Former Northwestern assistant coach Mike Hankwitz is pushing back against allegations of hazing and racism in the program under former coach Pat Fitzgerald, outlining the many ways players could report abuse and mistreatment.
Hankwitz, who served as Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 2008 until his retirement after the 2020 season, defended Fitzgerald and the program in a series of social media posts Wednesday night. He said Northwestern had regular individual and group meetings throughout the year with players, who had direct access to Fitzgerald and also others around the program, including a sports psychologist, compliance officers and mentors.
Hankwitz also highlighted exit interviews players did when they left the program with Northwestern faculty members not associated with the athletic department.
"It was done this way in the hopes that the players would feel free to speak their minds about their experiences without fear of backlash," Hankwitz wrote.
Northwestern fired Fitzgerald on July 10, three days after completing an investigation into hazing allegations within the program. The investigation largely corroborated claims from a single whistleblower, but did not find that Fitzgerald or other coaches knew of the activities. Nine former Northwestern players have filed lawsuits against the school alleging hazing and, in some cases, racial mistreatment. Several players alleged they were forced to participate in sexualized rituals in the team's locker room and at preseason training camp in Wisconsin. Some lawsuits alleged current assistant Matt MacPherson witnessed hazing incidents but did not report them. Northwestern is investigating MacPherson.
Some players said they feared speaking out about their experiences while they were in the program. Former quarterback Lloyd Yates, the first player to sue Northwestern while using his name, said July 24 that there were no mechanisms to anonymously report the behavior. But several longtime Northwestern athletic department employees told ESPN that the school set up extensive resources for athletes to highlight mistreatment, and that Fitzgerald directly addressed hazing with the team.
"If we had seen any of that stuff, we would have acted immediately," one longtime staff member told ESPN. "The first person who would have reacted was Fitz."
University President Michael Schill on Tuesday announced former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch would lead a new investigation into the culture of Northwestern's athletic department.
"While I cannot say with certainty that nothing happened, be it innocent horseplay or kidding around, the word 'hazing' was never brought to our attention by a player, parent, athletic employee, or administrator," Hankwitz wrote. "If it had been, Coach Fitzgerald would have acted and would not have tolerated it, nor would anyone on our staff."
Regarding the allegations of racism, Hankwitz said Fitzgerald initially had a policy about shorter haircuts that he carried over from the previous coaching staff, which applied to all players and did not target Black players. He changed the policy after conversations with players, according to Hankwitz, who noted that the number of Black and Hispanic players increased during his time with the program. Northwestern also hired former player Demetrius Fields, who is Black, as director of player engagement to "enhance the players' day-to-day experience," Hankwitz wrote.
"If hardcore/widespread racism existed in the program, why would any Black/Latino recruit have come to Northwestern?" Hankwitz wrote. "Their hosts on their recruiting visits were our players, who were free to speak their minds."