At Northwestern, a widening gap between questions and answers fills with a purple haze

Just how twisted are things in the Wildcats’ football program and athletic department? An upcoming press conference by ex-players and their lawyers promises to detail “vast and shocking incidents of abuse.”

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2022 game Ryan Field Evanston Northwestern University

A 2022 game at Ryan Field in Evanston, where Northwestern University played its last season under Pat Fitzgerald.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There’s a purple haze, all in our brains.

It isn’t quite the kind Jimi Hendrix sang about over half a century ago, but this, too, is strange, discomfiting and nearly impossible to wrap one’s head around.

Just how twisted are things in the Northwestern football program and athletic department?

Is there any bottom to the scandal?

It just gets worse all the time in Evanston. What started as a quiet little two-week, offseason slap on the wrist of longtime football coach and school icon Pat Fitzgerald turned into a firing heard ’round the sports world. What started as an investigation into “hazing” turned out to involve allegations of sexual misconduct, systemic harassment and racial discrimination. What started as a football problem turned into a baseball one, too, and soon could involve complainants from other Wildcats sports teams, men’s and women’s.

And as Northwestern president Michael Schill and athletic director Derrick Gragg continue to shirk what should be their duty to speak publicly as trouble deepens all around them, the pain train keeps making regular stops at the Central Street station.

On Tuesday, a former Wildcats football player who was on the team from 2018 to 2022 filed the first lawsuit against Fitzgerald and members of the school’s leadership including Schill, Gragg and the board of trustees. The player, identified as John Doe, alleged that various forms of misconduct were enabled and concealed by those in positions of authority. The filing was submitted by the Chicago-based Salvi Law Firm, with attorney Parker Stinar indicating to the Associated Press that the case against Northwestern and its “tainted athletic department” is only beginning to grow.

And on Wednesday morning, the controversy surrounding Northwestern could reach an all-out roar as former players and their lawyers hold a news conference at a River North Hotel and allege, according to a press release touting the event, “vast and shocking incidents of abuse” within the football program. As least a dozen former players are at the center of this legal action and represented by well-known attorney Ben Crump in partnership with the Chicago-based firm Levin & Perconti.

Stinar represented victims of alleged sexual abuse in blockbuster cases against sports doctors and the universities of Michigan and Michigan State. Crump famously represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and George Floyd.

Former Oak Park River Forest and Northwestern quarterback Lloyd Yates, one of the players represented by Crump’s team, described experiencing hazing that was degrading and sexually abusive and gave him persistent nightmares and anxiety.

“I was conditioned to think this stuff is normal,” Yates told the Tribune, “and that this was what goes on in college football [and] in these locker rooms.”

Fitzgerald has his own heavy hitter in attorney Dan Webb, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, with plans to sue the school for breach of contract. Fitzgerald, 48, was signed through 2030 at more than $5 million per year. In a statement Tuesday evening, Webb ripped the John Doe complaint for failing to cite “any specific facts or evidence” against Fitzgerald.

“We will aggressively defend against these allegations with facts and evidence,” Webb said.

The legal brawling could be a months- or years-long spectacle and cast a dark shadow Northwestern will struggle to get out from under.

According to his latest letter to faculty and staff, sent Tuesday, Schill — still silent publicly — promised two new external reviews in order to ensure “appropriate accountability for the athletic department.”

“We [will] engage an outside firm to evaluate the sufficiency of our accountability mechanism including the Committee on Athletics and Recreation and our ability to detect threats to the welfare of student-athletes,” Schill wrote. “I also believe it is important to examine closely 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 new investigations are underway, the school’s faculty is coming together in support of students and against the proposed rebuilding of Ryan Field, a massive project the power players in Evanston have been absolutely banking on. Could the optics for an $800 million football project be any worse at this time?

In an open letter to the Daily Northwestern student publication, 263 faculty members averred that “Northwestern leadership should halt the planning and marketing of a new, $800 million Ryan Field until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved … Disturbing evidence of harassment and abuse — and high-level efforts to minimize those problems — suggest that we need to get the existing house in order before expanding it.”

Meanwhile, football recruits are decommitting and current players are beginning to enter the transfer portal. How does a blowout loss in the season opener at lowly Rutgers sound? Does anybody even care?

And, again, where is the leadership? Schill and Gragg have dutifully muzzled themselves.

Men’s basketball coach Chris Collins — who hasn’t been implicated in any of this — has 10 years under his belt at the school and all kinds of credibility, and now an opportunity to step forward and succeed Fitzgerald as the face and voice of Northwestern sports. It would be nice to hear from him, but he has declined to comment.

Also declining to answer the Sun-Times’ questions were former longtime athletic director Jim Phillips, who left in 2021 to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and new Big Ten commissioner Tony Pettiti.

Did Phillips ever receive any reports or complaints about hazing or any form of discrimination in the football program? Was he comfortable with Fitzgerald’s conduct?

Is Pettiti providing Northwestern with any guidance? Is the Big Ten involved in this fiasco in any way? Is the NCAA looking in?

There are too many questions and not enough answers, and the gap between the two widens seemingly every day and fills with a purple haze.

Is it tomorrow?

Or just the end of time?

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