Not even Wrigley Field can save Northwestern


Northwestern has had better stretches.

It’s not just that the team is sitting at 2-4 in the Big Ten West and at 4-5 overall. It’s not just that beloved head coach Pat Fitzgerald was summarily dismissed after allegations of hazing and racist abuse by his players. There’s a malaise hanging over Northwestern these days that even Wrigley Field can’t fix.

On Saturday, Northwestern took on Iowa at the Friendly Confines, just 8.5 miles south of the school, but it felt like a world away. Iowa fans outnumbered Northwestern’s easily. Iowa fan Donald Yohn traveled from Altoona, Iowa, for the game and said that, while pregaming in Wrigleyville, “I seriously only saw about 10 Northwestern fans in the bars . . . I would say the stadium crowd itself was about 75-25 Iowa to Northwestern fans.”

Northwestern went on to lose, 10-7.

And, adding insult to injury, Iowa’s Cooper DeJean said afterward, “It felt like a home game.” Even one of Northwestern’s most Northwestern-y alums (you know exactly what I mean), Mike Wilbon, couldn’t save the Wildcats’ face with his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” — yes, at a football game. “It (was) very audible that fans shouted ‘Hawkeyes!’ when you normally say ‘Cubbies,’” Yohn said.

If there is a starker illustration of Northwestern’s fall from grace these past several years, I don’t know what it is. Any sport other than baseball being played at Wrigley Field was once considered nothing less than enchanting by Chicagoans, with even non-fans flocking to watch college football and NHL hockey there. It was a special event, and tickets were usually hard to come by. That may have been the case for this game as well, but it appeared to be Iowa fans who snapped up all the tickets. “My friend who got the tickets actually bought a Northwestern season ticket just to get access to tickets for this game,” Yohn said.

Northwestern alums, well-known in Chicago for their vociferous support of their school, have been quieter lately, on social media and in real life. In the last several years, Northwestern staff, coaches, and players have been rocked by scandals in their football, baseball, softball, volleyball, and cheerleading teams. In the wake of the allegations made by former Wildcat cheerleader Hayden Richardson, Northwestern hired deputy athletic director Mike Polisky as the school’s new AD, despite the fact that he was a named defendant in Richardson’s lawsuit and accused of suggesting Richardson was making the whole thing up. Later, school faculty learned of Polisky’s ties to school mega-donor Pat Ryan, and the entire thing led to a campus-wide protest, spearheaded by women students and faculty members. Polisky lasted nine days.

A month later, Northwestern announced that Derrick Gragg would succeed Polisky as athletic director. But roughly around the time multiple former Wildcat football players came forward to allege hazing — including racist, homophobic, and sexual abuse – the Chicago Tribune reported that Gragg, in his book “40 Days of Direction: Life Lessons from the Talented Ten,” made sexist remarks about women, including them being “man’s greatest distraction,” and described women in music videos as “booty-shaking sex-kittens.” All this from the former senior vice president for Inclusion, Education and Community Engagement for the NCAA.

There have been smaller, less-talked-about moments, too. The remnants of Pat Fitzgerald’s staff wearing T-shirts that said “Cats Against The World” while sporting Fitzgerald’s number. As if Fitzgerald, in being held accountable for the actions of his players (and allegedly, at least one coach) was the real victim in all this.

Fitzgerald has refused to accept any responsibility for the hazing allegations — Fitzgerald is suing the school for $130 million for wrongful termination. A tone-deaf school president thought the best course of action in the face of the ever-expanding hazing scandal was to suspend Fitzgerald for two weeks. The City of Evanston rejected the school’s plan to rebuild Ryan Field.

It’s a string of misery and upset long enough to make even the most rabid of Northwestern fans stay home. There is a crisis, not just in the way fans see Northwestern, but in the way alums and students see themselves. How could all this go on for so long without anyone coming forward? And, given the disproportionate number of women and students of color making hazing allegations, it challenges the long-held belief that Chicago’s North Shore is a bastion of successful progressives. One site reports that 69 percent of Northwestern students describe Northwestern’s politics as “liberal” or “very liberal.”

But that belief is harder to maintain if even a portion of the allegations against the school are credible. When I was in college at another Big Ten School, we hated the regular chant from Northwestern students, “That’s all right, that’s okay, you’ll all work for us someday.” There was something special about Northwestern, it seemed, even if we hated to admit it. Everything about the school — their reputation, their academics, their politics — seemed to be on a more evolved level than the rest of the Big Ten, even if their sports teams weren’t. What a bummer to learn that the golden school on a hill is subject to the same racist, sexist behavior by men and women in power as everyone else.

Northwestern loves to call itself “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” but given what we saw this weekend, it has a long way to go to win Chicago back.