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Northwestern must learn to act — not respond — ethically, and Pat Fitzgerald must be held accountable for his locker room

As an institution, Northwestern has proven to act only after a public outburst.

A two-week suspension for a head coach is an appalling, unacceptable punishment for someone whose team was allegedly involved in sexual hazing. Pat Fitzgerald is accountable for his locker room, and even if he was unaware, then that’s a reason proving he is unfit to lead young men.

Northwestern hired Maggie Hickey of ArentFox Schiff to lead an investigation looking into an anonymous hazing complaint received in late November 2022. On Friday, an executive summary reported that “the complainant's claims were largely supported by the evidence gathered during the investigation,” and while specific coaches and players were not identified, the investigation supported that “there had been significant opportunities to discover and report the hazing conduct.” The consequences for Northwestern: a two week-unpaid suspension for Fitzgerald, the discontinuation of “Camp Kenosha,” where training camp is often held, a non-Northwestern-affiliated official to monitor the locker room and some training into anti-hazing.

This vagueness of this report and the, quite honestly, extremely bleak punishment for Northwestern’s highest-paid employee just seemed like an attempt to handle an inconvenient scandal and move on. That would have been the case, but on Saturday came an article from The Daily Northwestern, where a former player revealed claims of coerced sexual acts, and a second player corroborated these assertions.

The anonymous whistleblower recounted numerous instances of abhorrent physical activities that seem to have become a tradition in the program, namely the hazing act of “running” for players when they messed up. The Daily reported it involved being “restrained by a group of 8-10 upperclassmen dressed in various ‘purge-like’ masks, who would then begin ‘dry-humping’ the victim in the dark locker room.” Additional hazing included forcing players to strip and then spraying them with a hose or into various physical activities that often involved interaction like practicing snaps or running into each other.

“It’s done under this smoke and mirror of ‘oh, this is team bonding,’ but no, this is sexual abuse,” the player told The Daily.

Since this article came out, a statement from Northwestern football countered these claims and showed support for Fitzgerald; however, it is unclear who “the ENTIRE Northwestern Football Team” actually is.

It’s also worth noting that The Daily had photo and video evidence as well as testimonies from two players, and the report stated that “participation in or knowledge of the hazing activities was widespread across football players.” Nonetheless, the report and the way it was handled says a lot about the school and its athletics.

No university is in a position to treat sexual misconduct and hazing lightly, but let it be reminded that Northwestern, specifically, has a shameless reputation in this arena.

In 2021, Mike Polisky was promoted to athletic director. This came after a series of scandals, including being named in a sexual harassment lawsuit by a Wildcat cheerleader. Amid backlash, he resigned nine days after assuming the role.

Also, recall that Northwestern faces a prominent Abolish Greek Life movement in light of numerous sexual assault and rape cases that garnered national news coverage. Are these two things the same? No. But, the commitment to cure the issue at hand is. Whether in the corridors of an old fraternity house or in the exclusivity of state-of-the-art athletic facilities, sexual assault is a grave matter that demands the strictest punishment and deserves to be evaluated with extreme care.

There’s a reason this story is being covered by ESPN, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and countless other outlets. There’s a reason President Michael Schill felt prompted to send out an email late Saturday night, admitting he “may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanctions for Coach Fitzgerald.” It’s because two weeks of unpaid work is egregious as sufficient punishment.

This suspension also comes during an NCAA dead period, where Fitzgerald can’t even contact recruits and there are no practices. All this does is leave a man on a 10-year, $57 million contract without pay for 14 days.

This so-called punishment is no punishment at all for the alleged humiliating and degrading hazing happening under his watch. It’s disappointing for these players, for their families and for the student body that it takes a public outcry — from the biggest papers in the country covering a story broken by student journalists— to cause these terms to be re-evaluated.

To be fair, this story and what happened is far from being fully recognized. Fitzgerald is receiving support from current and former players and has also expressed his disappointment and unawareness of the hazing presented in ArentFox Schiff’s findings on Friday. Yet, two players told The Daily that they had seen Fitzgerald make “the Shrek clap” —the signal for a player to be run — during practices, and the investigation did highlight “significant opportunities” where hazing would have been made clear.

But, it shouldn’t matter whether or not he knew. It matters if it happened. That’s the bottom line. Fitzgerald is at the helm of Wildcat football and has been for 17 seasons. He is responsible for his team and should have complete control and knowledge of his locker room. After nearly two decades, there should be no exception. There is no room for lenient disciplinary measures and there is no room for a second chance when you are in that high of a role and have over 100 college students under you.

Northwestern is in no position to treat sexual misconduct as “a slap on the wrist,” which is how the whistleblower characterized these sanctions to The Daily. But, it is just as fair to ask why there is a division on this football team and why anything akin to hazing or sexual assault could ever come to be. Even more, what has this university learned from its past and what is its commitment to actually facilitating a culture safe for students and athletes? Right now, Northwestern seems like an institution concerned with public perception rather than asking itself what is ethical at the moment. Similar to Polisky, the university is being questioned after a decision was made and then amending to what others deem as right.

Northwestern is scheduled to play its first game on Sept. 3. That’s awfully quick for a team fighting incredibly serious, disturbing allegations and now advocating a contradictory narrative, only after a more detailed article was written. But, this is bigger than football.

Northwestern has to learn to act ethically and adequately — the first time. If these reported incidents of sexual harassment and emotional turmoil are true, then there should be no instance where this football team’s season is uninterrupted and normal.