Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

Northwestern Football’s

The most recent in a long line of major athletics scandals is the hazing controversy involving the Wildcats. How much does a school ultimately have to pay for an affair like this? We dissect the figures. This article is a part of Sports Illustrated’s investigation into the relationship between money and sports, covering topics such…

The most recent in a long line of major athletics scandals is the hazing controversy involving the Wildcats. How much does a school ultimately have to pay for an affair like this? We dissect the figures.
This article is a part of Sports Illustrated’s investigation into the relationship between money and sports, covering topics such as online betting, business-minded athletes, the NIL revolution, and more. See SI’s October 2023 Money Issue for more information on sports and money.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

In academicspeak, there’s a saying that goes something like this: The low stakes make the battles so vicious. It is presumably exempt from the severe altercations that occur within a school’s athletic department. There are a lot on the line in that particular area of the university. in particular when it comes to the consequences of scandal.
Late on July 7, it was a typical Friday morning news dump. A brief story made its way around screens and possibly appeared on news alerts: Pat Fitzgerald, the football coach at Northwestern, was suspended for two weeks in the middle of the summer, which happened to fall during his scheduled vacation period. The suspension followed an investigation into a complaint about hazing in the program. Folks, nothing to see here. Naturally, though, there was.

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By the end of the weekend, school president Michael Schill said he had been hurried in giving out such a light punishment and had a “epiphany” (his word when addressing the team, multiple sources tell Sports Illustrated) about his decision-making after a detailed and incriminating story appeared in the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. Fitzgerald, a standout player for the Wildcats in the 1990s and head coach since 2006, had lost his job by Monday. Numerous other reports of hazing started to emerge. Ripples from the scandal spread like a stone thrown into Lake Michigan.

Fitzgerald was soon accused of supervising a culture that included racism and sexual misconduct in addition to hazing. The football team’s hazing customs, some of which were sexualized and others of which involved physical abuse, came to light. to reveal in court cases and interviews.

Coaches and other Northwestern athletic programs were also involved. Jim Foster, the baseball coach, was fired three days after Fitzgerald was fired despite the school’s attempt to portray it as unrelated.The reason for this was that a different inquiry found “sufficient evidence” indicating Foster was “engaged in bullying and abusive behavior.” (Three of his former employees have sued the university since then.) Allegations of bullying were also revealed by a lawsuit that a NU volleyball player filed. In addition, a 2015 book with a chapter titled “Women: Our Greatest Distraction” was penned by Derrick Gragg, NU’s relatively new athletic director who started in 2021.

Foster and Fitzgerald have both denied any wrongdoing and any knowledge of the hazing. Schill and Gragg declined to comment further, citing previous remarks denouncing hazing.
The university has stated that while it works to enhance its athletic culture, it does not comment on litigation that is currently pending. (It also claims that the baseball lawsuit is without merit and that the volleyball incident was handled appropriately at the time.)

Over a month after the first “Friday news dump,” headlines, claims, denials, and counterclaims continued nonstop, interspersed with carefully worded remarks, spontaneous declarations, and, of course, lawsuits. All of this has cost a significant amount of money. To all of the living. to the standing of the school. to the community’s fabric. Of course, there are also the balance sheets of the school overall and the football program specifically.

However, what might be the financial effects of a modern college sports scandal, of inappropriate behavior going unpunished?
and after that a crisis awkwardly handled? “This is going to cost you nine figures,” says Columbia University professor Scott Rosner, who oversees the sports management program. And perhaps even more in the from mid to low in range.”

Since NU is a private institution, it is exempt from disclosure requirements regarding its finances and open records requests. However, we can draw conclusions by examining scandals that have affected public universities in the same conference—Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. These estimates, along with interviews with six well-connected Northwestern sources who all requested anonymity, suggest that any estimate of the scandal’s $100 million price tag is, if anything, conservative given the wide range of ramifications it will have.


Schill is not a part of the athletic community. The president of NU likes to tell stories about how, on Friday nights as an undergraduate at Princeton, he would lose himself in the library. Schill would go on to become a brilliant legal scholar with a focus on housing. His studies frequently examined the relationship between our opportunities in life and the condition of our neighborhoods and the real estate we own or do not.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

That being said, Schill undoubtedly had a particular fondness for the 2022 announcement that the Patrick and Shirley Ryan family would be donating close to $500 million to Northwestern, with a sizeable portion designated for a brand-new, “best-in-class” football stadium, even though he wasn’t a big sports fan in general.
had served as coach of the group since 2006.
Fitzpatrick, who coached the team since 2006, was a player for two Big Ten champion Northwestern teams. USA TODAY Sports/Jonathan Becker

Although Northwestern has been a part of the Big Ten since the 1890s—a conference that currently pays its schools upwards of $60 million a year in media rights—its football and basketball teams have frequently underperformed, partly because of the university’s strict academic requirements, which made recruiting difficult. But a top-notch football stadium would enable NU to contend. More prosperity would probably follow from upgraded real estate, as Schill’s research thesis attests.

Other donors have joined since the Ryan gift was revealed, driving up the price of the new stadium to $800 million. Even so, the project is progressing
Fitzgerald, a player for Northwestern teams that won two Big Ten titles, According to a source close to the program, the school was already asking about holding games at Soldier Field and Wrigley Field during construction despite not having received any approvals from the Evanston City Council.

However, a crisis has a way of upending the precarious alliances of interests that support large-scale undertakings. A group of Northwestern professors requested that the project’s planning be halted “until this crisis is satisfactorily resolved” in the days following the news of the hazing scandal. The athletic department needed “to get the existing house in order before expanding it,” these faculty members reasoned.

In response, Schill said in an interview with The Daily Northwestern: “Ryan Field needs to be resolved based on the advantages that In contrast to the costs, it will generate for the community.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

But this assumes that the donors—including the Ryan family—continue to feel passionate about their contributions. With seventy members on the board of trustees at Northwestern, the unusually sizable Ryan family’s psyche has become somewhat of a joke. The family has turned down numerous requests for comment.

A source closely connected to recent discussions among NU trustees claims that Fitzgerald has long been backed by the Ryan family. So much so that a statue of the two-time All-American during his playing days was included in an architect’s rendering of the renovated Ryan Fieldliked that he went to Northwestern and that he was a Chicagoan.””Fitzgerald has always been liked by the family; they liked that he played football, child and that he’s even Irish,” the speaker claims. The source implies that the Ryans are “maybe not exactly fired up to get this built with the current leadership in place” following Fitzgerald’s dismissal and the clumsy damage control that followed. However, a second source from the board of trustees informs SI that they still think the Ryan family is “fully committed to this legacy play.”

The scandal’s financial picture will drastically shift if the school or the funders decide to scrap the project. For the time being, uncertainty usually results in delays, and delays typically increase large-scale project budget estimates by 10% on average. In this instance, in the likely event that the hazing scandal’s effects materially change the schedule, that calculation would result in additional expenses of about $80 million.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame


Fitzgerald, 48, was two seasons into a contract that was expected to pay him $5.75 million annually through ’30, with over $40 million left over. When Schill was fired by the school on July 10, he explained his dismissal in an open letter that referred to a “broken” culture. Subtext: Fitzgerald breached his contractual obligation to oversee a safe program in addition to having to quit.

Fitzgerald got back to them quickly, telling his lawyer, former U.S. attorney Dan Webb, and his agent to “take the necessary steps to protect my rights in accordance with the law.”

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

Fitzgerald’s case will probably depend on whether or not he was fired for cause, as is the case with many employment law cases. Fitzgerald would not be eligible for payment if that were the case, as he would be considered to have broken his job contract. He would not be reinstated in the absence of cause, but Northwestern would be held in violation of the terms of the employment contract and would have to pay the outstanding amount.

Here, there are no clearcut boundaries. Fitzgerald’s attorneys may take advantage of Northwestern’s initial belief that the misconduct only called for a two-week unpaid leave of absence. Then, the school adopted a far harsher stance in response to significant public outcry but little new evidence. Fitzgerald’s legal team is reportedly planning to file a lawsuit against USC and Texas, citing lucrative opportunities that Fitzgerald turned down. The lawsuit would also reportedly seek damages for lost future earnings.

Northwestern may mention the following when claiming the dismissal was justified: fresh information that has surfaced as more players have confessed to Fitzgerald knowing about the hazing, with many of them describing an identically hostile atmosphere. Or that it defies logic to believe that the most successful coach and player in school history would be unaware of ingrained practices within the program. Or that despite all of the general support that the former coach has received from both current and former players, Fitzgerald’s claim that he was unaware of the hazing has gone unchallenged.

Even more likely: There won’t be a trial in this case. The texts, emails, and talks between the two parties may be made public during the discovery phase. There’s a good chance that both parties will feel embarrassed. The found material might seriously oppose Fitzgerald’s quest for a new coaching position. Additionally, it might harm Northwestern’s and its administrators’ reputations.

Using past performance as a guide, the parties will agree to settle some, but not all, of the remaining balance on Fitzgerald’s contract. It will include nondisparagement clauses and offset clauses in the event that Fitzgerald secures a comparable coaching position. Rounding to $20 million, please.

Then there are the costs involved in locating Fitzgerald’s replacement, which include the search fee. David Braun, the defensive coordinator, was named the acting head coach. He came from North Dakota State earlier this year, so he is not tainted by the previous culture. However, is Northwestern prepared to place a long-term wager on a person who has never held a head coaching position in a college and was only given the temporary position by unlikely promotion to the battlefield? If not, Northwestern will probably have to pay above-market rates for its next coach given the scandal’s aftermath of broom-and-dustpan duties and the transfer portal exodus. And to help Braun, it has already engaged Skip Holtz, a consultant with 22 years of NCAA head coaching experience, for a salary that is probably in the mid-six figures.

What about Gragg, too? The beleaguered AD has come under heavy fire, not least for delaying his return from a vacation in Europe when the scandal broke. Schill has openly backed Gragg, but Gragg’s leadership has been called into question due to the firing of multiple NU coaches and his contentious remarks about “booty-shaking sex-kittens or materialistic gold-diggers” endangering male athletes. But if he is fired, it won’t probably be for a good reason. Consequently, the school will owe him what’s left on his contract, which comes to about $1 million a year, according to sources. (Gragg disputes claims that his book “casts women in an unfavorable light” and that passages have been taken out of context, stating that he left Europe as soon as it was practical to do so.)

Schill has also received a lot of flak for his handling of the crisis, as it is. Should he not make it through this scandal? Even though his pay is not disclosed to the public, we can make assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed nearly ten years ago that Morton Schapiro, Schill’s predecessor as president of NU, was paid $2.35 million a year. Schill joined NU after serving as president of the University of Oregon, where reports from the public records, he was making $780,000 in 2022 in addition to housing, a car stipend, retirement contributions, and other benefits.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame

Assume, conservatively, that Schill signed a five-year contract with a salary of $2 million per year. This is typical of what presidents do. Even though Schill may not have handled the scandal and messages well, it’s difficult to argue that he should be fired for good reason. Therefore, NU might be liable for an additional $8 million to $10 million.


Not surprisingly, attorneys started suing Northwestern on behalf of former athletes within days of Fitzgerald’s firing and more information about hazing rituals negatively affecting the university and specifically targeting athletes of color surfaced. Ben Crump, a well-known civil rights lawyer, showed up shortly after.

Following his comparison of the scandal to the “#MeToo moment” in college sports, Crump revealed that “dozens” of former NU baseball, softball, and football players had gotten in touch with his office. After one day, he disclosed that he would be standing in for the first class of 12 former NU athletes. There were fifteen plaintiffs the next day. The list of plaintiffs keeps growing as more have enrolled with other attorneys.

Crump is working with Steven Levin, senior partner at Levin & Perconti. “Maybe Northwestern will come to the table and say, ‘You know what, let’s see what we can do here,'” the speaker states.

How might that appear? Other recent college athletics scandals have resulted in settlements for certain schools, while others have opted to take their opponents to court. According to public records, Penn State has given the survivors of former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s assaults more than $118 million. 2018 saw the $500 million settlement with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar, Michigan State (now back in the news for another scandal)—an average of more than $1 million per athlete. Even though Ohio State has reached settlements, over 200 claims are still pending. in the Strauss scandal, there were almost 300 survivors, with an average of about $250,000 per person.

Despite the unpleasant and imprecise nature of comparing scandals, the Northwestern accusations bear a greater resemblance to OSU’s than to those at Penn State or Michigan State, considering the fact patterns. Assuming 100 former NU athletes reach a $250,000 settlement for each claim, the school’s ledger will increase by $25 million.


Northwestern University, like most other colleges and universities, has its own legal and general counsel departments. However, the schools typically contract out the legal work to outside counsel when they are embroiled in a massive scandal that garners national attention. That is, sizable private companies that handle everything from managing crises to drafting settlement agreements to negotiating with insurance providers.

For example, Ohio State has hired several national and local law firms to defend former athletes’ claims in the Strauss scandal. Even for minor motions, the most superficial filings in that case list several lawyers, implying tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Think about how many lawsuits Northwestern gets. the purported victims’ assertions. claims of wrongful termination. The property claims resulting from any postponement of the Ryan-led construction endeavor. general handling of crises. The cost of outside legal bills for the school is substantial. It should be noted that in addition to NU, former athletes have sued specific defendants such as coaches, administrators, and Jim Phillips, the former athletic director who is currently the commissioner of the ACC and has denied knowledge of the hazing. Since the allegations against the individuals occurred while they were employed by NU, the school will probably also be liable for those court costs.

Northwestern Football’s Cost of Shame


College athletic departments continue to discuss the “Flutie Effect” decades after it happened. The entire Boston College team was elevated by the valiant actions of quarterback Doug Flutie in the mid-1980s. The school spirit rose. Nominations surged. Alumni contributions also did so. This is still brought up by athletic departments when they argue that a university’s performance in sports affects it all.

Thus, it makes sense that the reverse is true. In other words, donations and applications will suffer from a sports scandal. However, the evidence is, at most, ambiguous.

For example, when Stanford decided to discontinue 11 varsity sports due to the pandemic, it resulted in legal action and significant criticism, particularly from alumni. However, neither contributions nor undergraduate applications suffered as a result; in fact, both reached all-time highs.
Finally, citing “an improved financial picture with increased fundraising potential,” Stanford reversed course and decided to keep the sports programs.

According to several sources, one reason Northwestern’s scandal has been so messy is that the board of trustees’ opinions vary widely, with many of them being among the school’s largest donors, including Ryan. Some people still think poorly of Schill’s handling of the situation and are ardent supporters of Fitzgerald. Others are pleased that the school removed a coach who, in their opinion, oversaw a toxic masculinity culture in an area of the university where too much power already existed and took what they see as a principled stance against bullying. Should the initial group feel inclined to decrease their contributions, the subsequent group may feel inclined to raise their own. It is possible that all of the alumni donors share these same issues.

There is some common ground among the NU community’s divides. There is no denying that the school has suffered as a result of its mishandled messaging and a malfunction in the public relations machinery. And that because of its standing in academia, it has suffered. One former NU varsity athlete wonders, “Is this [hazing] even a story if it happens at another Power 5 school?” “The fact that it’s Northwestern increases the shock factor.”

SI estimates that the total accounting of the hazing scandal at Northwestern University comes to $165 million. However, if the school’s reputation is what started this mess, it will also help the school to overcome it. Insiders inform SI that Northwestern has “considerable” insurance that will partially, but not entirely, cover the costs of the scandal; the insurance companies, however, are probably going to fight this. (The school also boasts one of the nation’s twelve or so largest endowments, valued at $14 billion.) Despite the amount of attention the scandal has received, the athletic department at this university is not the “front porch” of the institution as it is at others.

Rosner contends that “scandals have a way of revealing cracks in the foundation—especially at academically elite institutions.”It is possible to fix them. Simply put, repairs are not inexpensive.


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