EVANSTON, Ill. — A month after a hazing scandal erupted and head coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired, Northwestern football players had the chance to speak to reporters on Wednesday.
Yet another statement may have been made non-verbally through some apparel worn by a few members of the Wildcats staff on Wednesday – and it drew the ire of the school’s athletic director.
WGN News cameras captured video of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian wearing a “Cats Against The World” t-shirt during the first open training camp workout in Evanston, one of a few on the staff to sport the shirt. Below that was the No. 51, which is the one that Fitzgerald wore when he was a standout player at the school in the 1990s.
One of the first questions asked to interim head coach David Braun at his news conference on Wednesday. was about those t-shirts.
“My purpose and my intentionality is going to be solely based on supporting these young men, supporting this staff, making sure that my actions align with making sure that this fall is an incredible experience for them,” said Braun when asked about the t-shirts. “I’m not going to dive into “It certainly isn’t my business to censor anyone’s free speech.”
After that, Braun was asked if the shirts could be seen as being “tone deaf” considering the seriousness of the hazing allegations.
“Again, all my energy and intention is going into make sure that this staff and these players feel like they have a head coach that’s got their best interests at the forefront of his mind and that we’re structuring practice and meetings and support to ensure that,” said Braun in response. “Again, I have not put any of that energy into considering the potential censoring someone’s free speech.”
Northwestern athletics director Dr. Derrick Gragg had a much different response to the shirts, immediately condemning them in a statement released after practice.
“I am extremely disappointed that a few members of our football program staff decided to wear “Cats Against the World” t-shirts. Neither I nor the University was aware that they owned or would wear these shirts today,” said Dr. Gragg in a statement. “The shirts are inappropriate, offensive and tone deaf. Let me be crystal clear: hazing has no place at Northwestern, and we are committed to do whatever is necessary to address hazing-related issues, including thoroughly investigating any incidents or allegations of hazing or any other misconduct.”
That overshadowed the first news conference involving Northwestern players since the hazing scandal broke in early July. They refused to talk about the allegations or the controversy, which has resulted in a number of lawsuits filed by former players over the last few weeks, and not addressing anything from the past.
“It’s been a difficult time,” said receiver Rod Heard when asked what the last few weeks have been like with controversy surrounding the program. “But we’ve been able to refocus and look at what’s really important, and that’s getting back to winning games. The team, the staff, the coaches, everybody, everyone in this building, we’ve been all head-pressed on just getting back to winning games and doing everything we can do that.”