Members of Northwestern University's football team have released a statement regarding the findings of a months-long investigation into hazing allegations within the program and the subsequent suspension of the team's head coach.
NBC Chicago's Mike Berman spoke with a current Wildcats player who shared the letter, which the individual claims was signed by the entire team and is being presented as a "unified group." The player who spoke to NBC Chicago asked to remain anonymous.
In the letter addressed to the Northwestern community, the players, in part, called the recent allegations that have been brought forth "exaggerated and twisted."
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"These fabrications have been made with the intention of harming our program and tarnish the reputation of our dedicated players and coaching staff," they stated, in part. "We firmly deny the validity of these accusations and stand united in our assertion that they do not reflect the true character of the team."
In regard to the hazing claims, the team members said the university "took the matter seriously and engaged in comprehensive interviews with current and former players and staff."
"Following this thorough examination, outside counsel in collaboration with the university reached its own conclusions, which we trust were based on a fair and unbiased evaluation of the facts," the team members stated.
The players wrote in defense of Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, alleging he was "not involved in any of the alleged incidents in any way, shape or form."
"Coach Fitzgerald had no knowledge of these allegations until they were brought to his attention during the investigation," the players stated, in part. "Throughout his tenure, Coach Fitzgerald has consistently prioritized the well-being and development of his players, and we stand behind him in his unwavering commitment to our team."
On Friday, Northwestern University announced that Fitzgerald would be issued a two-week, no-pay suspension on the heels of a months-long investigation into allegations of hazing in the football program. The Daily Northwestern, the university's student newspaper, published a report Saturday, in which a former football player told the publication that instances of sexual assault were among the hazing conduct allegations being investigated by the university.
Responding to a request for comment from NBC Chicago on Saturday afternoon, Northwestern University's Vice President for Global Marketing and Communications Jon Yates offered the following statement:
"Our first priority is to support and protect our students, including the young man who brought these matters to our attention and all student-athletes who had the courage to come forward in this independent investigation," the statement read. "That is why the University immediately opened this investigation upon learning of the allegations and why we took decisive action once we ascertained the facts. Out of respect for the privacy of our student-athletes, we will not comment about the findings beyond what we stated in the release and executive summary of the investigation."
The investigation was launched in December 2022 and led by Maggie Hickey of ArentFox Schiff, the former inspector general of Illinois, the school said. It included interviews with current and former players, coaches and staff, as well as a review of thousands of documents.
Fitzgerald said in a statement issued Friday that was he was "not aware of the alleged incidents."
“I was very disappointed when I heard about the allegations of hazing on our football team,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Although I was not aware of the alleged incidents, I have spoken to university officials, and they informed me of a two-week suspension, effective immediately. Northwestern football prides itself on producing not just athletes, but fine young men with character befitting the program and our University. We hold our student-athletes and our program to the highest standards; we will continue to work to exceed those standards moving forward.”
The university said the investigation did not find evidence that coach staff knew about the hazing, but noted "investigators said that there had been opportunities for them to discover and report the hazing conduct."
“Hazing in any form is unacceptable and goes against our core values at Northwestern, where we strive to make the University a safe and welcoming environment for all of our students,” said university President Michael Schill. “Our athletics programs are held to the highest standards, and in this case, we failed to meet them. I expect that today’s actions will prevent this from ever happening again.”
The full list of measures the university said it plans to take includes:
- Head coach Fitzgerald has been placed on a two-week suspension without pay, beginning immediately.
- Football practices at “Camp Kenosha” in Wisconsin will be permanently discontinued.
- The University will require monitoring of the football locker room by someone who doesn’t report to the football coaching staff.
- The University will create an online reporting tool specifically for student athletes to anonymously report incidents of potential hazing or hazing-related concerns.
- The University will provide and require annual mandatory anti-hazing training for all coaches, staff members and student-athletes, with an emphasis on reporting options, the duties to report, discipline for future violations and the fact that hazing is not acceptable regardless of consent.
- The University will form an internal working group comprising Northwestern leaders across various disciplines to create a report on policy development, organizational culture, communication, training and enforcement. The group will solicit input from external experts and will make their report open to the entire community.
- Northwestern Athletics will better utilize the annual student-athlete-survey process to ensure coaches are aware of and act on student concerns.
- Northwestern Athletics will work with the NCAA and Big Ten Conference to ensure all processes and rules are followed.
The complete letter, sent by a Northwestern player to NBC Chicago, can be found here.