Civil rights attorney Ben Crump says his law firm and other attorneys have received reports of hazing within Northwestern University's athletic program, impacting not only the Wildcats football team but also the baseball and softball teams.
Crump and Chicago attorney Steven Levin said they have not filed a lawsuit yet on behalf of any athletes but plan to do so shortly. They said they represent 15 people and have been in touch with dozens of former athletes, the majority of whom played football at the school.
Warren Miles Long, a running back on Northwestern's football team starting in 2013, said players were put into a culture where sexual violence and hazing were "rampant."
A second lawsuit against Northwestern and its current and former leaders was filed Wednesday on behalf of an anonymous player, alleging hazing and abuse within the program. The lawsuit is similar to a Tuesday filing, also on behalf of an anonymous player, but added former longtime Northwestern athletic director and current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips to a list of defendants that includes the school, its trustees, former football coach Pat Fitzgerald, current athletic director Derrick Gragg, university president Michael Schill and former university president Morton Schapiro.
Attorneys Pat Salvi and Parker Stinar, who filed both lawsuits, said they have heard from former Northwestern athletes in several sports, including volleyball. Both sets of attorneys described a pervasive culture of alleged physical and psychological abuse at Northwestern, but they didn't identify specific individuals who led or knowingly condoned hazing.
Northwestern's six-month investigation into hazing allegations did not find evidence that Fitzgerald or other coaches knew of the behavior, nor did it identify any main perpetrators.
"I find it hard to believe that [coaches] were not aware of what was taking place," Lloyd Yates, a quarterback at Northwestern from 2015 to 2017, said during Wednesday's news conference. "A lot of coaches took part in it in many different manners, and the explicit behavior was so explicit. It was loud. It took place in close proximity to where a lot of the staff, trainers were located. It's kind of hard to take a blind eye."
Yates declined to say how the coaches or staff would participate in the hazing.
Dan Webb, the attorney for Fitzgerald, said in a statement that allegations made Wednesday were "broad-based" and "imprecise" and that no facts or evidence show that Fitzgerald "had any knowledge whatsoever" of hazing within the football program. Webb also said that they would move forward to dismiss the civil suits filed against the coach.
"No arguments were made [Wednesday] that would present any substantive, detailed, factual allegations, let alone evidence, about Coach Fitzgerald's conduct," Webb said. "The statements made by the lawyers and former student athletes, and those contained in the complaint filed by the one unnamed plaintiff, still fail to cite any specific facts or evidence beyond the broad-based statements published in the July 8 article."
Crump said some Northwestern athletes he spoke with said they attempted to report the allegations of abuse to coaches and administrators and were "met with hostility and retaliation."
"It's not easy for any of us to come forward," Yates said. "A lot of this stuff is embarrassing, it's painful, and we know that we're making ourselves targets for criticism. But we feel strongly that we must do our part to make sure that this type of behavior is not just at Northwestern, but throughout college sports. We're here to support and validate the accusations of the current Northwestern whistleblowers regarding the true abusive nature of hazing."
Schill on Tuesday announced that Northwestern would launch two new external investigations into the culture of the athletic program and how the university detects threats to its athletes and implements accountability.
Long said new recruits had no sense of whether the hazing was normal or limited to Northwestern.
Long and other players who spoke Wednesday referenced "running," in which a group of upperclassmen restrain younger teammates and perform sexualized acts on them.
"It's something as an athlete, we come in, we hear about it, we don't know what it looks like," Yates said. "It's something where you say, 'That's not going to happen to me. I'm going to fight back. I'm going to do something. I don't play with that kind of stuff.' But when it happens, it's uncontrollable. You're dominated by the culture."
Yates, who is Black, said the culture "was especially devastating for many players of color." He said players were "physically and emotionally beaten down" and that some "have contemplated suicide" as a result.
Northwestern might eventually join the long list of American universities making large payouts following allegations of sexual abuse.
"This is a civil rights issue for me," said Crump, who said 50 former Northwestern athletes -- male and female -- have spoken to the law firm. "Because I think these players have the right to be respected and valued and not hazed, intimidated and retaliated."
Phillips, in a statement on Thursday, called hazing "completely unacceptable" and said that "any allegation that I ever condoned or tolerated inappropriate conduct against student-athletes is absolutely false. I will vigorously defend myself against any suggestion to the contrary."
More lawsuits, filed by multiple law firms, are expected to follow from former football and baseball players as well as from athletes who played other sports for the private school.
The Big Ten institution now has another thing in common with other schools in the conference, including Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota, with investigations and allegations tied to sexual abuse.
And connection could be costly. Crump said that because some players arrived at Northwestern as minors, they could be entitled to additional protections under Illinois law.
Illinois, like nearly all states in recent decades, has criminalized hazing. It is typically a Class A misdemeanor, which can carry up to one year in prison. Under Illinois law, failure of a school official to report hazing is also a crime -- a misdemeanor -- and can carry a maximum penalty of between six months and a year in prison. Crump and Levin declined to say if they would pursue criminal charges.
A "hazing prevention" page on Northwestern's website includes descriptions of Illinois hazing laws.
"Everyone hears the expression: There are two sides to every story. There are not two sides to this story," Levin said. "There's only one side. The behavior occurred. It was deplorable and demeaning. It was widespread. And there's no way people at the very least should have known."
Yates said every member of the team was a victim, "no matter what our role was at the time," and lamented the school and team's lack of leadership.
"The university and football program let us down, and that's why we are here today," Yates said, surrounded by some teammates.
In a letter to Northwestern's faculty and staff, Schill wrote that an outside firm will be hired to evaluate how the school detects threats to student-athletes' welfare and to examine the athletics culture in Evanston, Illinois, and its relationship to academics at the prestigious institution.
Northwestern fired Fitzgerald last week after a university investigation found allegations of hazing by 11 current or former players, including "forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature," Schill wrote.
After the school initially suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay, The Daily Northwestern published an article including allegations from a former player who described specific instances of hazing and abuse and suggested the coach might have been aware.
Fitzgerald, who led Northwestern for 17 seasons and was a star linebacker for the Wildcats, has maintained he had no knowledge of the hazing. Fitzgerald said after being fired that he was working with his agent, Bryan Harlan, and Webb, one of the most sought-after private lawyers in the country for decades, to "protect my rights in accordance with the law."
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.