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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Jayne: Feeling proud amid scandal

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There is reason for pride, even amid the scandal and disgrace. Even amid the embarrassment that has engulfed my alma mater.

Northwestern University this week fired its football coach. Pat Fitzgerald had been an All-American player at NU, an assistant coach, and then head coach for 17 years. By Northwestern standards, he was a successful coach; when it comes to football after all, Northwestern is not Ohio State.

But a week ago Friday, Fitzgerald was suspended for two weeks without pay. The university had sought an independent investigation into allegations of hazing within the football program, and the results of that investigation led to his suspension.

It probably should raise some red flags when a prominent institution announces the suspension of a prominent employee in a Friday news dump. And when a football coach is suspended in July. And when only scant details are released. The university’s decision came from Chapter 1 of the “Sweeping Scandals Under the Rug” manual, with the hope that few people would be paying attention.

But the staff at The Daily Northwestern — the student newspaper — was paying attention. And on Saturday they published a story with previously unknown details about the hazing allegations. That led university President Michael Schill to release an open letter, saying he “may have erred in weighing the appropriate sanction” and acknowledging that he focused “too much on what the report concluded (Fitzgerald) didn’t know and not enough on what he should have known.”

Then on Monday, The Daily Northwestern published a story in which three former players made accusations of racism within the program. By that afternoon, Fitzgerald and his $5.37 million salary — part of a 10-year contract signed in 2021 — were gone.

In the issue of fairness, it must be mentioned that Fitzgerald is challenging the firing and might be headed to court. In the meantime, it should be obvious that this has been an embarrassment for the university (as has an unrelated scandal surrounding the baseball coach).

But it also should serve as a point of pride. And a lesson in priorities. And an example of the importance of independent journalism.

Because the story likely would have faded away without the work of student journalists at Northwestern. And even for somebody who graduated from the Medill School of Journalism 35 years ago, there is a sense of honor in being connected to an program that is continuing to teach and promote journalism. Northwestern has never been much of a football school. It has been a renowned journalism school, and Medill counts more than 40 Pulitzer winners among its graduates.

But enough about Medill. The point is that the fiasco provides lessons for all of us, whether or not we care about college football or about Northwestern University.

One involves our society’s emphasis on athletics. A couple years ago, Northwestern opened a $270 million practice facility within spitting distance of Lake Michigan. Now it is planning an $800 million rebuild of the football stadium.

As columnist Jon Greenberg wrote for The Athletic: “I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I really believe boosters should redirect their donations to what’s actually important at Northwestern: journalism. If they have student loans, someone should pay them off. Buy the students good computers, better chairs, maybe some food for the office fridge. Or heck, put some money into their coffers so they can make decent salaries.”

Indeed, that would contribute more to our society than lavishing millions on a football program. In an age when political differences prevent us from agreeing on even the most basic truths, and when millions of people are duped into believing lies about “stolen elections” or “dangerous vaccines,” the ability to collect information and disseminate it in an understandable fashion is more important than ever.

I just hope all of us graduates can live up to the example set by the current journalism students.

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