One of the biggest sports journalism success stories came courtesy of the student reporters and editors at The Daily Northwestern when they broke the story around allegations of hazing and racism within the Northwestern Wildcats football program, which cost head coach Pat Fitzgerald his job.
Before the July 8 report by Editor-in-Chief Nicole Markus, Managing Editor Alyce Brown, Managing Editor Cole Reynolds, and Print Managing Editor Divya Bhardwaj, Fitzgerald had been placed on unpaid suspension for two weeks following an internal investigation around allegations of hazing inside his football program. However, after the student paper released its initial report, which included very direct accusations of Fitzgerald’s knowledge of what was happening, Northwestern president Michael Schill said “I believe I may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction.”
Soon after, more allegations came to light, including former players saying they experienced racism from coaches and teammates. The university then fired Fitzgerald, ending his 17-year tenure. Multiple lawsuits from former players have now been filed against the school, Fitzgerald, and others.
CW: This story contains mention of hazing, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.
BREAKING: A former Northwestern football player is alleging that some of the hazing conduct that took place on the team involved coerced sexual acts. ?https://t.co/idm3mRYMdV
— The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu) July 8, 2023
Markus, Brown, and Reynolds appeared on this week’s episode of the Sports Media with Richard Deitsch podcast. They shared some insights into how the story came together and what it was like to break something that went so big, so fast.
As they put it, they knew it was an important story, but they didn’t have any idea just how big it would become.
“We knew that it was a big story and there have been other instances where we released a story that we thought would have a big impact, but I’m not sure we knew just how big it would be nationally,” said Markus. “I kinda thought this would resonate a lot with the Northwestern community and I didn’t know how many people would pick it up and how big it would turn.
“As student journalists, I don’t think any of us have had our work read that extensively before.”
In fact, Reynolds went as far as to say he flat-out told the other reporters their work probably wouldn’t be seen outside of the Northwestern community.
“I remember telling Nicole ‘I really hope this does well, I really hope this makes an impact, but I don’t think it’s going to,'” said Reynolds. “I trusted that Northwestern would listen. That maybe the immediate community would listen to these players. But I was convinced that it wouldn’t go further than that. I remember telling Nicole I think we’re doing a great job. I love our reporting. But I don’t think it’s going that far.
“And it ended up going that far, but I think when you’re in the moment, when you’re listening to these stories, when you’re talking to these players, you’re focused on the story. You’re focused on what they’re telling you. You’re focused on holding the trust that they’re putting in you to tell you these things. So your mind is not on the Twitter view count or the national implications.”
The young reporters discussed various aspects of their investigation, including how they tried to reach out to Pat Fitzgerald (his agent told them “no comment”) and that the school never tried to get them to shut the story down, though they were less than forthcoming with comments.
They also shared that they found out that Fitzgerald was going to be fired just as they were hoping to get some much-needed rest.
“I remember we published the racism story, maybe 12:30, and we all said let’s order some wings,” said Reynolds. “Let’s take a break and have some lunch. And then as immediately as those wings arrived, immediately as we decided to take our first break in this whole process; that’s when we started hearing those rumblings that maybe Fitz was gonna be gone pretty soon. So from that point on, throughout the afternoon, calling, trying to see who knew what. And then finally the news came just before we announced it on Twitter.”
Northwestern has parted ways from Pat Fitzgerald, sources tell us.
— The Daily Northwestern (@thedailynu) July 10, 2023
For the most part, the students say they received a lot of positive feedback from the journalism world, especially from graduates of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (though presumably not from Darren Rovell). Ultimately, however, it wasn’t the praise or recognition that was most gratifying to them. It was being able to do their job and do it well.
“It’s inspiring to work with people who love it as much as you,” said Reynolds. “Also, you really appreciate the gravity of the work when people are brave enough to trust you with things that they’ve held close in the past. So doing a story like this, talking to players in the way that we have, you really appreciate what this role brings and the trust that people put in you.”
“When you’re a journalist, your primary goal is to be able to tell people’s stories,” added Markus. “That was something that was incredibly gratifying for me. Just being able to talk to these players and tell their stories in whatever way possible.”