University hires former AG Loretta Lynch to review hazing claims

ByBill Hutchinson ABCNews logo
Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Reeling from a growing hazing scandal in its football program, Northwestern University announced Wednesday that it has hired former U.S. Attorney General Lorretta Lynch to launch a review of the allegations amid a cascade of lawsuits by former players.

The announcement came just days after a pair of new lawsuits were filed in a circuit court in Cook County, Illinois, alleging the conduct by coaches and upperclassmen football players created a "culture of violent, intimidating, sexualized abuse and hazing, and extreme mental abuse resulting in degradation, humiliation, embarrassment, and at times, causing devastating physical and mental illnesses to individual football players."

The legal actions mark the fourth and fifth lawsuits filed against the Evanston, Illinois, school in the burgeoning scandal that prompted the firing last month of head football coach Pat "Fitz" Fitzgerald, the winningest coach in the university's history.

On Wednesday morning, former Northwestern football player Ramon Diaz spoke out at a news conference, alleging he was the victim of hazing while a member of the school's football team from 2005 to 2008.

"My experience playing football at Northwestern University haunts me to this day. I never will forget the mistreatment that I experienced for those four years," said Diaz, who is now a clinical therapist.

Diaz alleged that as a freshman in 2005, he was subjected to hazing and racially-charged abuse by upperclassmen teammates while at the school's preseason football camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He said he was forced into a chair by older teammates who shaved the words "Cinco De Mayo" into the back of his head. He also said he was targeted for hazing while in the showers.

"What was going to happen to me when I walked in that shower, when I was forced to rub against other bodies completely nude in the shower, where their bodies would be up against mine, their genitalia would be up against mine, it's really hard to fathom," said Diaz, now a father of three.

Diaz's lawyers said they also plan to file a lawsuit against Northwestern alleging coaches did nothing to address the toxic culture that existed in the football program when he was a player.

"An institution that enables coaches to destroy the self-worth of an athlete must be held accountable. No one stopped it," Diaz said.

Diaz's attorney Patrick Salvi II said other former Northwestern players who endured hazing have come forward to his law firm and more lawsuits are expected to be filed against the university in the new future.

Diaz spoke out after two lawsuits were filed on Monday against the school. The court documents claim Fitzgerald and his coaching staff knew or should have known about the hazing "initiations" and "traditions" of his Wildcats' football program. The complaints allege the behavior "groomed" incoming freshmen players to believe it "was normal."

The lawsuits are seeking actual and punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees and costs.

The lawsuits accuse Northwestern of negligence, willful and wanton disregard for player safety and well-being, and violation of Illinois' Gender Violence Act.

"With each filing, we have a clearer picture of the routine abuse that occurred in Northwestern's football program and continues to haunt these young men," said national civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who along with the Chicago law firm Levin & Perconti is representing the plaintiffs in the litigation. "The code of silence has been broken. The brave survivors filing these lawsuits are standing up to their alleged abusers and the institutions that reportedly allowed this twisted culture to prevail."

Eight former players are now suing the university over the alleged abuse they say they endured while members of the elite Big Ten Conference football team.

Lawsuits follow independent investigation

The latest lawsuits were filed on behalf of Warren Miles Long -- a former running back on the team, who played in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks -- and an unnamed player referred to in court papers as John Doe 2.

In a statement to ABC News on Tuesday, Northwestern officials said the university is taking steps to address allegations made by former players during a six-month independent investigation that preceded the filing of the new lawsuits.

"Shortly after learning the results of the independent investigation into hazing on the football team, the University announced a series of steps including the monitoring of the football locker room, anti-hazing training and the establishment of an online reporting tool for complaints," according to the university's statement. "These steps, while necessary and appropriate, are just the start, and we will be augmenting them in the coming weeks."

The statement adds, "The University is working to ensure we have in place appropriate accountability for our athletic department. We will engage an outside firm to evaluate the sufficiency of our accountability mechanism, and to detect threats to the welfare of our student-athletes. We also will examine the culture of Northwestern Athletics and its relationship to the academic mission. Both of these reviews will be conducted with feedback and engagement of faculty, staff and students, and both will be made publicly available."

While the independent investigation, conducted by attorney Maggie Hickey of the law firm ArentFox, did not find "sufficient" evidence that Fitzgerald and his coaches knew of the ongoing hazing, it did conclude that coaching staff had "significant opportunities" to find out about the conduct.

Following the investigation, Northwestern President Michael Schill initially suspended Fitzgerald on July 7 for two weeks without pay. But when the university's student newspaper The Daily Northwestern published a story detailing allegations of hazing and sexual abuse by a former player, Schill terminated Fitzgerald's employment on July 10.

In an open letter to the university community, Schill wrote that "the hazing included forced participation, nudity and sexual acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values."

In a statement to ESPN, Fitzgerald said he was surprised by Schill's decision to fire him. He said the independent investigation "reaffirmed what I have always maintained -- that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing within the Northwestern Football Program."

The school announced on Wednesday that it has hired Lynch, the former U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, to spearhead a review of the athletic department's culture and its mechanisms for accountability when complaints about hazing are raised.

"I am determined that with the help of Attorney General Lynch, we will become a leader in combating the practice of hazing in intercollegiate athletics and a model for other universities," Schill said in a statement Wednesday.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Northwestern athletic director Derreck Gragg said, "The athletics department welcomes this review as a critical tool in identifying the additional steps Northwestern can take to eradicate hazing."

Long history of hazing alleged

The two lawsuits filed on Monday acknowledge hazing has been prevalent throughout collegiate sports and fraternities since the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Northwestern scandal comes after New Mexico State University fired its head basketball coach this year and agreed to an $8 million settlement with two basketball players who filed a lawsuit alleging they were sexually assaulted by teammates. The new lawsuits also cite hazing allegations raised in 2000 that caused the University of Vermont to cancel its hockey team's season, and the dismissal of four players from Georgia Southern University in 1999 for hazing.

In the lawsuit filed on his behalf, Warren alleged that as a freshman in 2013, he was subjected to a hazing ritual dubbed "running," in which a group of upperclassmen teammates wearing animal masks and calling themselves the "Shrek Squad," forcibly held him down and touched his body, groping his genitals and buttocks while playing music from the horror film "The Purge."

"Warren was so fearful of what might be done to him and was forced to physically fight back...," according to the lawsuit.

'Shrek Clap' and other hazing rituals

Warren and John Doe 2 also detailed another hazing ritual dubbed the "Shrek Clap," in which freshmen players were forced to do pull-ups, pass rush drills and other practice drills while naked.

"If the players refused to get naked or comply, they would get [the "running" ritual], which they had already been groomed and primed to accept as the ultimate punishment," according to both the new lawsuits.

Warren alleged he and other freshman players were also subjected to a hazing called the "Car Wash," in which they would have to run a gauntlet of naked upperclassmen teammates to get to the locker room showers.

"Due to Northwestern's status as the premier academic school in the Big 10 and Coach Pat Fitzgerald's charisma and promises about protecting players, both the plaintiffs and their families thought Northwestern would be the best place for them to play division one football," said Margaret Battersby Black, managing partner at Levin & Perconti. "They could never have imagined the abuse they would face. It was a huge betrayal of trust."

Related Topics