Are Northwestern’s recent athletic firings indicative of a deeper problem?

“It’s just a really abrasive and barbaric culture that has permeated throughout that program for years on end now," said a player who chose to remain anonymous, according to The Daily Northwestern.

Less than two months after President Michael Schill’s inauguration at Northwestern University, more than 250 faculty are calling for long-term institutionalized oversight of the university’s athletics department following the firing of the men’s football and baseball head coaches in one week.

The catalyst: reports of egregious hazing practices, racism, bullying and abusive behavior across both programs.

The claims and subsequent firings have challenged President Schill to defend the institution’s culture as it’s questioned in the national spotlight—and forces us to review one that’s no stranger to controversy.

On July 8, Northwestern’s student newspaper broke the story of multiple players claiming sexually charged hazing practices taking place in the men’s football program, one that involved team-wide implementation and the knowledge of head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“It’s just a really abrasive and barbaric culture that has permeated throughout that program for years on end now,” said a player who chose to remain anonymous, according to The Daily Northwestern.

Two days later, the newspaper ran another story featuring former football players detailing a culture that “enabled racism and other microaggressions” toward non-white players. Ramon Diaz Jr., a Latino offensive lineman for Northwestern from 2005 to 2008, has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attributes his time at Northwestern as a primary factor.

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President Schill had initially decided to suspend Fitzgerald for two weeks after an independent investigation found a player’s hazing accusations “largely supported by evidence” and that “there had been significant opportunities” for coaches to learn about the hazing practices. However, as more players came out to the media—11 players as of now—to corroborate the hazing allegations and affirm Fitzgerald’s culpability, Schill swiftly changed course and relieved Fitzgerald of his duties.

However, Schill’s decision to retract his suspension and fire Fitzgerald instead has drawn criticism from the community and alumni who still find Fitzgerald, a beloved school community member. Fitzgerald had been head coach since 2006 and played for the Wildcats from 1993 to 1996.

“I recognize that my decision will not be universally applauded, and there will be those in our community who may vehemently disagree with it. Ultimately, I am charged with acting in the best interests of the entire university, and this decision is reflective of that,” Schill said in a statement. “The damage done to our institution is significant, as is the harm to some of our students.”

Bullying in the baseball program

Three days after Schill’s decision, the university announced the firing of Jim Foster, the head baseball coach, on July 13. Foster’s firing comes days following reports from The Chicago Tribune and 670 The Score detailing his racially insensitive, abusive and bullying behavior. Following the allegations, Foster responded to 670 the Score calling the claims “ridiculous” and saying that “maybe the players aren’t good enough and are just making excuses or are disgruntled,” according to The New York Times.

“This has been an ongoing situation and many factors were considered before reaching this resolution. As the Director of Athletics, I take ownership of our head coaching hires and we will share our next steps as they unfold,” said Derrick Gragg, Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation.

Similar trends two years ago

While the firing of Fitzgerald and Schill may seem like a strange coincidence siloed from Northwestern’s overall culture, one eerily similar incident two years ago reminds us that this is not the case.

In May 2021, former athletic director Mike Polisky resigned amid a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Northwestern cheerleader Hayden Richardson. The lawsuit alleged the cheerleader was sexually harassed and exploited at school events and that school officials did not take her complaints seriously, according to Bleacher Report.

However, an independent investigator hired by Northwestern did not find Polisky guilty, and the school filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, according to the New York Times.

“I would not have hired him if he did not meet the highest standard of conduct and character, wrote former president Morton Schapiro in a public letter, continuing to say, “Having reviewed the complaint, Northwestern denies that it or any of its current employees violated any laws, including Title IX.”

However, this decision prompted over 200 Northwestern community members to protest in front of former president Owen Schapiro’s house, a letter to the board of trustees and articles by several media outlets denouncing the school’s decision to promote Polisky to the athletic director position.

Consequently, Polisky decided to resign, citing “these unsettling times in college athletics as roadblocks to his ability to effectively lead.

In response, Erika Carter, another former Northwestern cheerleader who claimed that Polisky ignored accusations of sexual harassment and racism within its cheerleading program, found Polisky’s answer skirted a severe issue.

“No: There’s racism, there’s sexism, there are sexual harassment complaints, there’s leadership failure,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Her response echoes what Northwestern athletics faces yet again—a systemic, historic issue faculty are fighting to alleviate.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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