At Northwestern, Leaders Scramble to Contain Crisis Over Hazing Allegations
Northwestern University’s athletic director didn’t make the decision to fire Pat Fitzgerald, the football coach, after a bombshell report of hazing in the program. But he was asked with telling the team the news.
And he had a problem. As the crisis swelled, Derrick Gragg was on a family vacation outside the country. So he faced a choice: He could have one of his assistant athletic directors announce the news to the team or he could Zoom into a scheduled meeting and make the announcement himself.
“I certainly needed to tell them myself,” Gragg told
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Northwestern University’s athletic director didn’t make the decision to fire Pat Fitzgerald, the football coach, after a bombshell report of hazing in the program. But he got the job of telling the team the news.
And he had a problem. As the crisis swelled, Derrick Gragg, the AD, was on a family vacation outside the country. So he was given a choice: He could have one of his assistant athletic directors announce the news to the team, or he could Zoom into a scheduled meeting and make the announcement himself.
“I certainly needed to tell them myself,” Gragg told The Chronicle in an exclusive phone interview on Wednesday. After the Zoom call, Gragg took a red-eye flight back from his vacation and was on campus by 8:30 a.m. the next day. He met with athletic-department staff; met with the football-coaching staff; and, with President Michael H. Schill of Northwestern, met in person with any football players on campus.
Gragg said he hadn’t jumped on a plane immediately because university administrators — including Schill — didn’t want him to be in the air if new information broke.
The sudden and improvised response is emblematic of the crisis engulfing Northwestern: an alleged culture of hazing and misconduct in the athletic department that largely predates the leadership of the two figures now under the public’s withering gaze: Gragg and Schill.
Several football players have filed lawsuits against the university alleging hazing that involved nudity, sexualized acts, and forced participation. And three days after Fitzgerald was fired, Gragg dismissed the baseball coach after an investigation found bullying and inappropriate comments about a female staff member. Complaints have also emerged from the volleyball team of bullying, hazing, and retaliation — statements that echoed allegations made by a cheerleader in a federal lawsuit two years ago. It has left the campus community upset and wondering: What’s going on in the athletic department?
If a leader messes up, they should own up to it, they should take responsibility.
After relying on statements issued only by the president — a move that was greeted by protest from faculty — the administration has started to talk publicly. Schill, who took office last year, gave a lengthy interview to the student newspaper on Monday, and Gragg did interviews with The Chronicle, ESPN, and the Big Ten Network.
“Obviously we have challenges, but I think they are all separate incidents that are all converging,” said Gragg, who arrived at Northwestern in 2021. However, to make sure, the athletic department is hiring a consultant to review the department. “We want to make sure we don’t have a culture problem.”
Northwestern’s faculty want to see more than just talk.
“The dismissal of Coach Fitzgerald is a beginning, not an end, however, and the real work remains to be done,” an open letter signed by at least 250 faculty members says. “The Athletics Department desperately needs long-term institutionalized oversight.”
To restore trust, Northwestern will need to communicate well, said Matt Friedman, co-founder of the metro Detroit-based communications company Tanner Friedman, and a crisis-communications expert who has advised universities.
“They are going to have to manage the inevitable” of more lawsuits and more accusations, he told The Chronicle on Tuesday before Gragg’s various interviews. “They are letting the inevitable manage them.”
That means thinking about releasing more information, even though as a private university, Northwestern is not required to do so.
“Some private institutions say they can’t talk about this because we’re private,” Friedman said. “The consequence is this communications void that gets filled by others. You need to let the public hear from you.”
‘That’s What I Hope I Did’
On November 30, 2022, an anonymous email arrived in an athletic-department inbox, describing hazing taking place in the football program, both in the locker room and at a summer training camp.
Gragg, a former athletic-compliance officer, said he got a copy shortly after it arrived and had it forwarded to the university general counsel’s office. An outside lawyer was hired to conduct an investigation, which the university publicly announced in January 2023.
That investigation went on for the next several months and concluded with an executive summary and a full report. The executive summary was released, but not the full report.
It found hazing had occurred, but did not find evidence that the coaching staff knew about it. When the report was issued on July 7, the university also announced that Fitzgerald had been suspended for two weeks.
Schill made that decision without consulting Gragg, the athletic director said. Fitzgerald was told of the suspension in a meeting with Schill and Gragg.
It was after that meeting that Gragg went on his previously scheduled family vacation.
The next day, The Daily Northwestern, the university’s student newspaper, published an article about the hazing, based on two players’ accounts. The details in that story were later matched by accusations from players in lawsuits filed against the university.
That includes a lawsuit filed by the former Wildcats quarterback and wide receiver Lloyd Yates in Cook County Circuit Court. In the suits and in press conferences announcing them, Yates and lawyers representing at least 15 former players have since made similar hazing allegations.
After the first suit was filed, Northwestern issued a statement: “When the University was made aware of anonymous hazing complaints in November 2022, we acted immediately with an independent investigator to conduct a comprehensive review of the allegations. We have taken a number of subsequent actions to eliminate hazing from our football program, and we will introduce additional actions in the coming weeks. The administration is committed to working alongside the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the student body to ensure that hazing has no place at Northwestern.”
The hazing allegedly included so-called “running,” where underclassmen players were held down in a dark locker room and dry-humped by upperclassmen wearing “Purge-like” masks (based on the popular Purge films). It also included ‘the carwash,” in which players would stand naked at the entrance of the showers and spin around, forcing those entering the showers to “basically (rub) up against a bare-naked man,” according to the initial student-newspaper story.
After the story was published — on a Saturday — calls from the campus community and alumni for Fitzgerald to be fired reached a fever pitch. Less than 12 hours after the story appeared, Schill issued a statement saying he “may have erred” in giving the coach only a two-week suspension.
Why? In an interview this week with the student newspaper, Schill said he should have put more weight on Fitzgerald’s responsibility to set a culture for the football team.
“I think a lot about leadership,” Schill said in that story. “Not to make this too self-referential, but I think that if a leader messes up, they should own up to it, they should take responsibility. The worst thing you can do is just pretend it didn’t happen. You realize you made a mistake and you fix it and you make the right decision, because that’s what a stand-up leader does. And that’s what I hope I did.”
On July 10, the university fired Fitzgerald. Both Schill and Gragg were on the call, but it was Schill’s decision to fire the head football coach.
Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment, but told ESPN shortly after being fired that he “reaffirmed what I have always maintained — that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing within the Northwestern football program.”
Three days after Fitzgerald was fired, Gragg fired the baseball coach, Jim Foster, following reports of an investigation into his bullying and abusive behavior. Gragg said Foster’s hiring was a poor decision he made.
“I own that decision.”
Foster could not be reached for comment and has not commented publicly.
‘Your Heart Just Goes Out’
On Monday, Gragg held an all-staff meeting with his athletic department. In it he communicated his expectations: “It’s about ensuring our student athletes’ well-being is fully supported. There’s no place for hazing. There’s no place for misconduct. If you’re going to continue to build a positive culture, you have to eradicate it,” he told The Chronicle.
New mandatory anti-hazing training is being put in place, starting with the football team on August 3, as it opens practice, Gragg said, and then spreading to all teams in the department.
There is no process, conversation, or discussion of his employment status. He is the athletic director.
Gragg says he’s responsible for the department’s culture. Meanwhile, speculation about the director’s fitness for office continues to swirl. The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday published an article drawing attention to a 2015 book Gragg wrote in which he called women “man’s greatest distraction,” among other statements. (He said in an email to the newspaper that he had been writing for “young, male readers” and that his main message was that “all women should be treated with respect at all times.”)
Schill, his boss, gave Gragg a vote of confidence in his Monday interview with the student newspaper.
“Dr. Gragg is relatively new to the university. Most of the activity that has been churned up happened before he came here,” he said, adding: “There’s no conversation ongoing about his employment. I am supporting him, I am meeting with him about the prospective steps, but there is no process, conversation, or discussion of his employment status. He is the athletic director.”
Asked whether his own job is at risk, Schill said: “Not in the slightest. I have been in communication with tons of members of the board, and the vast majority are supportive of my decision to terminate the coach. They know that it was the right thing, they know that it was the only moral decision that could be made at that time, and they’re fully supportive of me.”
The history at other Big Ten universities that have gone through similar scandals — Michigan State and Pennsylvania State Universities, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor — show that trust can take years to be re-established, if it ever is.
Gragg and other Northwestern leaders should be looking for how they can share as much information as possible — information “that would not harm their case legally but could enhance” the campus’s understanding of what happened, Friedman said.
Many of these issues predate the two leaders. But Gragg said he knows it’s on them to straighten out the program.
“The main focus of anything we do as athletic administrators centers around the … well-
being of athletes,” he said. “Your heart just goes out to anyone who was victimized.”