At Northwestern — aka Cautionary Tale U. — a new investigation launches as football begins

“Northwestern” isn’t just a name on the schedule anymore. It’s also a code word for what not to do.

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Ryan Field, as Northwestern took on Wisconsin in 2022.

Ryan Field, as Northwestern took on Wisconsin in 2022.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Pads will pop, spirals will fly, formations will be taught and the first plays will be run Thursday as Northwestern’s football team opens its preseason training camp in Evanston.

There will be no whistle around Pat Fitzgerald’s neck, the longtime coach having been fired amid a hazing scandal heard ’round the college sports world. There will be no Camp Kenosha, that annual north-of-the-Wisconsin-border tradition having been jettisoned as part of the university’s effort to get its arms around a hazing problem and quiet a storm of criticism that has kept Northwestern in the news for all the wrong reasons.

But there will be football, along with in-person, anti-hazing training led by outside experts that’s part of the new normal for Wildcats athletes, coaches and staff in all sports. The football team is, appropriately, up first.

The Wildcats, led by interim coach David Braun, will be one of the most talked-about teams in Big Ten country from now until their Sept. 3 season opener at Rutgers, a Sunday game scheduled for a national telecast on CBS. No one expects the Wildcats to have much success on the field, but Northwestern has become quite the cautionary tale. Does hazing exist everywhere in college football? No, but it’s surely out there — and coaches at other schools will emphasize the need for it to be squashed before it even starts, lest Northwestern be allowed to pass the scandal baton at a time when college athletes are more empowered than ever to speak out against all forms of improper conduct and treatment.

Last week at Big Ten media days in Indianapolis, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, the former Bears defensive coordinator, was among the coaches who said hazing would be a Day 1 issue in their training camps. In a car en route to the festivities, Illinois’ Bret Bielema played reporter and questioned the Illini’s player representatives on the topic of hazing, preparing them for moments in interviews that were, and will continue to be, inevitable.

“Northwestern” isn’t just a name on the schedule anymore. It’s also a code word for what not to do.

And that goes for meatheaded players preying on teammates, feckless coaches and staff members looking the other way and bumbling administrators handling their responsibilities to all students like hot potatoes.

Nearly four weeks since Northwestern’s investigation into football hazing blew up into a national story, the school has hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to “lead an independent review of the processes and accountability mechanisms in place at the University to detect, report and respond to potential misconduct in its athletics programs, including hazing, bullying and discrimination of any kind,” according to an official statement.

On its face, this seems like a positive step. That the results of Lynch’s review will be made public is another one, especially since Northwestern has refused to release the findings of its own investigation. That material remains under lock and key, a university spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

“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,” Northwestern president Michael Schill said in a statement.

But Lynch isn’t the attorney general anymore. She was hired to perform this sensitive task by Northwestern, whose leadership has called its own competency — and backbone — into question from the very beginning. Schill has issued a series of statements that, in light of his ongoing refusal to speak publicly as lawsuits against the school mount, ring hollow. The school is touting this external review as the latest in a series of “immediate actions” taken since July 7, which is absurd. July 7 was the day Fitzgerald was suspended for two weeks without pay, a meaningless offseason slap on the wrist when Schill and invisible athletic director Derrick Gragg were still hoping all this would just go away.

Much has blown up in Northwestern’s face since then, including a baseball scandal. Coach Jim Foster was fired three days after Fitzgerald, a development that might not have unfolded if not for all the media heat roiling in Evanston at the time. Foster — whom Gragg hired a few weeks into his own tenure at the school — was allowed to coach a full season despite complaints of abusive behavior that reportedly led to a human-resources investigation and an exodus of players and assistant coaches.

Where was Northwestern’s backbone then?

In an email sent this week to students, faculty and staff and co-signed by Schill and Gragg, a “commitment” was reiterated: “We still stop at nothing to safeguard the welfare of our student-athletes [and] will do whatever is necessary to ensure that our athletics program is fully aligned with and reflects our values.”

Yet it seems they’ve already tried — more than once — to stop at nothing, which makes one wonder if their “values” are real or being made up as this mess goes along.

Football is back, and nobody wants to be the next Northwestern.

The cautionary tale continues.

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