Fifteen college athletes in the United States have alleged rampant hazing at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago.
During a news conference on Wednesday, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump said that the students had endured racial and sexual abuse during their time on the university’s athletic teams.
Crump also explained he was representing the athletes, although they have not yet taken legal action. At least 50 other students were considering coming forward with their own allegations, the lawyer added.
The announcement came a day after a former Northwestern football player, identified only as John Doe, filed the first of several expected lawsuits against the university.
The player alleged that longtime football Coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern University President Michael Schill, the board of trustees and Athletic Director Derrick Gragg enabled and concealed sexual misconduct and racial discrimination.
Fitzgerald was fired in July following an independent investigation commissioned by the university. However, the school said the investigation did not find any evidence to show the coach had direct knowledge of the hazing it uncovered.
Nevertheless, Crump said athlete accounts showed “a pattern and practice of a culture that was predicated on physical intimidation, harassment, discrimination, and abuse, both mentally and sexually”. He added some of the victims were under 18 when they joined the team and experienced the hazing.
“You have people holding them down and [thrusting their hips at them]. You had them being forced to participate in activities involving nudity and touching of one another,” Crump said.
The lawyer further alleged that those who tried to speak out were “retaliated against”, even by coaches. Others were chilled into silence for fear of losing their scholarships.
Speaking at the news conference, Lloyd Yates, a 26-year-old former quarterback at the school, said that players were thrown into a “culture where physical, emotional and sexual abuse was normalised”.
“No teammate I knew liked hazing. We were all victims, no matter what our role was at the time,” he said. “But the culture was so strong. We felt we had to go with it. To survive, to be respected, and to earn the trust within the football programme.”
He added that some players contemplated suicide, and that the abuse was “particularly devastating” for people of colour and those relying on scholarships to afford tuition.
In July, shortly after the school’s investigation concluded, Northwestern’s student newspaper published accounts of two football players who recalled a ritual known as “running”.
It involved a student being restrained by a group of eight to 10 classmates, usually upperclassmen dressed in masks, who would then begin sexually thrusting their hips onto the victim in a dark locker room.
The players also said they were forced to perform embarrassing acts in the locker room while naked.
The lawsuit filed by the athlete identified as John Doe detailed similar allegations. But it also accused Fitzgerald of enabling a culture of racism, including forcing players of colour to cut their hair and behave differently to be more in line with the “Wildcat way”, a reference to the school’s mascot.
Most US states have passed laws making hazing illegal. It is typically a Class A misdemeanor, which can carry sentences of up to one year in prison.
Under Illinois law, the failure of a school official to report hazing is also a crime — a misdemeanor — and can carry a maximum penalty of between six months and a year in prison.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for Northwestern said the school does not comment on pending litigation. But it noted a series of measures had been implemented following its independent investigation.
Those included “monitoring of the football locker room, anti-hazing training and the establishment of an online reporting tool for complaints”.
“These steps, while necessary and appropriate, are just the start, and we will be augmenting them in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson also referenced a message released by Northwestern President Schill on Tuesday, which said the school would “engage an outside firm” to assess accountability, detect threats to the welfare of student-athletes and examine the culture of the school’s athletics department.
Speaking on Wednesday, Crump said the misconduct extended beyond the football team but did not specifically reference any other sports. He said the “majority” of his 15 clients were from the football team, without providing further details.
Northwestern is the latest higher education institution in the US to face accusations that it harboured abuse. Over the last decade, Pennsylvania State University, Michigan State University and Ohio State, among others, have been roiled by high-profile abuse cases.