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Former Northwestern football players and ex-coach complaints to be consolidated for trial

By: Julie Lang//May 31, 2024//

According to an August 2019 piece by the university’s student paper, The Daily Northwestern, the football team had been making its annual sojourn to Kenosha since the early 1990s and that the tradition of “training, learning, and bonding” had “become an important part of the Wildcats’ culture.” UW Parkside in Kenosha County. Staff Photo

Former Northwestern football players and ex-coach complaints to be consolidated for trial

By: Julie Lang//May 31, 2024//

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Last week, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered the Kenosha hazing-related complaints of five former Northwestern University football players and the wrongful termination complaint of the university’s former head football coach, Patrick Fitzgerald, to be consolidated for trial.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, multiple former players have filed hazing, sexual assault, harassment, and racial discrimination complaints against Northwestern since the scandal broke last year. Many of the alleged incidents detailed in the complaints occurred at “Camp Kenosha,” the team’s preseason training practice on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wis.

According to the Chicago Tribune, attorneys for Northwestern and Fitzgerald had separately argued against the motion but in her ruling, Judge Kathy Flanagan wrote that the former coach’s case “cannot in any way be considered in a vacuum.”

The consolidation of the cases for trial could present legal questions for Northwestern and its president, Michael Schill. Both defendants would have to argue that the university had rightfully fired Fitzgerald because, as head coach, he should have known about the hazing. However, that could bolster the players’ cases that the university and Fitzgerald were responsible for allowing the culture of alleged abuse to happen.

It had appeared that the grouped cases against Northwestern were heading towards settlement, but attorneys for the former players claimed the university’s attorneys had mishandled confidential information during the mediation process to help strategize and defend itself in the Fitzgerald case.

Attorneys for Northwestern University have strongly denied the accusations.

The former players, represented by Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard Marcie Mangan, then filed a motion to consolidate their cases with the $130 million breach of contract and defamation lawsuit brought by Fitzgerald for the discovery phase.

After a judge granted their request last month, attorneys for the players said in a statement that they would make another request to proceed with consolidated trials so a single jury will hear the several former players’ cases at the same time that the Fitzgerald case is heard.

“Both the hazing litigation and the Fitzgerald lawsuit name Northwestern University, and all cases have multiple overlapping issues, most notably the nature and extent of the alleged abuse and the action (or inaction) of Northwestern University. The same allegations of abuse cited in the hazing litigation are the same allegations that became the catalyst for Fitzgerald’s termination, of which he complains in his lawsuit. Additionally, four of the hazing cases and the Fitzgerald lawsuit also name Northwestern President Michael Schill as a defendant. Our goal is to proceed to trial in a cohesive fashion that avoids the parties seeking the same information from the same sources and witnesses in two separate court cases,” officials said.

An independent investigation was launched by Northwestern after it received an anonymous whistleblower complaint in late 2022 that detailed allegations of hazing and sexual abuse in the football program. The investigation—led by Maggie Hickey, a former executive assistant U.S. attorney and inspector general of Illinois, did not uncover evidence that anyone on the coaching staff knew about the alleged incidents but it concluded that there were ‘significant opportunities’ for the coaching staff to discover or report the hazing activities.

Details of the investigation remain confidential, however, the university immediately implemented several reformative actions which included placing Fitzgerald on a two-week suspension without pay, and permanently discontinuing the long-held football practices at Camp Kenosha.

Three days after the student paper The Daily Northwestern, published a story detailing additional hazing and sexual abuse allegations, Schill reversed his initial punishment and fired Fitzgerald.

In his statement, Schill noted, “The head coach is ultimately responsible for the culture of his team. The hazing we investigated was widespread and clearly not a secret within the program, providing Coach Fitzgerald with the opportunity to learn what was happening.”

A few months after being terminated, Fitzgerald sued Northwestern and Schill in October 2023, claiming that conduct by both parties amounted to an illegal breach of written and oral contracts.

In his complaint, he alleges that the university entered into “a binding, legal, oral contract with Fitzgerald whereby, if Fitzgerald accepted a two-week suspension without pay and without any legal challenge, and made a public statement that was supportive of Northwestern’s football program, Northwestern agreed that Fitzgerald would remain head coach with no further discipline related to the Hickey Report and the hazing subject matter investigated.”

Represented by Winston & Strawn LLP, Fitzgerald also states that, “Northwestern’s illegal conduct resulted in the destruction of Fitzgerald’s outstanding reputation as a college football coach, which he had worked for twenty-five years to develop.”

The consolidated cases for the five football players and Fitzgerald would go to trial first, potentially as early as autumn 2025, followed by trials for grouped “cohorts” of other hazing accusers, reports the Chicago Tribune.


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