With names and faces now attached to the hazing allegations, life just got harder for Northwestern

Whistleblowers risk a lot by coming forward.

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Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Northwestern quarterback Lloyd Yates walks to a news conference Wednesday about hazing in the school’s football program.

Flanked by attorneys and supporters, former Northwestern quarterback Lloyd Yates walks to a news conference Wednesday about hazing in the school’s football program.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Of all the designations to aspire to in life, “whistleblower” probably wouldn’t make anyone’s Top 10 list. Scorn, derision, judgment … these are some of the things you can expect in return for publicly trying to right a perceived wrong. And that’s just by breakfast.

The Northwestern hazing scandal took another step on its journey to rock bottom, with former players and their attorneys on Wednesday painting a picture of a football program that had taken a heel to its moral compass. It put names and faces to the allegations made against the school and former coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was fired last week after NU’s six-month investigation into the matter.

You can argue that the 15 players (and counting) who have come forward are money-grubbing liars looking to cash in on a lawsuit. But you can’t argue that their lives will be easy going forward, no matter how many coins they manage to shake out of Northwestern’s pockets.

Surely they know this, which lends credence to the accusations some of them made at a press conference Wednesday. Who would want to subject themselves to the abuse they can expect from former teammates or from social-media Bravehearts who think the whistleblowers are rats? Who would sign up for that solitary confinement?

“The university and the football program has let us down,’’ former Northwestern quarterback Lloyd Yates said. “That’s why we’re here today. Upon arrival to campus, we were thrown into a culture where physical, emotional, and sexual abuse was normalized. No teammate I knew liked hazing. We were all victims, no matter what our role was at the time, but the culture was so strong that we felt we had to go with it to survive, to be respected, and to earn the trust within the football program.’’

“This is a little bit of closure,’’ former NU tight end Tom Carnifax said. “I spent the last four years hating myself and what I went through.”

Yates spoke of several former players who had contemplated suicide, which doesn’t mesh well with the fun, family-like image that Northwestern sold during Fitzgerald’s 17 years as head coach. Then again, neither does upperclassmen dry-humping freshmen as punishment for making mistakes on the field, a practice the former players say regularly happened at NU.

I’m surprised at how easily I write the term “dry-humping” now.

Two lawsuits have been filed against Northwestern, Fitzgerald and current and former school officials. More are expected to come. Former NU athletic director Jim Phillips, now the ACC commissioner, was among those named in a lawsuit that was filed Wednesday. This will only get messier. And it already was a sty.

Eleven players out of hundreds who played for Fitzgerald told the school’s investigators that there had been hazing. That suggests at least three possibilities.

— Lots of current and former players chose silence over doing the right thing and speaking up.

— Investigators didn’t have the resources to reach every former player.

— The hazing never happened.

The logical answer is some combination of Nos. 1 and 2, with No. 3 the fantasyland refuge of those fans who bleed purple.

Even if only some NU players took part in the hazing of freshmen in the team’s darkened locker room, it likely means that every player knew of the practice. It’s possible some players didn’t view the hazing as demeaning or humiliating, but they knew about it. Perhaps a deposition or two might loosen some lips.

It’s easy to understand why current players might be afraid to come forward. They don’t want to lose scholarships or playing time. They don’t want to be seen as weak. They don’t want to be called traitors. That’s a strong deterrent to speaking out.

But for alums who took part in or witnessed the hazing, yet kept quiet, they’ll end up being judged on their character.

Fitzgerald said he didn’t know of the hazing, but that’s a misdirection play. Whether he knew or didn’t know, it was his job to know. That’s what got him fired. The lawyers representing an anonymous former player who is suing Northwestern said Fitzgerald must have known about the abuse. The distinction would be whether Fitz is a bad guy or an oblivious coach. You can understand why he would fight that battle to the bitter end. Either way, he needed to be fired.

“The head football coach knows about everything that happens with his football program,” attorney Parker Stinar said at Wednesday’s press conference. “... And this wasn’t just one single event. We’re talking about probably hundreds, if not thousands of events of abuse, harassment or sexual assault during his tenure.’’

People lie. People sue in the hopes of easy money.

And some people tell the truth.


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