While I have never coached, I have long admired those who do, especially head coaches. To me, the men and women who are in those positions wear a couple of hats. Not only must they develop strategies and plans to put their teams in the best position to win on the field, court, pool, ice or mat, they must also develop cultures that are conducive to physical and mental growth.

Which is why the situation involving Pat Fitzgerald came as a surprise to me. I always thought Fitzgerald, who was relieved of his head football coaching duties at Northwestern University July 10, was a good guy who had control of his team (and as an Illinois alumnus that’s not easy for me to write).

But his 17-year career came to a sudden end in a matter of days. On July 7, Northwestern University president Michael Schill announced Fitzgerald would be suspended for two weeks after an investigation revealed that some of his players hazed some teammates. Let’s just say some of the activities described in the report were lewd in nature.

Schill explained that the reason Fitzgerald was suspended was that, although the investigation couldn’t find evidence he directly knew what was going on, it was his responsibility as head coach to find out.

But over that weekend, several players described the hazing culture prevalent on the team in graphic detail, and that Fitzgerald himself was complicit in fostering that culture. Moreover, allegations of racism in the program emerged. Some Black players said they had to cut their hair straight or else they would face discipline.

Eventually, Schill backtracked and said on July 8 he made a mistake with Fitzgerald’s original punishment. Two days later, he fired him as more details regarding hazing and racism came out.

My opinion is that if you are a head coach, the buck stops with you. I know it’s virtually impossible to keep up with every single thing that happens in a locker room, but if you’re a true leader, you try to find out if there’s anything amiss. 

Whether or not Fitzgerald knew what was happening is frankly irrelevant at this point; he showed a true lack of leadership, which is the top attribute of a coach. After all that emerged, there’s no way Fitzgerald could remain in his position.

There is simply no reason or excuse for hazing to go on in any sport at any level. Doesn’t matter if it’s college, high school or professional. Every young man and woman who participates as athletes should always feel confident that their physical and mental well-being will be protected. When it isn’t, that means leadership at the top is lacking.

I’m glad Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick, Trinity, Riverside-Brookfield and Lyons Township High Schools along with Nazareth Academy are on my beat. This will be my seventh year doing sports for Growing Community Media, and I feel the coaches and administrators at those institutions would never allow this stuff to happen.

Finally, to the student-athletes: Don’t be like the Northwestern football players. Hazing has dire long-term consequences — especially mentally — for those being abused. It is not a team-bonding activity; rather, it sows division. 

As you prepare for the season to begin, do what’s right and be good to yourselves and your teammates. Do that, and the year will be successful regardless of the results.

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