Former Northwestern participant says coach Pat Fitzgerald “failed” by not stopping working towards chicanes
A former Northwestern football player who has raised allegations of widespread harassment within the program spoke Sunday to college president Michael Schill, who is considering tougher disciplinary action for coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The former player, who spoke to ESPN on condition of anonymity, said he told Schill about the bullying he witnessed and experienced at Northwestern, many of which he said were sexualized. Schill said in a letter to the Northwestern community late Saturday that he would be reevaluating the two-week suspension Fitzgerald received Friday following a university-commissioned investigation into the bullying allegations.
“Fitz absolutely knew about bullying on this show,” the former player told ESPN. “Fitz absolutely failed by not intervening. Fitz knew it and should have stopped it; and if he really didn’t know, he shouldn’t be the head coach. Whatever the case, he shouldn’t be the head coach because he’s not overseeing and protecting the safety and wellbeing of student athletes.”
Fitzgerald, the team’s coach since 2006 and a highly decorated former Northwestern player, said in a statement Friday that he was not aware of any bullying activity within the program. The university’s investigation, led by attorney Maggie Hickey and law firm ArentFox Schiff, found that while the former player’s allegations were “largely supported by the evidence”, coaches were unaware of the ongoing bullying – despite having had the opportunity to report problematic behavior discover and report. The school did not publish any concrete results.
Northwestern players released a statement in support of Fitzgerald on Saturday, saying he was unaware of the alleged incidents and that the former player’s allegations were “exaggerated and twisted.”
The former player said on Sunday that Schill was “extremely receptive” to his reports of bullying within the program and had offered him resources to deal with the trauma.
A current Northwestern player who wished to remain anonymous also told ESPN on Sunday that the former player, whose bullying allegations launched the investigation in late 2022, had briefed him on a detailed plan with the sole goal of taking out Fitzgerald. The current player on Sunday leaked a conversation he says he had with the former player earlier in the year to Northwestern University trustees and other influential figures at the university.
“He kept emphasizing, ‘Yes, everything will be fine. I’m just trying to get Coach Fitz fired,'” the current player told ESPN. “I don’t think he’s ever admitted that what he says isn’t true. It was just like, ‘I could embellish or exaggerate to fire Coach Fitz.’ He said his only goal was to see Coach Fitz rot in prison.
“The truth is none of that happened in our dressing room.”
The current player said the former player told him he would go public with detailed allegations if the university’s investigation didn’t result in Fitzgerald’s dismissal, citing the situation in 2021 with athletic director Mike Polisky, who said nine days resigned after his promotion under media and public pressure. Polisky was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a former Northwestern cheerleader.
“He figured he could do the same thing with Coach Fitz if he went to The Daily Northwestern and went public with it,” the current player said.
When briefed on the current player’s report, the former player said he was “desperate to take action to get Fitz out of the program,” but he had other goals.
“I want to shed light on this despicable, illegal behavior,” said the former player. “I wanted to ban illegal behavior from the program. This is an absolutely barbaric and outrageous culture that ultimately rests on the shoulders of the head coach.”
The former player told ESPN that Northwestern’s program of harassment is organized and widespread, often led by a group of older players known as the “Shrek Gang.” The group would engage in a bullying activity called “running,” usually against newcomers or younger players who had made mistakes in training, he said. According to the former player, older players wearing masks held the victim in a dark dressing room and engaged in sexualized behavior. The former player said he “walked” as a freshman.
“They were held against their will by numerous masked high school students and violently beaten dry in a dark room,” the former player said. “This is Title IX stuff, this is sexual abuse and sexual assault. I don’t know why the university isn’t releasing the details.”
The former player said Fitzgerald used a specific clapping motion during practice to signal for players to be added to “Shrek’s list.” He said he’s seen Fitzgerald make the application at least five times since the 2020 season.
“He smiled menacingly at the person who screwed it up while clapping his hands over his head to let our head coach know that that person had done something wrong and needs to be put on the list and bullied accordingly.” the team would then follow Fitz’s example,” said the former player.
The current player told ESPN that the team starts practice with slow claps, but that he’s never seen Fitzgerald clapping as a signal.
The former player said names would be put on a plaque in the dressing room and the “running” would then take place at certain times of the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. The former player sent ESPN a photo of a whiteboard with the caption “SHREK’S LIST” listing the players’ names and bullet points such as “Naked Slingshot,” “Naked Bear Crawls,” and “Naked [center-quarterback] Exchange” and “Naked Pass Rush”.
“It was in the middle of the dressing room and visible to everyone throughout my program time,” said the former player. “I can say with 100 percent certainty that every single person who has ever participated in this program between 2020 and now has seen it.” [the whiteboard]. Every single player in this 2020-2023 program knows what Shrek is and the harassment that will occur.”
The current Northwestern player told ESPN that he’s never heard of “Shrek’s List” and has never seen the whiteboard in the dressing room. He added that Fitzgerald stays away from the dressing room and tells the players it’s theirs.
The former player described other instances of harassment that required players to perform naked acts in the locker room, including mimicking the center-quarterback change at football games. He pointed to the “car wash” where naked linemen lathered their bodies and blocked the entrance to the crew’s showers. He also described the “Gatorade Shake Challenge,” which forced three freshmen to drink as many Gatorade shakes as they could in 10 minutes.
“I’ve never seen anyone throw up violently either during or after the challenge,” said the former player. “I’ve seen newcomers who were forced to attend fall ill with this tradition for several days after the event.”
Another former player who played early in Fitzgerald’s tenure told ESPN that he watched both the “Gatorade Shake Challenge” and the “Car Wash.” The second former player mentioned other incidents of players being forced to do naked pull-ups and other things at a gym during pre-season camp in Wisconsin.
“Did I feel good? Not really. But did I feel like I had a choice? No,” said the other former player. “Some people thought it was fun while others thought it wasn’t a cool experience building or is that bullying?”
The whistleblower said he spoke to other former Northwestern players who retired before he joined the program and that they saw the same bullying activity.
The former player also said Northwestern’s assistant coaches were negligent in their intimidation. He said he’s had several incidents where his positional coach has been asked about “Shrek,” only for the coach to “put his hands up in the air and say, ‘Stop talking. I don’t want to know about it’.”
The current player, who shared the same position space as the former player, said “Shrek” never came up in meetings.
When asked about the team’s statement on Saturday denying its allegations, the former player told ESPN, “Obviously people are going to support Fitz publicly and publicly oppose the harassment, but obviously there would be that reaction , because most people are involved in it.” Program are either perpetrators or bystanders.