Northwestern university football players compete against university of michigan in a 2021 game
A 2021 game between Northwestern and the University of Michigan Wolverines Credit: Maize & Blue Nation/Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Content note: This column contains mention of hazing and sexual assault.

Northwestern University (NU) may not win many, or any, football games this season. But, man, when it comes to cynical acts of duplicity and deceit, they may already be the champs.

Oh, where to start with the football hazing scandal that gets more scandalous by the day? How about with the as yet unidentified whistleblower?

Last November, after the Wildcats had completed an excruciatingly awful 1-11 season, the whistleblower contacted university officials with revelations about rampant hazing on the football team. In January, Northwestern hired Maggie Hickey, a well-connected corporate lawyer, to investigate.

“While we do not yet know whether the allegations are true, hazing is prohibited by University policy, and we take these claims seriously,” Northwestern said in a statement. “The health, safety and well-being of our students is the first priority.”

Got that, people? Nothing matters more than the “safety and well-being” of NU students! Keep that statement in mind as we fast forward several months . . .

On Friday, July 7, NU revealed the results of Hickey’s investigation. Well, sorta. But before we get to Hickey’s revelations, here’s a couple of other things to keep in mind . . .

The hazing allegations came just as Northwestern was proposing to build an $800 million new stadium—and concert venue—near the school’s Evanston campus.

A key person, if not the key person, in raising the money to build that stadium was coach Pat Fitzgerald, a beloved NU figure going back to his days as a linebacker on the 1996 Rose Bowl team. 

Fitzgerald has many quirks that endear him to NU fans, such as ending interviews by saying “Go Cats!” As far as many NU boosters were concerned, the coaching job was his as long as he wanted, no matter how awful his teams played.

Point is, if anyone could convince NU boosters to kick in a little scratch for the new stadium/entertainment palace, it was the coach widely known as Fitz. You might say there was a lot of money riding on keeping him as coach. Now back to Hickey’s report.

It dropped on a Friday afternoon, which pretty much guaranteed it would not get much attention. NU didn’t even release the actual report—still hasn’t, as I write this. Nor apparently do they have to, as NU is a private institution not governed by public records law.

Instead, they released an “executive summary,” unsigned by any human. Not even NU president Michael Schill. So for all we know it was written by an AI robot, programmed to sound like a human (if humans sounded like corporate lawyers). Here’s how they broke it down . . .

“Current and former players varied on their perspective of the conduct.”

Still . . .

“The investigation team determined that the complainant’s claims were largely supported by the evidence gathered during the investigation, including separate and consistent first-person

accounts from current and former players.”

And yet . . .

“The investigation team did not discover sufficient evidence to believe that coaching staff knew about the ongoing hazing conduct.”

Nonetheless . . .

“The University took steps to eliminate hazing from the football program.”

To translate: something unspecified happened, though it’s open to interpretation as to how bad it was. But whatever happened, even if it wasn’t so bad, NU promises it won’t happen again. OK? Now get on with the rest of your lives cause there’s nothing more to see here.

The executive summary also announced Fitzgerald was being suspended without pay for the next two weeks, which happen to be the slowest weeks in college football, just before a new season begins. So it kind of amounts to an unpaid vacation.

After which Fitzgerald would return to coaching and, presumably, helping raise money for that new stadium. Except . . .

On Saturday, July 8, the Daily Northwestern ran a story based on interviews with a couple of players, including the whistleblower, that revealed the details the executive summary neglected to mention. They “involved coerced sexual acts” such as forcing freshmen “to strip naked and perform various acts, including bear crawling and slingshotting themselves across the floor with exercise bands.” And a yearly tradition called “the carwash,” in which the article states “players would stand naked at the entrance to the showers and spin around, forcing those entering the showers to ‘basically (rub) up against a bare-naked man.’” 

The article also mentions that the whistleblower alleged that he witnessed and was forced to participate in “a naked center-quarterback exchange, wherein a freshman quarterback was forced to take an under-center snap from a freshman center, while both players were naked.”

The article went viral. Suddenly people from coast to coast—even those who cared nothing about college football—were gobbling up the details of the scandal that Northwestern had clearly tried to bury with that vague “executive summary” dropped on a Friday afternoon.

Later Saturday night, President Schill announced he was considering a harsher punishment for Fitzgerald. On Monday, Schill fired him. Apparently having read the article in the Daily—and realizing the scandal was being covered by almost every major news outlet in the country—he concluded that what happened in the locker room was bad after all.

Call me jaded, but my guess is NU decided that hazing was bad for the “safety and well-being” of NU students after they realized it might be even worse for the well-being of a new stadium.

Now all hell is breaking loose with new revelations of hazing and lawsuits against the university by players. Fitzgerald has hired his own lawyer, Dan Webb. Who knows, maybe he’ll file a lawsuit. This story will be around for a long time.

It’s another example of the “Streisand Effect,” a phenomena named for Barbra Streisand, who didn’t want the public to see pictures of her Malibu mansion. Pretty much guaranteeing that everyone saw it.

In other words, the more you try to conceal something from the public, the more the public will want to see it. Especially if it involves the bad behavior of naked men in locker rooms. Go Cats!

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