysical abuse, and racial discrimination.

Student investigative reporting by The Daily Northwestern, the university’s daily news source, exposed rampant hazing, especially among the football program but also on the baseball, softball, and volleyball teams. The victims include both men and women.

A Culture of “Widespread” Abuse

Multiple football players have stepped forward with accounts of “vile and inhumane behavior,” including coerced sexual acts.

According to The Daily, one egregious example is “running,” which primarily punished freshmen for mistakes on the field and in practice. Groups of 8-10 upperclassmen wearing masks would “dry hump” victims in a dark locker room, often with their teammates idly watching. “Running” was common during training camp and around Thanksgiving and Christmas, which the team called “Runsgiving” and “Runsmas.” Accounts from some of those involved suggest head football coach Pat Fitzgerald and others knew of the hazing and encouraged it.

Other allegations of abuse on the football team include:

  • Forcing freshmen to strip naked, bear-crawl on the ground, and slingshot themselves across the floor with exercise bands. 
  • Having team players stand naked at the entrance to the showers, forcing victims to rub up against them in an annual tradition called the “carwash.” 
  • “Gatorade shake challenges,” where typically freshmen players were forced to consume as many Gatorade shakes as they could in 10 minutes, almost always causing the players to vomit during or afterward. 
  • Forcing freshmen quarterbacks to take an under-center snap from a freshman center while both players were naked; when one player voiced his unwillingness to participate, older players threatened to “run him” and told him there was “no other option.” 

Allegations in a recently filed lawsuit suggest African American football players suffered additional abuse. The suit claims Fitzgerald “enabled 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 fired Fitzgerald on July 11, 2023.

The university fired baseball coach Jim Foster three days after only one season. A Chicago Tribune article(sub reqd.) offered details from an internal human resources document about Foster’s bullying, abusive behavior, and inappropriate comment about a female staff member. Chicago sports radio station 670 the Scoreprovided a more vivid picture of the “toxic culture” he allegedly created by:

  • Dissuading injured players from seeking medical attention for their injuries. Foster pushed hard on one pitcher with an elbow injury to return by a specific date; the player later underwent Tommy John surgery. 
  • Telling multiple upperclassmen to quit if they didn’t return from injuries sooner than expected.
  • Subjecting one player to a punishment run for most of a 2.5-hour practice.

Harmful Consequences

Athletes are used to recovering from physical pain on the playing field. Scrapes and bruises heal, but untreated injuries can cause lifelong pain and disability. And the mental scarring from sexual abuse, assault, and other forms of hazing can be substantial. Some Northwestern athletes subjected to unlawful hazing practices have reported suicidal tendencies and other emotional injury.

Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Foster may have lost their jobs, but what happens to the athletes who were tormented and whose torment they failed to prevent?

Speak With a Hazing and Sexual Abuse Attorney

The attorneys at Sommers Schwartz have recovered substantial compensation for college-level athletes who have survived abuse and assault. 

Some of our lawyers competed in collegiate sports, including one attorney who played on the Northwestern University football team. We have successfully represented women and men harmed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar and University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, who sexually abused students, athletes, and other patients for over thirty-five years at the University of Michigan. We understand the rigors of high-level competition – on the playing field and in the courtroom – and we know how to win.

If you or someone you care about is a current or former Northwestern University athlete subjected to abusive and harmful hazing, please contact us today for a free, confidential, and compassionate consultation about your rights.

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Richard L. Groffsky

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Richard L. Groffsky

Richard Groffsky focuses his practice on medical malpractice and personal injury litigation, and has represented victims of devastating brain injuries and birth injuries in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, South Carolina, and Georgia in significant brain injury and birth injury cases.