The wake of the Northwestern hazing allegations will be wide: already, two legal teams have emerged, seeking to claim damages for their clients and further expose what they allege is a toxic culture in the Northwestern athletic department, with problems that go deeper than just the football program. The two legal teams delivered back-to-back press conferences on Wednesday morning, with one having already formally filed suit against the school and its leadership while the other is promising to do so in the near future.
In a sign of how rapidly the cases are developing, the legal team that had already filed suit, helmed by Pat Salvi II and Parker Stiner of Chicago-based Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, said Wednesday morning that they had added a second anonymous plaintiff with plans to file a second lawsuit. Then, Wednesday evening, Salvi told Sports Illustrated that they would be filing a third lawsuit on behalf of a third anonymous client. Salvi said he expects both additional suits to be formally filed Thursday.
Here’s what we know about the building cases.
One Suit Filed, Two More Expected Soon:
Salvi and Stiner have already filed a lawsuit on the behalf of an anonymous client against Northwestern and members of its administration, including:
Current president Michael Schill
Former president Morton Schapiro
The school’s board of trustees
Athletic director Derrick Gragg
Former head coach Pat Fitzgerald
Salvi and Stiner say the second and third suits will include the same co-defendants, as well as current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, who was athletic director at Northwestern from 2008 to ‘21.
SI has reviewed a draft of the two still-to-be-filed lawsuits. All three complaints lean heavily on reporting by the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, which broke the story wide open on July 8 in an article that included detailed allegations of hazing from a whistleblower. The whistleblower described a practice called “running,” used to punish team members, where older players would wear masks and dry hump a (typically younger) player in a dark locker room. The story reported that Fitzgerald encouraged the behavior and sent signals for which young players to subject to it, often as punishment for making mistakes in practice. The whistleblower also told the newspaper that he witnessed and participated in a naked center-quarterback exchange and traditions that included force-feeding players Gatorade milkshakes and a so-called “carwash,” where once a year, some players would stand naked at the entrance of the showers and one player was forced to enter the shower through them. Once inside, the whistleblower said, they’d be sprayed with a powerful hose. If any player refused, they’d be subject to running.
The details were all corroborated to the Daily by a second player. Fitzgerald has denied knowledge of any hazing within his program.
At the crux of all three John Doe football complaints are accusations of negligence, and claims that athletic administrators and coaches failed in their duty to care for the athletes entrusted to them.
Northwestern conducted its own six-month internal investigation into the athletic department’s culture, but it has so far declined to make its findings public. Because Northwestern is a private university, freedom of information act requests can not compel the school to produce the full text of the report, conducted by Maggie Hickey of ArentFox Schiff. The school has released only an executive summary, but the attorneys are seeking more, which they hope to obtain through the discovery process. While both complaints say only that the players are currently seeking monetary damages “in excess of $50,000,” that is just a placeholder number for now, and the real numbers are expected to be significantly higher, according to Stiner and Salvi.
The lawyers say the scope of their cases won’t just be into the football program, however.
“This isn’t just a Fitzgerald issue,” Stiner told SI. “This isn’t just a football issue. The widespread—amongst the athletic department and university—discrimination, sexual assault, sexual harassment is horrific.”
The lawyers point to a harassment lawsuit filed in 2021 by a cheerleader. They also said that they have become aware of harassment and hazing issues in multiple sports, including volleyball and softball, though they have not yet provided evidence backing those claims.
The cheerleading lawsuit was filed by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson in 2021 against the school, the cheerleading coach and a variety of administrators. The suit alleges violations of Title IX and that the coach forced the plaintiff and her teammates to mingle at university events with fans and donors. The suit alleges that cheerleaders were ignored when they tried to bring to light that they were groped at the events.
Northwestern has filed a motion to dismiss the cheerleading suit and denied that the university violated any laws, including Title IX. The coach, who had been fired by the school prior to the suit, also filed a motion to dismiss.
In a statement to SI, Richardson’s attorney, Andrew Miltenberg says:
“[Her] lawsuit against Northwestern University is pending in federal court and will proceed to discovery on the Title IX claim, and potentially all claims, once the court makes a decision on the motion to dismiss the trafficking claims. As we are now seeing with the football team, there’s a toxic culture at Northwestern that normalizes sexual abuse and harassment. We will continue to pursue this lawsuit to hold Northwestern’s leadership accountable for their actions and willful disregard of sexual abuse.”
Fitzgerald’s lawyer, Dan Webb, did not respond to a request by SI for comment, but Webb did offer a statement to ESPN, in response to the press conferences.
“No arguments were made [Wednesday] that would present any substantive, detailed, factual allegations, let alone evidence, about Coach Fitzgerald’s conduct,” Webb’s statement to ESPN read. “The statements made by the lawyers and former student athletes, and those contained in the complaint filed by the one unnamed plaintiff, still fail to cite any specific facts or evidence beyond the broad-based statements published in the July 8 article.”
Phillips did not return a request for comment through an ACC spokesperson.
Northwestern told SI that it does not comment on pending litigation, but did send a statement regarding steps it is taking in the aftermath of the scandal.
“Shortly after learning the results of the independent investigation into hazing on the football team, the University announced a series of steps including the monitoring of the football locker room, anti-hazing training and the establishment of an online reporting tool for complaints,” the statement read. “These steps, while necessary and appropriate, are just the start, and we will be augmenting them in the coming weeks.”
The statement went on to say that the school will engage an outside firm, with input from faculty, staff, and students, to review accountability mechanisms and how the university detects threats to student-athlete welfare. Both reviews will be publicly available, the statement said.
The Impending Lawsuit:
A second legal team is also working on building a case against Northwestern and its athletic department. It is helmed by high-powered civil rights attorney Ben Crump and his co-counsel Steven Levin, from the Chicago law firm Levin & Perconti. They have not filed a case yet, but are working towards doing so.
After starting with an initial group of eight football players, they now represent 15 former Northwestern athletes, most of them football players, but also including one unnamed woman athlete. The legal team says it has spoken to three of the woman athlete’s teammates, among the 50 total athletes they have spoken to. Crump said there are no current athletes in any sport involved.
Clearly, both legal teams are intending to widen the scope of their lawsuits beyond football. For now, the lawyers have focused on the practices alleged in the student newspaper’s reporting, which Crump praised in the press conference Wednesday morning.
“The gist of our lawsuit is that this was a longstanding, widespread institutional culture,” Levin said in the press conference.
In that press conference, four former football players who played for the school between 2013 and 2018 spoke: Simba Short, Warren Long, Tom Carnifax, and Lloyd Yates. The legal team has spoken to athletes who were in the program before 2013, and says it is working on how to include them.
“The university and the football program has let us down, that’s why we’re here today,” Yates said. “On arrival to campus, we were thrown into a culture where physical, physical emotional and sexual abuse was normalized. No teammate I knew liked hazing, we were all victims no matter what our role was at the time, but the culture was so strong that we felt like we had to go with it to survive, to be respected, and to earn the trust within the football program.”
Yates acted as de facto spokesperson for the players. He said his family goes back 100 years attending the school and spoke of how he was initially proud to attend the university and play on the football team. He said if he had kids in the current climate, he would not send them to Northwestern.