Two former Northwestern football players came forward Friday with new allegations of racism they say they experienced and witnessed during their time on the team in the early 2000s, including a “watermelon-eating challenge” at the end of preseason camp and a coach using a racial slur when referring to an Asian-American kicker.
The former players, Noah Herron and Rico Lamitte, spoke about their experiences during a news conference held by one of the attorney groups that have filed lawsuits against Northwestern in the wake of the hazing scandal that has cast a pall over the school. At least 16 former athletes have filed lawsuits against Northwestern to date, according to court records, alleging.
Herron and Lamitte, who are Black, are not plaintiffs in any of the lawsuits but said they wanted to speak out to hold Northwestern accountable.
“I personally experienced impact bias and racism. I witnessed fellow teammates experience the same,” said Herron, a team captain who went on to play briefly in the NFL. “Northwestern not only treated players of color differently than our white teammates, but they tried to conform us in our appearance to resemble our white teammates – or what Northwestern would consider ‘The Wildcat Way.’ “
In response to a request for comment from USA TODAY Sports, Northwestern spokesperson Eliza Larson noted in an email that the school has retained former attorney general Loretta Lynch to review the athletic department’s culture and processes for detecting, reporting and responding to misconduct.
“Any claims of racially motivated hazing are not only disturbing but completely antithetical to our educational and athletics mission,” Larson wrote in the email. “We are and will always be committed to diversity, and we investigate any specific hazing allegation we receive to confirm that every Northwestern student feels safe and included.”
The broader hazing scandal at Northwestern led to, who has denied having any knowledge of hazing within the program and .
Herron and Lamitte did not directly allege any wrongdoing by Fitzgerald in Friday’s news conference, and the incidents they described would have occurred when Fitzgerald was an assistant coach at the school under then-head coach Randy Walker. Walker died of an apparent heart attack in 2006, at the age of 52.
Herron and Lamitte echoed, about Black players being required to cut their dreadlocks or cornrows even as white players with longer hair were not asked to do so. Lamitte, who played from 2001 to 2005 as Rico Tarver, said he was told if he did not cut his hair on his own, coaches would instruct upperclassmen on the team to “hold me down and shave it” at or before the team’s annual preseason camp, known as Camp Kenosha.
“I ended up cutting it myself, to avoid humiliation and embarrassment,” Lamitte said, “but I witnessed several teammates – some with years of dreadlocks and cornrows – stripped of their identities in front of their peers.”
Lamitte also referenced the “watermelon-eating challenge,” in which he said each position group on the team picked a representative to compete. He said it was intended to be a team-bonding exercise but “of course there were jokes tossed back and forth about how racist that it was.”
“If your group didn’t pick a Black player to participate, losing was assumed, and vice versa,” he said.
Lamitte also alleged that, following a 2004 game against TCU in which the Wildcats’ Asian-American kicker missed several field goals, Walker said to him that “we have an (ethnic slur) in our armor.”
Herron, meanwhile, recounted a separate incident at the 2000 Alamo Bowl in which he claimed two Black players were discriminately punished.
“The head coach told two white position coaches that if these two Black players were able to walk off the field after their punishment, that they themselves would be fired,” said Herron, who played at Northwestern from 2000 to 2004. “The physical punishment was so severe that one of my brothers, a grown man, defecated himself and needed to be carried off the field.”
One of Herron’s attorneys, Pat Salvi, later clarified that the punishment stemmed from a “timing issue” that caused confusion among both Black and white players on the team, but only the two Black players were severely punished.
Lamitte said the incidents have weighed on his mind in the decades since they occurred. It is unclear whether he and Herron will be able to successfully bring any legal claims against the school due to the statute of limitations in Illinois.
“A lot of us just tried to move forward,” Lamitte said. “At the time, you want to make it to the NFL. You’re a captain on the team. You’ve got tunnel vision. Stuff goes on, you’re just like ‘oh, that’s a distraction.’ … And then you see that it’s affected people for years on end.”
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