Speaking publicly for the first time since allegations of hazing and misconduct embroiled the university and led to the dismissal of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald, four former Northwestern football players detailed an environment of ritualized abuse that has left many still dealing with the traumatic fallout years after the end of their playing careers.
“The university and football program has let us down,” said former quarterback and wide receiver Lloyd Yates, who played at Northwestern from 2015-17. “We were thrown into a culture where physical, emotional and sexual abuse was normalized.
“We were all victims, no matter what our roles were at the time.”
Yates was joined at a press conference in Chicago by attorneys Ben Crump and Steven Levin and three former teammates: Warren Miles-Long, a former linebacker and running back who played from 2013-18; Simba Short, who played linebacker for two years before medically retiring in 2016; and former tight end Tom Carnifax, who played from 2017-20.
“It is apparent to us that it is a toxic culture that was rampant in the athletics department at Northwestern University,” said Crump. “What they shared with us was clearly a pattern and practice of a culture that was predicated on physical intimidation, harassment, discrimination, abuse both mentally and sexually, and it was normalized.”
The former players are part of a planned lawsuit that includes at least 15 plaintiffs, the majority from the football program but representing multiple sports, including softball, Crump said. Attorneys are in conversation with at least 50 other potential clients, and “legal action is expected to expand beyond Northwestern’s football program to expose extreme and abusive hazing in other college athletic programs as well,” according to a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
“This is not just relegated to the football program at Northwestern University,” he said. “It’s not an individual coach. It’s widespread. It falls on the doorstep of Northwestern University as an institution.”
Players “lived in fear,” Short said, because of an atmosphere that condoned physical, emotional and mental abuse. Multiple reports, including an explosive story by the student newspaper The Daily Northwestern, have detailed situations where players were forced to participate in potentially degrading sexual acts, and instances where Black players were forced to cut off long hair to be more in line with what Fitzgerald termed the “Wildcat Way.”
“We had no reference point to know if this was a college football thing or a uniquely Northwestern thing,” said Miles-Long. “That’s kind of what went into normalizing things for us.”
As a result, “We were physically and emotionally beaten down, and some players have contemplated suicide as a result,” Yates said.
“It’s not easy for any of us to come forward. A lot of this stuff is embarrassing, it’s painful. We know we’re making ourselves targets for criticism. We do not want any more college students or athletes to endure what we had to endure for so long and repress.”
Asked why they didn’t come forward while part of the football program, the former players spoke to a culture that demonized dissent by threatening the loss of playing time and the possibility of further abuse. Athletes “feared reprisal and faced retaliation,” Crump said, while “other suffered in silence because of duress.”
“They were confused, conflicted and just frightened,” he said. “They were frightened that if they said anything, would that mean they wouldn’t get playing time? They were frightened. Would they lose their scholarship if they said anything?”
There has been a “remarkable consistency to what they are hearing” from these former players, Levin said.
“It didn’t happen one year, two years, three years,” he said. “It involved scores of athletes over a long period of time in a very public forum.”
Any coach engaging in similar behavior “better wake up,” Levin added.
This possible litigation is joined by two separate lawsuits filed Tuesday and Wednesday involving anonymous former Northwestern players, both alleging the school concealed episodes of hazing, racial discrimination and sexual misconduct. Broadly focused on issues within the athletics department, the lawsuits name Fitzgerald, athletics director Derrick Gragg, the school, the university’s board of trustees and school president Michael Schill as defendants.
The second lawsuit also includes former athletics director Jim Phillips, who left Northwestern in 2021 to become the commissioner of the ACC.
“We demand that the university, the president, the trustees are transparent with these survivors, these victims and this community,” said attorney Parker Stinar. “These survivors deserve that.”
As for Phillips, “His tenure overlapped with the allegations that have been made,” said co-attorney Pat Salvi.
These former players said that coaches were aware of hazing-related activities within the program, Stinar said. Yates said Wednesday it is “hard to believe” coaches were unaware.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Fitzgerald’s attorney, Dan Webb, said the complaint “has no validity as to Coach Fitzgerald and we will aggressively defend against these allegations with facts and evidence.”
In addition to hazing-related incidents that date to the start of Fitzgerald’s tenure as head coach in 2006, Salvi said he is aware of “troubling” allegations involving Northwestern’s baseball, softball and volleyball teams. Last week, the university fired baseball coach Jim Foster amid allegations of a toxic culture within the program.
“Coaches are following the culture that is established by the athletics department, athletics director and university,” Stinar said. “It’s not just one program. It’s not just one coach.”