Northwestern hit with three new lawsuits alleging systemic sexual hazing in football program

That first night in Kenosha, Nathan Fox remembers, was like something from a horror movie.

A horde of older teammates was outside his dorm room, he said, screaming and sounding a siren and pounding the wall so hard it actually shook.

It was 2015, and Fox had just arrived at training camp for the Northwestern University football squad. He had heard the older players’ taunts of “wait for Kenosha,” he told the Tribune. He knew something could be coming. He and his roommate locked their door. He didn’t respond when the first upperclassmen came and asked him to open it up.

But once the shouting and the pounding and the shaking began, it felt like a force of nature, “apocalyptic,” he said. He looked at his roommate.

“Sorry, bro,” he remembers saying. “I don’t know what to do.” He opened the door.

What happened next, Fox and others allege, was part of a pattern of sexual hazing on the Northwestern football team, a scandal that has ballooned in scope since it first surfaced last summer.

Three new lawsuits were filed against Northwestern this week — including one from Fox and another from the whistleblower whose report started it all — bringing to 25 the number of hazing accusers who have sued the school.

The lawsuits’ recent history has been somewhat chaotic. Settlement talks broke down this spring. Northwestern is also being sued by ex-head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who accuses the school of wrongfully firing him after the hazing scandal escalated. In a move with wide-ranging implications for all the lawsuits, a judge ruled last month that the hazing accusers’ cases should, for now, be consolidated with the Fitzgerald case.

Attorneys for a few of the hazing plaintiffs have requested that their cases be consolidated with the Fitzgerald suit all the way through trial. That move could box Northwestern into a tricky spot, potentially having to argue that the school rightfully fired Fitzgerald because he should have known about the hazing but also defending itself against the ex-players’ claims that they were abused.

Reached by email on Wednesday, a spokesman for Northwestern said the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Attorney Dan Webb, who represents Fitzgerald, had no immediate comment. But in announcing Fitzgerald’s lawsuit against the school last year, Webb said he hadn’t surfaced any evidence of hazing among the Wildcat squad.

He painted the accusers as opportunistic, saying, “People will think there’s a chance to get a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and they will file lawsuits that are not merited.”

As the lawsuits have piled up, they have painted an increasingly detailed picture of hazing that was systemic, coordinated and sometimes bizarre.

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune this week, former Wildcat linebacker Fox recalled what he says happened after he opened the door to the screaming upperclassmen his first night at the Kenosha training camp.

They “flooded” into the room, grabbed Fox by all four limbs, held him upside down and ripped off all his clothes, Fox said. Then they started aggressively grinding on him and dry-humping him: a “running,” to use the now-infamous common term. His abusers were mostly upperclassmen, Fox said — but there was also a freshman who was told that if he didn’t participate, he’d “get ran” himself.

It lasted for what felt like ages, Fox said. Then “they just piled out of the room and went on to whoever the next one was,” he said. He was left red-faced and shaken.

In the years to come, he said, he and his teammates would be subjected to “running” and more. It became clear, he said, that the hazing was so normal within the Wildcat squad as to be completely unremarkable. Staffers worked well within earshot of the upperclassmen’s loud demands for naked rope swings or nude quarterback-center exchanges, he said. Fox even recalls telling one coach all the details of what happened to him his freshman year.

“They all knew what ‘running’ meant, they knew if you got ran, it’s a bad thing,” he told the Tribune. “It was just part of the culture.”

Ben Crump, one of Fox’s attorneys, said in a statement to the Tribune that it was “abundantly clear” many staffers knew about the hazing.

“Instead of doing the right thing and reporting the abuse or taking steps to stop it, those who knew either ignored it or retaliated against those who came forward in the most inhumane ways you could imagine,” the statement reads.

This week’s lawsuits include bizarre details about the alleged abuse.

Before leaving for Kenosha, they allege, upperclassmen made new players watch a strange video in which a man recalls a childhood memory of an explicit sexual encounter with the character Shrek. At training camp, upperclassmen ganged up as the “Shrek squad,” going out shirtless wearing animal masks or horror-movie masks to terrorize the freshmen, the lawsuits state. When the “Shrek squad” played sirens and music from the movie “The Purge,” it was a warning that they would start hazing underclassmen in sexual and violent ways, the cases allege.

The “running” attacks often happened in the dorm rooms, the suits state, but hazing also occurred in the gym, where younger players would be made to run naked drills, naked rope climbs or do naked pushups while older players watched closely to make sure their genitals touched the floor. The punishment for noncompliance was a “running,” the suits state.

Most freshman, according to the suits, were also subjected to the “car wash” — upperclassmen would get naked, lather up with soap, and line up in two rows, then make new players squeeze between the lines to get to the showers. Sometimes the players in line would urinate on the “car wash” victims, the suits state.

The hazing wasn’t limited to Kenosha, Fox said — naked pushups were also done in the Northwestern locker room, as a punishment for stepping on the purple “N” on the floor. Fox even witnessed some of the strength coaches doing the naked pushups, he said.

Another ex-player filing suit this week was the whistleblower who helped bring the scandal to light. The former player, identified only as “John Doe 22,” left a note reporting the abuse in the athletic center’s suggestion box in July 2022, after a particularly “intense and horrific” locker room incident, according to his lawsuit.

Nobody apparently saw the note until a few months later, the suit states; rather than launch a full-scale investigation, Fitzgerald instead asked individual players if there was anything he needed to know, according to the suit.

In November 2022, John Doe 22 blew the whistle. He emailed an employee of the Northwestern athletic department to report the hazing and included a picture of a whiteboard in the locker room with a list of names of people the “Shrek squad” targeted for abuse, the suit states.

The school hired attorney Maggie Hickey to launch an investigation; but players and coaches — at the coaches’ request — were trying to figure out the identity of the whistleblower, the suit alleges.

It only took a couple of months before a former teammate walked up to him at a train station and “aggressively” said he disagreed with him reporting the hazing, according to the suit. Rattled, he switched to online classes and ultimately left Northwestern altogether, the suit states. In July 2023, he got a call from the FBI saying there had been threats made to his safety, according to the suit.

Fox ultimately ended up leaving the Wildcats, too. But while he was still a student, Fox told a series of campus therapists about the hazing as well as “demeaning and derogatory” treatment from Fitzgerald himself. None of the counselors, he said, seemed to take it seriously.

One misdiagnosed him and put him on medication that fogged his brain and led to extremely depressive thoughts, he said. Another persuaded him to sign a waiver letting her talk to athletic training staffers about his issues, in hopes that they could smooth over the problems with Fitzgerald, he said.

All that resulted, he said, was a team meeting in which Fitzgerald looked right at him and talked pointedly about players who “bitch and moan to their therapists.”

Fox eventually realized he’d had enough, and transferred back home to the University of Houston. For a long time he didn’t talk at all about what happened during his time on the Wildcats, he said. Only after finding out about Hickey’s hazing investigation did he come forward.

Margaret Battersby Black, an attorney representing Fox, told the Tribune she believes Fox was crucial to Hickey’s investigation, corroborating information from the whistleblower’s initial account and showing her that the abuse went at least as far back as 2015.

“The whistleblower, the initial allegations, they saved his life. He saw this was finally coming into focus and he called Maggie Hickey,” she said. ” … He was finally like, ‘OK, now maybe someone will hear me.'”

Now, when Fox speaks about it, the details come tumbling out, one after the other: the time he was made to drink protein shakes until he threw up blood, the naked rope swings, the “car washes.”

All these years later, he regrets signing on to Northwestern, which he said he chose over schools with better football programs.

“I wish I never — I really wish I never would have made that decision,” he told the Tribune.