CHICAGO -- Former Northwestern football player Lloyd Yates filed a lawsuit Monday against the university, outlining what he alleged was a "brainwashing culture" of hazing and abuse that became "normalized."
Yates, a former quarterback and wide receiver who played at Northwestern from 2015 to 2017, became the first plaintiff to identify himself in a lawsuit against the school.
Three unnamed former players last week filed complaints with a different set of attorneys, which name former football coach Pat Fitzgerald, current university President Michael Schill and others as individual defendants (Yates' lawsuit names only the university). Noted civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is working with Yates, said at a news conference Monday that he expects to file more than 30 lawsuits from former Northwestern athletes (football and other sports) in the coming weeks and months.
"This will be acknowledged as college sports' #MeToo movement," Crump said. "We hope we will provide awareness around the issue and support to victims and the eradication of physical, psychological and sexual hazing."
Yates' complaint detailed several alleged organized hazing rituals at Northwestern that had been previously highlighted -- namely "running," where a group of players restrained a teammate and engaged in dry-humping and other sexualized acts -- as well as new incidents. The complaint alleges that defensive backs coach and associate head coach Matt MacPherson, a Northwestern assistant since 2006, witnessed several alleged hazing incidents, including naked pullups during preseason training. MacPherson is also accused by a former player, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 2, of showing a social media profile of John Doe 2's girlfriend on a screen during a position meeting, commenting on her appearance and asking about their sexual experiences.
Northwestern is reviewing the claims made against MacPherson. After receiving allegations of hazing from a former player in November, the university initiated an external investigation that did not find evidence coaches knew of hazing incidents, but concluded that they had opportunities to learn of the incidents and report them.
"We are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues and ensure that our athletic program remains one that our entire community can be proud of and one that is fully aligned with and reflects our values," the school said in a statement to ESPN.
Later Monday, in another statement to ESPN, Northwestern confirmed that "MacPherson has not been suspended. We continue to review the allegations and will take the appropriate measures based on the outcome of that process."
The lawsuit also highlighted two instances in which coaches were victims of "running," including an unnamed strength and conditioning coach during a training session in 2015 or 2016. Yates' attorneys declined to say whether those coaches had been contacted to verify the claims.
After reading the 52-page complaint, Yates said he was "overcome with disappointment, frustration and shame."
"No young teenager should have to bear what we did as freshmen students," Yates added. "We were conditioned to believe that this behavior was normal, which was sickening and unacceptable."
Later Monday, Fitzgerald's attorney, Dan Webb, released a statement noting that the lawsuit "does not name our client as a defendant."
"The complaint alleges that Northwestern negligently permitted the existence of a decades-long pattern, practice, and culture of football players engaging in the hazing of fellow athletes that involved physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The complaint brings counts of negligence, gross negligence, and violations of the Illinois Gender Violence Act," Webb wrote.
"With regard to our client, coach Pat Fitzgerald, it is important to note that this complaint (and, we assume, the 30 others that plaintiffs' lawyers say they will file) does not name our client as a defendant.
"In addition, while the complaint makes detailed, factual allegations about student athletes' behavior, it fails to show that our client, coach Fitzgerald, had actual, contemporaneous knowledge of the behaviors described in the complaint. Rather, it asserts facts that lead plaintiffs' lawyers to merely assume and insinuate that our client somehow must have known that such behavior was occurring. Assumptions and insinuations are not legal arguments, however."
Northwestern fired Fitzgerald on July 10 but has retained MacPherson and the rest of the assistants and support staff for the 2023 season under interim coach David Braun. Longtime head strength coach Jay Hooten, whose name is mentioned in Yates' lawsuit, also remains with the team.
Yates alleges that after he admitted to Hooten that he and others were out partying the night before a workout, Hooten informed Yates' teammates that he had "ratted them out." Following the workout, Yates alleges that he was later "ran" in the team locker room.
Fitzgerald, Northwestern's all-time winningest coach and a two-time national defensive player of the year at the school, has repeatedly denied any involvement with hazing or knowledge of hazing during his 17 years leading the program. He has hired an attorney to pursue a potential wrongful termination lawsuit.
Yates' lawsuit detailed many alleged hazing incidents at Northwestern's preseason training camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin, including "running" and several rituals where players had to be naked. Yates said he was a victim of "running" by 12-15 older players as a freshman in August 2015. The experience caused him to feel "embarrassed, ashamed, dehumanized, powerless, dirty and anxious." The lawsuit states that while coaches were not present for the incidents in Wisconsin, they would tell players to "keep it down" in the dormitory, suggesting they were aware of what was happening.
According to the complaint, a freshman singled out to be "run" was carried naked into a shower by 10-15 teammates, who "dunked him upside down in the ice bath and ran him while he was naked, upside down with his head underwater."
Former Northwestern linebacker Simba Short, who is expected to file his own lawsuit against the university, stated that he hid in a closet for an hour because of the emotional distress and anxiety from witnessing the incident.
New hazing rituals included in the lawsuit included the "Dredge," a social event following the team's winter conditioning program with the purpose to "haze members of the team with excessive alcohol intoxication and drinking games."
Both Yates and his attorneys said Northwestern lacked adequate methods of reporting abusive behavior, although sources have told ESPN that the team and athletic department repeatedly addressed hazing and a zero-tolerance policy toward such incidents. Yates said he only felt comfortable coming forward after a former Northwestern player, whose allegations prompted the university to initiate the hazing investigation, went public with details in a July 8 story from The Daily Northwestern.
"While there was a leadership Council, the leadership Council wasn't really a voice for the players who needed to and wanted to speak up about certain things," attorney Margaret Battersby Black said.
Like the previous lawsuits against Northwestern, Yates' complaint did not identify any players as leading the hazing activities. Other than MacPherson, the complaint didn't identify any other assistant coaches, although it lists several instances where white coaches made comments to Black players to "bully, intimidate and make these players of color feel inferior."
"We were all victims," Yates said. "If you were being hazed or on the perpetrating side, it was really a culture that you had to find a position within. For some guys, that's where their identity was, but they're not at fault. They are just as much victims as us."
Schill on Monday expressed his support for the school's athletes and reiterated that any allegation of hazing or mistreatment would be investigated. In a letter to the campus community, Schill referenced "broad condemnations of our athletic program" and acknowledged that while "shameful events did take place in the football program" most Northwestern athletes "are people of character who do amazing things both on the field and in the classroom."
"I am committed to supporting our student-athletes and to re-building any damage our athletic program may have experienced," Schill wrote. "Part of that commitment is to protect our students' safety and well-being. That commitment includes thoroughly investigating any instance or allegation of hazing or mistreatment. That commitment includes creating processes and safeguards so that what happened in football can never happen again at Northwestern. That commitment also includes celebrating, defending and caring for both students and staff who are unfairly implicated by a broad brush."
ESPN Staff Writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report.