The Hazing Scandal at Northwestern University

Knute Rockne, All American, Lloyd Bacon, dir, Warner Brothers, 1940. Screen shot.

Fagging

During my more than two decades at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, I rarely saw football players in my classes. I assumed they thought art was for sissies. Now that I know about the queer mimicry that characterized football team hazing rituals, that explanation seems ironic. Younger Northwestern players were forced by older ones to perform naked chin-ups, run a gauntlet of naked men in locker room showers, have their genitals groped, and be subjected to simulated anal sex.

In addition to the sexual abuse, initiates were forced to perform minor services for established players, such as carrying their helmets. Later, the hazed students became the hazers, thus perpetuating the practice. (With sexual assault, victims often become perpetrators.) All the while, the hazing – banned by university policy — was either unseen, ignored or abetted by coaches, staff, and university administrators. A raft of lawsuits and investigations will sort out the facts.

Whether hazing such as occurred at Northwestern constitutes attraction to or repulsion from queerness, I leave to the gender theorists. But it certainly reproduces the model of British boarding schools, whereby older boys (and sometimes school masters) sexually abuse or force into service younger boys. The latter are called “fags,” the probable origin of the common North American derogatory term for gay men. Until recently, teachers and masters at these schools generally took a hands-off approach to fagging, choosing to ignore the abuse, unless real damage or bad publicity ensued. Though much rarer now, bullying and abuse at boarding schools likely still goes on.

The real reason I seldom saw footballs players in my classes, I quickly understood however, had nothing to do with the supposed queerness of art history. My discipline was simply not one of those recommended by coaches, advisors, and older football team members. They must have reasoned, fairly, that faculty in Art History (and other humanities departments), would not tolerate excessive absences or late assignments, and would not grade athletes on a curve. And while I can’t prove that the departments preferred by football players were more accommodating than mine, I certainly had my suspicions. Currently, a disproportionate number of football players at Northwestern major in Education, with a concentration in “Learning and Organizational Change.” It can’t be a coincidence that the Education Department boasts on its website that LOC offers “flexible coursework.”

I hadn’t thought much about all this since retiring from Northwestern two years ago, but the football hazing affair brought it to mind. I recall a discussion I had with some of my undergraduate students back in 2014 about the attempt by football players to form a union. I also remember faculty efforts – admittedly few — to encourage the administration to examine the outsize role of intercollegiate sports, especially football, in university life. If that review had been undertaken, the current scandal might have been averted, and the rush toward ever more siloed, unequal, and academically segregated universities might have been slowed.

Planet football

The first few minutes of class were always awkward. After calling the students to order, a hush typically fell, and all eyes were cast on me. I felt like George Sanders confronting the blond school children in Village of the Damned. To relieve the tension, I frequently joked or briefly chatted with students. One day in February 2014, I asked the class what they thought about news that the NU football players were planning to form a union. One woman, a senior major in Art History, said: “I understand the university pays team members tuition, room, and board, but salary? Aren’t they students first?” Another department major asked: “If they get unionized, shouldn’t we?” A younger, male Economics major, asked: “What happens if a football player get injured and it affects him for the rest of his life? Would a union help?” A generally quiet woman, dressed punk-style in stretched-out white T-shirt and blue hair, was irritated by my question and asked and answered one of her own: “What do we know about any of it? The football team lives on another planet.”

I soon discovered she was almost right. Unlike other NU students, football players are not recruited for their academic abilities but their athletic prowess and willingness to train for long hours. “Being a student athlete,” now dismissed Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said in 2014, “is a full-time job.” They work at the sport between 40 and 60 hours per week in season, for an in-kind payment (tuition, room, and board) of around $85,000 per year, plus allowances. That’s decent pay for young men barely out of their teens but demands on them are so great that many require tutoring to keep their minimum required GPA. They also often choose to take undemanding courses of study to maintain eligibility, thus jeopardizing future careers for a chance at fleeting glory.

Northwestern’s football team is expensive. It has a full-time coaching staff of 25 (serving 115 players), with former head coach Fitzgerald paid $5.7 million per year, more than twice the (bloated) salary of the university president. Assistant coach salaries average around $300,000. (The average salary for a full-time faculty member is $156,000.) Last year, the team generated almost $60 million in revenue, with expenses of about $35 million, but that doesn’t include the cost of facilities. A new football practice arena completed a few years ago cost in excess of $270 million. The planned renovation of Ryan Field, the football stadium in Evanston, is projected to cost at least $800 million, which would make it the most expensive such facility in college football history. It will seat a maximum of 35,000. Average current attendance at games is just 30,000. Assuming the final cost of the stadium is closer to a billion, and that it lasts 50 years without major renovations (highly unlikely), the sunk infrastructure cost per home game is about $3.3 million, not including upkeep, energy costs, staffing and the rest. The football team doesn’t make money for Northwestern; it loses money.

What is to be done?

At the time of my classroom discussion with students about football, I was President of the Northwestern Faculty Senate. I publicly supported the football players’ union effort and tried to rally others to do the same, but the coaching staff, university administrators and even many of faculty and students were opposed. Coach Fitzgerald told the players: “I just do not believe we need a third party between our players and our coaches, staff and administrators.”  Wealthy alumni threatened to withhold donations to the sports program and even torpedo job opportunities for unionized players after graduation. In the end, the effort failed after the National Labor Relations Board refused to certify the players union vote — so that was that. A 2021 Supreme Court decision allowed NCAA players to earn money from their “names, images and likenesses”, but that has benefitted few students, and had no impact on their conditions of employment.

At a Fall 2014 meeting with senior administrators including university president Morty Schapiro, I asked about “the challenges of money, safety and academics” in football and other college sports and proposed a wide-ranging investigation. (College teams each suffer an average of 10-12 concussions per year.) A year later, a professor in the Law School made a similar proposal (later published), to which Schapiro replied:

“Northwestern’s football program stands alone as the most successful FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] program for educating athletes to graduation. Whatever one thinks of athletics at other institutions, Northwestern presented overwhelming evidence establishing that its athletic program is fully integrated with its academic mission, and that it treats its athletes as students first.”

The recent hazing crisis casts shade on that response. The athletes’ long hours of practice and consequent seclusion from other students, the obscene salaries of coaches and the senior administrators who hire them, the segregation of athletes in a few sports-compatible majors, and the exaggerated deference paid to donors who support football, creates a system of apartheid in which few people know what goes on behind locker room doors.

But beyond that, football and other big money sports participate in an unwelcome and increasingly recognized phenomenon: elite universities as engines of inequality. The children of wealthy families, a recent scholarly paper has shown, are 34% more likely to be accepted into Ivy League and other elite colleges than children from families of average wealth. Among applicants with the same test scores, those from elite high schools, children of alumni, and athletes are preferred for admission, even above non-white students otherwise targeted by affirmative action programs. (The latter of course, were barred this year by the Supreme Court in Harvard and UNC v. SFFA.) And even when non-white student-athletes benefit from admission preferences, they may be disadvantaged by their chosen course of study. I did not see a single pre-med student among the 67 Northwestern football players singled out last year for Academic Big Ten Honors.

There were earlier hazing scandals at Northwestern and there has long been affirmative action for the wealthy. The ways to reduce both are the same: 1) end affirmative action for the children of alumni and elite athletes; 2) downscale the intercollegiate football program or eliminate it; 3) insure football players against disabling, long-term injuries; 4) lower the salaries of coaches and embed them in academic departments, with all the associated tenure and promotion procedures; 5) ensure that student-athletes are held to the same academic standards as other students, and as important, have the same academic and extra-curricular opportunities. (That means sharply limiting the time devoted to their sport.)

What my students implicitly proposed to me, long before the current hazing scandal, was that football players and other athletes be fully engaged in the lifeworld of the university. When that happens, the university will not only be protected from scandal and expensive lawsuits, it will be on a path toward greater equity and educational excellence.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu