Pat Fitzgerald, at a news conference in March 2023. Credit:

In a scathing letter, 86 former Northwestern University athletes accuse Northwestern University President Michael Schill and Athletics Director Derrick Gragg of showing “a clear failure of unbiased and principled leadership” in the dismissal of former head football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was let go last month in the wake of a hazing scandal, after 17 seasons as head coach. Fitzgerald had also been a star linebacker for the Wildcats as an undergraduate.

The letter, ESPN reported, says that “by willfully ignoring due process, Northwestern University’s administration has left a welcome mat out for the weaponization of sexual assault, hazing and racism accusations to run rampant” at NU.

Schill originally gave Fitzgerald a two-week suspension, following an internal investigation of hazing allegations. An executive summary of that investigation was released, but not the report itself.

However, after the student newspaper The Daily Northwestern published specific hazing allegations, Fitzgerald was fired.

The former athletes, some of whom were teammates of Fitzgerald, said Schill overreacted to social media postings, and “abandoned foundational legal ethics” in letting the legendary coach go.

The letter, also seen by Crain’s Chicago Business, says that under such a scenario, “Any allegation, true or not, will be allowed to cancel anyone’s career and destroy their reputation depending upon popular opinion, while simultaneously allowing the censorship of free speech.

“The collective gains of Northwestern’s Athletic Department over the last three decades, along with Pat Fitzgerald’s legacy and character, have almost been wiped out without any proof of guilt or, much less, even a thorough and proper investigation.”

The ex-athletes also accuse Gragg of “foster[ing] an environment of uncertainty, distrust, and censorship.”

This latest letter is different than the one signed last week by more than 1,000 former Wildcat athletes. That first letter said the positives of NU’s sports culture should not be negated by the misdeeds of a few, but did not specifically criticize Schill or Gragg.

The new letter, ESPN notes, opposes NU’s hiring of former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to look into the culture and practices of NU athletics, because of “political controversies surrounding her history and reputation.”

Ironically, both those blasting the Fitzgerald dismissal and those who have sued NU and the former coach are both calling for one thing in common — release of NU’s original internal investigation into hazing allegations.

Each side apparently believes that the report will provide ammunition for their own points of view.

Acording to ESPN, those signing the new letter say Schill and Gragg should be fired unless they release the full report and “positively support our athletic programs with due process.”

The hazing scandal has seen more than a dozen former Wildcat football players suing Northwestern, Fitzgerald, and other currrent and former NU officials.

Fitzgerald has said he was not aware of the hazing.

Besides the former football player lawsuits, Northwestern has also been sued by ex-athletes or staff members in volleyball, lacrosse, and baseball.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Join the Conversation


  1. As a NU grad I am appalled by the actions of the university depriving Fitzgerald of the presumption of innocence until due process proved otherwise.

    1. The “high level summary” of the initial investigation conducted by Maggie Hickey and released by the University indicated that the hazing activities were widely corroborated by multiple players, and that this was not a secret in the football program. Presumption of innocence is a specific legal standard in criminal trials. If a carefully vetted report from a third party concludes that an organization is a den of systematic abuse, then I would think the appropriate response is to be appalled at the organization’s leadership, and their dereliction of duty when it comes to maintaining a healthy culture in their program. It is a strange perversion of the notion of “presumption of innocence” to say that such a specific legal principle should apply when it comes to a leader of a dysfunctional culture.

      1. Here is what I do know with absolute certainty Aaron… I don’t know what Fitzgerald knew … and neither do you. He has denied knowledge and hundreds of athletes have expressed support for him. He is entitled to due process.

        The report that you referred to stated … “The investigation team did not discover sufficient evidence to believe that coaching staff knew about the ongoing hazing conduct”.

        Suspending Fitzgerald pending a thorough investigation was the way to go. As to perversions, I would assign that label to those who are quick to cancel in the absence of evidence proving guilt.

        1. So there are two logical possibilities: 1) Fitz knew about this behavior and tacitly (or explicitly) condoned it. 2) Fitz did not know about the behavior at all.

          Possibility one is abhorrent on its face and has obvious ramifications. Possibility two indicates that the leadership of the football team did not understand how the culture of their team actually functioned, how abuse perpetuated year-over-year, how older teammates abused newer teammates, rinse and repeat. That sort of willful blindness is more than sufficient to justify regime change regardless of direct knowledge.

          The language that you note is very specific: “…did not discover sufficient evidence…” This is slippery legalese and isn’t much of an exoneration. And if Fitz really was completely unaware of these activities, that is an epic failure of leadership that would justify dismissal in any case.

          1. Aaron,
            It appears at best that we will agree to disagree. Nevertheless, thanks for engaging. But as my parting two comments…

            1) again, Fitzgerald should not need to be exonerated as there has been no evidence brough forward as of yet (according to the university’s own investigation) that he was guilty of knowing about the hazing,

            2) by the standards you set forth, I would expect that you are calling for President Biden to resign? Because even if he knew nothing of his family trading access for millions of dollars and “really was completely unaware of these activities, that is an epic failure of leadership that would justify dismissal in any case”? (Your words, not mine)

  2. Yowsa! Thanks Aaron and Jeff for the entertainment! So much passion regarding such a pathetically sad sports world topic.

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