2 former football players describe their experiences with racism at Northwestern: ‘The toxic culture has not changed’

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America/TNS
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

CHICAGO — Two more former Northwestern University football players have come forward to allege they experienced racist treatment during their playing days.

Former student-athletes Noah Herron and Rico Lamitte described intense pressure to conform to the “Wildcat Way” at a news conference Friday hosted by Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, a law firm that is representing over 50 players. The pair highlighted forced haircuts and unfair punishments allegedly imposed on Black players.

While white players were allowed to wear their hair long, players of color with long or braided hair were told they’d need to cut it, said Herron, a running back who played for Northwestern from 2000-2004 and was a team captain, all-Big Ten selection and NFL draft pick.

“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,’” Herron said.

Herron also alleged Black teammates were punished more severely than others, recalling one particular instance at a bowl game apparently ordered by a former head coach.

“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,” Herron said. “The physical punishment was so severe that one of my brothers, a grown man, defecated himself and needed to be carried off the field.

“That was the culture,” he said. “And the toxic culture has not changed.”

As Lamitte shared similar allegations, he recalled being near teammate Rashidi Wheeler at practice when Wheeler died in 2001. The team was never given closure or space to heal after the death, Lamitte said.

“That set the tone for what I would experience over the next 4 1/2 years of my life,” he said.

Lamitte played from 2001-2005, was a team captain and played under the name Rico Tarver, he said.

The team’s football staff told him and other Black players they needed to change the way they dressed, acted and styled their hair, Lamitte said. If players didn’t cut their hair themselves, staff would instruct upperclassmen to hold them down and forcibly cut it, he alleged. Lamitte decided to cut his hair “to avoid humiliation and embarrassment,” but saw other teammates get forced haircuts, he said.

“If we were all held to the same standard, maybe it would not have stung so much, but fellow white teammates were allowed to grow their hair long,” he said. “Northwestern’s culture must be exposed, they must be held accountable and the culture must change.”

When asked about the new allegations, the university Friday highlighted the independent investigation into its athletics programs it initiated being led by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“Hazing has no place at Northwestern. Any claims of racially motivated hazing are not only disturbing but completely antithetical to our educational and athletics mission,” Northwestern spokesperson Eliza Larson wrote. “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.”

Attorney Patrick Salvi Jr. said his firm has filed seven lawsuits against Northwestern. The university now faces over 20 lawsuits related to hazing on its sports teams, with more likely, he said.

Statutes of limitations may make it difficult for many former student-athletes to win lawsuits, but the large number of players who have come forward to describe alleged mistreatment at Northwestern can still act as witnesses, Salvi Jr. said.

The firm’s lawsuits are still in their early stages and significant discovery has not begun, he said. Lamitte and Herron are not currently among the plaintiffs that have filed lawsuits, he added.

Attorney Parker Stinar argued the broad hazing allegations that first beleaguered the school’s football program this summer have been overlooked as the football season started.

“We demand that this story is not silenced by the football season or time,” Stinar said.

The university’s football team, which has a 4-4 record, will play Saturday against Iowa at Wrigley Field.