Former Northwestern assistant Mike Hankwitz denies the allegations

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Former Northwestern assistant Mike Hankwitz denies the allegations

Adam RittenbergESPN Senior WriterAugust 2, 2023, 10:21 PM ET4 minutes of reading

Northwestern’s interim coach talks about ‘difficult time’ in first remarks to media

Northwestern’s interim football coach David Brown is speaking out for the first time as the team and school continue to deal with the fallout from abuse allegations.

Former Northwestern assistant coach Mike Hankwitz is rejecting allegations of abuse and racism in the program under former coach Pat Fitzgerald, outlining the many ways players can report abuse and mistreatment.

Hankwitz, who served as Northwestern’s defensive coordinator from 2008 until his retirement after the 2020 season, defended Fitzgerald and the program in a series of social media posts Wednesday night. He said Northwestern had regular one-on-one and group meetings throughout the year with players who had direct access to Fitzgerald, as well as others around the program, including sports psychologists, compliance officers and mentors.

Hankwitz also highlighted the exit interviews the players did when they left the program with Northwestern faculty members not affiliated with the athletic department.

“It was done this way in hopes that players would feel free to express their opinions about their experiences without fear of backlash,” Hankwitz wrote.

Northwestern fired Fitzgerald on July 10, three days after completing an investigation into allegations of abuse in the program. The investigation largely corroborated one whistleblower’s claims, but did not find that Fitzgerald or other coaches knew about the activities. Nine former Northwestern players have filed lawsuits against the school alleging mistreatment and, in some cases, racial abuse. Several players alleged they were forced to participate in sexual rituals in the team’s locker room and at Wisconsin’s preseason training camp. Some lawsuits allege that current assistant Matt McPherson witnessed incidents of abuse but failed to report it. Northwestern is investigating McPherson.

Some players said they were afraid to talk about their experiences while in the program. Former quarterback Lloyd Yates, the first player to sue Northwestern while using his name, said July 24 that there are no mechanisms to anonymously report conduct. But several longtime Northwestern athletic department officials told ESPN that the school has created extensive resources for athletes to highlight the bullying and that Fitzgerald directly addressed the staff about the bullying.

“If we had seen any of these things, we would have acted immediately,” a longtime employee told ESPN. “The first person to react was Fitz.

University President Michael Shill announced Tuesday that former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will conduct a new investigation into the culture of Northwestern’s athletic department.

“While I can’t say for sure that nothing happened, be it innocent games or pranks, the word ‘tagging’ was never brought to our attention by a player, parent, athletic official or administrator,” Hankwitz wrote. “If that was the case, Coach Fitzgerald would have acted and he would not have tolerated it, nor would anyone on our staff.”

Regarding the accusations of racism, Hankwitz said Fitzgerald initially had a shorter haircut policy he carried over from the previous coaching staff that applied to all players and did not target black players. He changed the policy after talking to players, according to Hankwitz, who noted that the number of black and Hispanic players increased during his time in the program. Northwestern also hired former player Demetrius Fields, who is black, as director of player engagement to “enhance the day-to-day player experience,” Hankwitz wrote.

“If hardcore/widespread racism existed in the program, why would any black/Latino come to Northwestern?” Hankwitz wrote. “They were hosted on their recruiting visits by our players, who were free to express themselves.”

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