CHICAGO — The Northwestern hazing scandal resulted in the termination of football coach Pat Fitzgerald and heaped a ton of bad publicity upon the university.
But many questions remain unanswered as Fitzgerald and his attorneys consider their options and the university tries to move forward from one of its worst weeks in memory.
Here are four questions to chew on as we await the next round of statements.
1. Will the scandal affect the charge to build a new stadium to replace Ryan Field?
A group of six tenured faculty members sent a letter to President Michael Schill, athletic director Derrick Gragg and Board of Trustees chair Peter Barris that included a request to halt the planning and marketing of an $800 million rebuild of the football stadium “until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved.” What that meant was unclear, but the point of stopping the project was made.
Whether Wildcats football games draw enough fans to make a new stadium necessary — even one with significantly fewer seats (a proposed 35,000) than the current Ryan Field’s 47,130 — also seems to be worth asking. Northwestern drew an average of 28,697 at home last season, which doesn’t include the neutral-site game in Ireland.
It was their lowest attendance since 2009, excluding the 2020 pandemic season in which only families were allowed to attend games. A 1-11 season will do that.
But whatever the reasons for the lack of interest in 2022, it was about a 35% drop-off from 2018, when Notre Dame was on the home schedule and NU averaged 43,873 per game. Attendance has dropped each year since, though the pandemic also affected attendance in 2021. Look for the project to go ahead, if only for the concert revenue it hopes to bring in.
2. Does Fitzgerald have a case against the university?
Fitzgerald’s statement, issued to ESPN on Monday a few hours after the firing announcement, said he hired legal counsel to “protect my rights in accordance with the law.” Fitzgerald said he reached a “mutual agreement” with Northwestern on the two-week unpaid suspension and the investigation “reaffirmed what I have always maintained — that I had no knowledge whatsoever of any form of hazing.”
So does he have a case?
Fitzgerald’s attorney, Dan Webb, told the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday the firing was a breach of his client’s employment contract, which has eight years remaining on a 10-year, $57 million deal. Webb also said the agreement reached on the two-week suspension was breached when Fitzgerald was fired three days later.
“They had an oral agreement,” Webb said. “You can’t just wake up the next morning and say, ‘We’re going to change it.’ That’s why (we) have contract law.”
Schill’s letter explaining his decision said “the hazing was well-known by many in the program, though the investigator failed to find any credible evidence that Coach Fitzgerald knew about it himself.” He added “the head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of the team.”
That suggests the cause of the dismissal was creating a culture that permitted the hazing, even if the investigation found no evidence he knew about it.
In a different sports-related case involving a breach of previously levied punishment, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell initially suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games and fined him $500,000 in July 2014 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after Rice was accused of felony assault against his fiancee, who later became his wife.
In suspending Rice, Goodell said in a letter: “I believe you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career.”
Goodell was widely criticized for the lenient penalty, and after TMZ posted a video in September 2014 of Rice punching the woman in an elevator and dragging her unconscious body out of it, the commissioner issued an indefinite suspension and the Ravens released Rice.
That November an arbitrator overturned the NFL’s ruling, and the judge maintained Rice had been penalized twice: the original two-game sanction and the indefinite suspension stemming from the release of the video.
Judge Barbara Jones wrote in her ruling that while watching the video “invoked horror in Commissioner Goodell, as it did with the public,” it “didn’t change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL (during his interview).”
Fitzgerald’s legal team might try to argue he accepted the initial punishment from Schill based on the findings of the investigation but was terminated three days later without cause. After the whistleblower described the hazing in detail in The Daily Northwestern, Schill publicly admitted he “erred” in his lenient sanction.
Like Goodell, Schill was criticized for his decision, then changed his mind after increased media scrutiny.
Rice received arbitration because of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players association. Webb said he is exploring breach-of-contract claims.
3. Will the Northwestern student journalists involved in the reporting have big-time job opportunities?
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the clipping of a national news story attached to your resume, but none of the student reporters has time to think that far ahead. According to university sources, the journalists have not been resting on their laurels over their coverage, even as they’ve received national attention, including one reporter being interviewed Tuesday by “NBC Nightly News.” The hazing scandal is an ongoing story, and there’s more legwork to do.
Some of the reporters received hate mail early on for publishing the whistleblower’s account of the hazing, an unfortunate but all-too-common occurrence for journalists in the age of social media. But most of the reaction has been positive.
Good or bad, it’s a lesson of what to expect when they enter the real world, where they’ll find an industry with shrinking newspapers, low-paying jobs and little of the recognition they’ve received over the last few days.
4. Should Northwestern football just quit the Big Ten?
Northwestern markets itself as “Chicago’s Big Ten team,” though Chicago’s original Big Ten team — the University of Chicago — abolished football in 1939 and announced it would leave the conference on March 8, 1946.
The U. of C. never looked back. Its president back then, Robert Hutchins, reportedly viewed sports as a distraction for a school of higher education.
Of course, Northwestern would never follow suit. There’s too much money and prestige in having a Power Five football team. But if the hazing by football players was systemic, as Schill’s letter and some former players suggested, one has to wonder what’s the point of continuing. Perhaps a “timeout” is necessary while the university gets its football program in order.
If they sat out the season and forfeited their 12 games in 2023, the Wildcats would wind up with only one fewer win than in 2022.