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Op-Ed: Derrick Gragg needs to speak to the Northwestern community, or step away from it for good

As the athletic department he is responsible for has hit its lowest low, Gragg has remained unacceptably silent.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Reflecting on the last 72 hours or so, cacophony is the word that first comes to mind.

These last three days have been as loud as any in the history of Northwestern Athletics. The Daily Northwestern’s release of a report on Saturday — in which a former football player detailed sexually abusive hazing practices within the program — rang out. The emergence of a report read on 670 The Score on Monday afternoon, which detailed baseball head coach Jim Foster’s alleged institution of a toxic environment, pierced through the football discourse. And Pat Fitzgerald’s firing that night was the gale that blew the house down.

Yet, among all that noise from so many corners of the Northwestern community, it’s been the silence of one man near the center of it all that has been deafening: that of Athletic Director Derrick Gragg. Whether that falls on him or the university for advising him to remain silent, that is inexcusable for the leader of a department in crisis.

Since Friday, when Northwestern released its initial two-week unpaid suspension for Fitzgerald, Gragg has not shared any statement publicly. While the Northwestern community has received statements from University President Michael Schill regarding Fitzgerald’s initial suspension on Friday, the release of new hazing details on Saturday and Fitzgerald’s firing on Monday, Gragg has not even publicly acknowledged any of those situations yet. In fact, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, he didn’t even return to Northwestern’s campus until Tuesday morning.

In four days, there hasn’t been a statement, nor a press conference, nor a letter from Gragg. Nothing.

Some of the information released has mentioned Gragg’s name explicitly. Nine members of the baseball program alleged on Monday that the AD “conducted a chaotic and unusual hiring process” in hiring Foster to lead the baseball program in June 2022. The members specifically noted that Gragg and Deputy Director of Athletics Monique Holland “pawned the hire off” to two boosters, who sat in on the final interviews for Foster.

Inside NU contacted the university requesting a comment from Gragg on the baseball and football allegations mentioned above, but received no response.

It’s of the utmost importance to first consider that the delicateness of the entire situation. Although unconfirmed, this creates the possibility that Gragg may be remaining quiet due to the guidance of a legal counsel or higher-ups at Northwestern. At face value, it’s a valid reason to not to publicly comment. However, especially with Schill having already made three public remarks as of Tuesday afternoon, this rationale would be problematic.

This doesn’t just potentially convey a message that Gragg prioritizes his legal protection over repairing the athletic department he is responsible for. It could also hint that Gragg’s authority isn’t as strong as his position title indicates. The clear alternative that the public could have — and may have — already perceived, whether correctly or incorrectly, is that Gragg is waiting for the situation’s intensity to decrease, even as more fuel is added to the fire by the hour.

It is also clear that Northwestern’s athletic department is in as precarious a public position as it has ever faced, and it is in desperate need of a strong leader. Regardless of which of the cases above apply to Gragg, he has not shown he is capable of leading the athletic department through this disaster as it continues to spiral further out of his control. He has either failed to fulfill his role, or Northwestern’s current chain of command is mortally flawed.

Either way, if Gragg can’t speak on behalf of the athletic department, he shouldn’t manage it. He either needs to step down, or Northwestern has to take a step toward rebuilding its athletic department by removing him.

Diving into Gragg’s alleged actions, handing off a final interview for a public-facing employee as important as Foster to boosters who already favored the former Army head coach is beyond irresponsible; it cheats out other deserving candidates. There were surely applicants who deserved the position more than a coach who ended up going 10-40. Given that nine members of the baseball program corroborated this account, that report is very concerning for someone who oversees 19 different teams.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it puts Northwestern student-athletes in grave emotional danger — and baseball players suffered from Gragg’s negligence in the hiring process. A person close to the program shared with Inside NU’s Gavin Dorsey that as a result of the environment Foster created, the players’ mental health suffered so badly that half of the team reportedly had to go to therapy. That doesn’t include the detail that Foster allegedly discouraged players from seeking treatment for physical injuries.

While that falls on Foster, Gragg is also at fault for failing to adequately vet him in the hiring process and identify red flags that were found in Northwestern HR’s report, such as its confirmation that 15 of Foster’s former players transferred solely because of him.

In his inaugural statement when he took Northwestern’s AD job, Gragg said: “My career has been shaped by an unwavering belief in the potential of student-athletes to excel in all areas.” Reflect on those paragraphs above, and think about whether Gragg has done that.

Think about the emotional health of Northwestern football players right now. They’re dealing with the loss of a head coach who wasn’t just the face of their program, but was a man who many of them looked up to outside of football — as numerous current Wildcats shared on Twitter.

According to multiple football players, Gragg — who was not on campus — shared the news of Fitzgerald’s firing with the team via Zoom. An anonymous player told WildcatReport’s Matthew Shelton that Gragg only appeared in the Zoom meeting — which reportedly lasted for 30 minutes — for five minutes with his camera off. Tight end Charlie Mangieri even said on Twitter that Gragg didn’t even leave time for the players to ask questions.

Fellow tight end Marshall Lang also said that the meeting left the team “incredibly frustrated” that the administration was sharing the news with the team. In a tweet that received over 300 likes, he criticized Gragg and Schill for not “even hav[ing] the balls to show up in person to tell the team.”

Regardless of where anyone sides on the debate as to whether Fitzgerald should or should not have been fired yesterday, there’s one thing everyone should agree on: the emotional and mental well-being of the student-athletes needs to be a primary concern for the athletic department right now. The players needed Gragg to display transparency and visible care, and he failed miserably.

Rittenberg did report on Tuesday afternoon that Gragg has met with the football staff and will later meet with the players, but first impressions matter immensely when addressing a crisis as delicate as this one. To not offer the players — and the greater NU community — any semblance of immediate transparency is detrimental to Northwestern Athletics, both inside and outside of its buildings.

Gragg’s decision to retain Northwestern’s assistant coaches and support staff for the 2023 season on Tuesday afternoon also brings its fair share of controversy. While not doing so could have put Northwestern in grave danger of not fielding a team in 2023, putting millions of dollars in revenue at risk, it also allows for the same issues that have plagued the football program to fester.

Like Fitzgerald, these staffers are also partially responsible for allowing hazing to persist; at least some of these members showed negligence during the 2022 season. A recent former player confirmed this information to Inside NU’s Bradley Locker on Monday. The ArentFox Schiff investigation determined that these coaches may not have known about the hazing that went on, but had opportunities to discover and report it. Gragg’s decision to keep them this quickly demonstrates that he hasn’t done sufficient vetting to prove their innocence.

Again, Gragg may not be completely at fault for all of these actions. But even if he isn’t, the university is, and it underscores the failure of its athletic administrative structure to protect the student-athletes and the community it serves with Gragg at the head.

For Northwestern to begin picking up the broken glass and make the systemic changes that President Schill has promised to better the university, it needs to part ways with Gragg if he can’t answer for himself.