This story is syndicated from The Daily Northwestern, the newspaper of Northwestern University. The original version of the story ran here.
A former Northwestern University football player told The Daily some of the hazing conduct investigated by the university involved coerced sexual acts. A second player confirmed these details.
The player also told The Daily that head coach Pat Fitzgerald may have known that hazing took place.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and it’s just absolutely egregious and vile and inhumane behavior,” the player, who asked to remain anonymous in this story, said.
The former player said he reported his experiences to the University in late November 2022. He alleges that much of the team’s hazing centered around a practice dubbed “running,” which was used to punish team members, primarily freshman, for mistakes made on the field and in practice.
If a player was selected for “running,” the player who spoke to The Daily said, they would be restrained by a group of 8-10 upperclassmen dressed in various “Purge-like” masks, who would then begin “dry-humping” the victim in a dark locker room.
“It’s a shocking experience as a freshman to see your fellow freshman teammates get ran, but then you see everybody bystanding in the locker room,” the player said. “It’s just a really abrasive and barbaric culture that has permeated throughout that program for years on end now.”
The Daily obtained images of whiteboards labeled “Runsgiving” and “Shrek’s List,” containing a list of names indicating players that the player said needed to be “ran.”
The player said the tradition was especially common during training camp and around Thanksgiving and Christmas, which he said the team called “Runsgiving” and “Runsmas.”
“It’s done under this smoke and mirror of ‘oh, this is team bonding,’ but no, this is sexual abuse,” the player said.
According to the former player, team members allegedly identified players for “running” by clapping their hands above their heads around that player. The practice, the player said, was known within the team as “the Shrek clap.”
The Daily obtained a video of a player clapping his hands during a game, which the anonymous player said was the same motion taken to signify “running.”
According to the player who spoke with The Daily, Fitzgerald repeatedly made the signal during practices when players, specifically freshmen, made a mistake.
The player believes some players interpreted Fitzgerald making these signals as knowingly “encouraging” the hazing to continue.
“Everyone would just be looking at each other and be like ‘bro, Fitz knows about this,’ because you wouldn’t take that action otherwise,” the player said. “Everyone joins in, because he’s the head coach.”
The second player who spoke to The Daily, who also asked to be anonymous in this story, said he also witnessed these actions occurring.
After receiving the hazing reports, NU hired an independent law firm, ArentFox Schiff, to investigate the claims.
Lead investigator Maggie Hickey, former inspector general of Illinois, interviewed coaches, staff, and current and former players, and reviewed thousands of documents, according to a news release by the University.
According to the release, Hickey’s investigation revealed that while current and former players “varied on their perspective” regarding the conduct, the whistleblower’s claims were “largely supported by evidence.”
Participation in or knowledge of these hazing activities, which were not detailed in the summary, was “widespread” across NU football players, the investigation found.
University spokesperson Jon Yates declined to comment on the specific details of the allegations.
“Our first priority is to support and protect our students, including… all student-athletes who had the courage to come forward in this independent investigation. 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,” Yates wrote in an email to The Daily. “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.”
After the investigation concluded, the University placed Fitzgerald on unpaid suspension for two weeks.
After NU announced Fitzgerald’s unpaid leave of absence, the coach said that he was “very disappointed” and was “not aware of the alleged incidents.”
In a statement emailed to NU community members Saturday night, University President Michael Schill said that he believes he “may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction for Coach Fitzgerald.”
Schill said that he would engage with NU leaders in the coming days to further consider Fitzgerald’s punishment and keep the community aware of any developments.
“Coach Fitzgerald is not only responsible for what happens within the program but also must take great care to uphold our institutional commitment to the student experience and our priority to ensure all students — undergraduate and graduate — can thrive,” Schill wrote in the statement. “Clearly, he failed to uphold that commitment, and I failed to sufficiently consider that failure in levying a sanction.
The University said in the executive summary of their investigation that while it did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing activity, “there had been significant opportunities to discover and report the hazing conduct.”
The University also introduced additional sanctions against the team. Someone who does not report to the coaching staff is now required to monitor the locker room, and the team must end all practices at Camp Kenosha, a training camp location.
In addition to “running,” the whistleblower alleged that he witnessed the team participate in other hazing traditions in which freshmen were forced to strip naked and perform various acts, including bear crawling and slingshotting themselves across the floor with exercise bands.
In a once-a-year tradition dubbed “the carwash,” the first player said that some 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.” Upon entering the showers, the player alleged that players set up a hose they connected to the shower to spray people.
“It’s extremely painful,” the player said.
The player also alleged that he witnessed and was forced to participate in what he called 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 player said that on one instance, another player was “very vocally adamant” about not wanting to participate in this exchange. Older players threatened to “run him” if he refused and there was “no other option,” according to the player.
“He was forced to engage in this,” the player said. “I wish I would have told him to transfer, because this is an absolutely abusive environment, and an environment in which the safety and well-being of players is not protected at all.”
The second player confirmed these allegations.
According to Northwestern’s definition of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, stalking, dating or domestic violence, and sexual harassment are all prohibited. These acts, the NU football player alleges, qualify under the university’s definition of sexual violations.
Other hazing practices that the player detailed to The Daily included a practice called “Gatorade shake challenges,” where teammates, often freshmen, were forced to drink as many Gatorade shakes as they could in a 10-minute period. The player alleges that he has witnessed this practice on two separate occasions, and that he’s “never seen anyone not throw up” either during or after the challenges.
The second player said he also witnessed this tradition.
The player said that one of his friends was sick for “a number of days” after this event, and wasn’t able to eat much.
According to NU’s hazing policy, hazing is defined by any action taken “to produce mental, physical, or emotional discomfort; servitude; degradation; embarrassment; harassment; or ridicule for the purpose of initiation into, affiliation with, or admission to, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, team, or other organization, regardless of an individual’s willingness to participate.”
This policy prohibits, among other things, any physical abuse expected or inflicted on another person, sexual violations or other required, encouraged or expected sexual activity whether actual or simulated, engaging in degrading or humiliating games, activities, stunts or buffoonery, and requiring or compelling the consumption of liquid, food, drinks or other substances.
In an email to The Daily, Yates said that all incoming freshman and undergraduate transfers, including student athletes, are required to complete the Hazing 101 Prevention True Northwestern Dialogue. As part of the onboarding experience for first-year and transfer student athletes, the athletics department administers anti-hazing education, Yates said.
Additionally, Yates said each sports program has biannual meetings with the athletics compliance staff and sports administration “to discuss hazing and its impact on the student experience.”
At these biannual meetings, the player who spoke to The Daily said the office described the hazing policy as a “no tolerance” policy.
After the meetings, the player alleges that upperclassmen would make threats to freshmen saying that “if anyone snitched, then Shrek would get you” in reference to the practice of “running.”
The player said that he saw some fellow players suffer mental consequences during and after the football season.
“I’ve had friends reach out to me in the middle of the night having very suicidal tendencies,” he said.
The player said that throughout the investigation, Hickey’s team and the Northwestern administration, outside of the athletics department, were “helpful.”
But, the player said that he doesn’t believe the sanctions levied against the program are enough, calling them a “slap on the wrist.” The player said he also does not feel that the University should keep confidential the details of the findings, calling the secrecy “extremely frustrating.”
“My goal in reporting these details is to shed light on the harsh severity of this program and just absolutely inhumane traditions and activities that go on in our program,” he said.