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Northwestern players defend Pat Fitzgerald in hazing case

As Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has in the past rebuffed NFL interest, currently serves a meaningless two-week suspension following hazing allegations against the program, more detail from the alleged incidents has emerged. And Fitzgerald’s players collectively have spoken out in his defense, and their own.

A detailed article in the Daily Northwestern — the school’s student newspaper — describes the practice of “running” players who in the opinion of other players needed to be punished. Usually, the penalty was inflicted upon young players for mistakes made during practice.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and it’s just absolutely egregious and vile and inhumane behavior,” an unnamed former player told the Daily Northwestern. The player said he reported the situation to the school in November 2022.

“Running” involves being restrained by a group of masked upperclassmen who would then commence “dry-humping” the player 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. . . . It’s done under this smoke and mirror of ‘oh, this is team bonding,’ but no, this is sexual abuse.”

The article contains details regarding other incidents of a sexual nature, including players forced to participate in naked center-quarterback exchanges and an annual tradition known as the “car wash,” during which “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,’” followed by painful spraying with a hose.

On Saturday, Northwestern’s football players issued a statement denying any hazing, calling the allegations “exaggerated and twisted into lies” made “with the intention of harming our program and tarnish the reputation of our dedicated players and coaching staff.” The statement also cites the fact that the school “hired an independent third-party” to investigate the situation.

“It is crucial to note that our Head Coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was not involved in any of the alleged incidents in any way, shape, or form,” the statement asserts. “Coach Fitzgerald had no knowledge of these allegations until they were brought to his attention during the investigation. 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.”

Even under the high standard of intelligence possessed by the average Northwestern student, that statement doesn’t read as if it were written by someone 19, 20, or 21 years old. It has the not-so-subtle fingerprints of knowledge and experience when it comes to crafting effective P.R. messages. The real story regarding its creation could be very interesting, and revealing.

Despite the statement, the Daily Northwestern revealed in its story the possibility that Fitzgerald knew about the ritual of “running,” and that he used a signal during practice to designate the players who should receive the penalty. While the official version is that Fitzgerald didn’t know anything, he was nevertheless suspended for two weeks without pay.

And as to the independent, third-party nature of the investigation, we’ve learned from covering the NFL that these investigations often aren’t truly independent. Usually, it’s conducted by an outside lawyer who is given a specific assignment from the client and who, if smart and inclined to get more work from said client, figures out what the entity paying him or her wants the outcome to be.

Here, the outcome for Fitzgerald amounts to a largely symbolic (although not inexpensive) gesture. Whether it affects his status with the program or potential NFL prospects remains to be seen.