Will Northwestern hazing scandal inspire a national reckoning?

Former Northwestern football player Lloyd Yates at a press conference in Chicago on July 19.

Stunning allegations of widespread hazing, bullying, sexual abuse, and discrimination in the Northwestern University football program and other men’s and women’s sports programs at the elite institution are shining a spotlight on a nationwide problem that for too long has been shrouded in secrecy, silence, and fear.¹

“We were physically and emotionally beaten down, and some players have contemplated suicide as a result,” Lloyd Yates, a former quarterback on the football team said in a press conference last week. “The abusive culture was especially devastating for many players of color.”²

As the investigation deepens and the case draws more and more media attention, experts are pointing to the bravery of the young athletes who have come forward as a potential silver lining that could force a long overdue national reckoning on the issue.

“I know firsthand the amount of courage required to speak publicly about being a victim and survivor of hazing,” former college football player and fraternity member Byron Hurt, the award-winning director of the acclaimed new documentary HAZING, said yesterday. “The athletes who came forward to expose hazing culture at Northwestern demonstrated tremendous bravery and leadership. They did so at great personal risk and sacrifice, and need to be supported and cared for, not dismissed or marginalized. Their collective refusal to accept hazing culture as an accepted norm, and their willingness to talk about the harm that it causes, opens up space for others to feel empowered to do the same.”

Hurt’s film, which has been earning high praise from educators and prevention experts as an innovative and powerful teaching tool for those in positions of leadership, draws on his own experiences, the voices of survivors of hazing, and family members of young people who lost their lives.

“Many view hazing as harmless, fun, or simply an age-old tradition that one must endure in order to become an accepted member of that group,” Hurt said. “But the athletes at Northwestern remind us that hazing causes harm and needs to be addressed to end the silence, shame, humiliation, and physical and emotional pain that often result from hazing rituals. This scandal presents educational institutions across the country with additional and new opportunities to confront hazing culture on their campuses, and to remain committed to providing hazing prevention and education resources to the students under their care.”

In the end, Hurt said, it’s all about breaking the silence.

“Hazing culture thrives when victims, perpetrators, and onlookers remain silent in the face of abusive hazing behavior,” he said. “I just hope my film HAZING promotes dialogue and healing on campuses across America, and empowers young people to reimagine a world without hazing.”

If you’re an educator or campus leader interested in using HAZING in your orientation programming or classes, you can get the film for educational use through MEF here. If you’re looking to help break the silence around hazing culture in your wider community, find out how to host a public screening here.

(1) “Northwestern Football Scandal Shines Spotlight on Hazing,” by Johanna Alonso, Inside Higher Ed, July 24, 2023.
(2) “Northwestern University football players speak out amid scandal,” NBC News.