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Home News Ex-Northwestern cheerleader who filed suit alleging sexual exploitation calls school’s hazing response ‘a lot of empty platitudes’

Ex-Northwestern cheerleader who filed suit alleging sexual exploitation calls school’s hazing response ‘a lot of empty platitudes’

by nytime
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Allegations of hazing and bullying have thrown Northwestern University’s athletic department into turmoil, spurring recent leadership shake-ups and pledges for reform.

Yet claims of abusive behavior and inappropriate treatment of students at Northwestern aren’t entirely new at the prestigious Big Ten school: Two years ago, one young woman sounded the alarm about similar problems in a lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation and a hostile environment on Northwestern’s cheerleading team.

Hayden Richardson was a senior majoring in political science and legal studies when she filed the 2021 lawsuit, which accused Northwestern officials of using her and other cheerleaders as “sex objects to titillate the men” who were major university athletic program donors.

“These were things that people knew. We were being sexually objectified in an inappropriate way, and they didn’t care. They actively didn’t care,” Richardson said in a recent interview with the Tribune. “I made a national stance. That was a hard thing to cope with. … I had never had lawyers before. I was really navigating this on my own.”

Northwestern officials did not respond to Richardson’s comments, citing her pending lawsuit, but said the university “takes Title IX complaints seriously and investigates them fully.”

“While we respect the right of individuals to seek redress through the legal system, it is important to keep in mind that a lawsuit contains allegations, not necessarily statements of fact,” the university said in a statement.

That lawsuit described Richardson being forced to attend events where “she was knowingly and deliberately subjected to sexual assault and sexual harassment, including sexual propositions and the fondling of her buttocks and breasts” over her cheerleading uniform.

The cheerleaders’ positions on the team “were conditioned on pleasing and being groped by wealthy older men and intoxicated fans for the purpose of encouraging donations to the University and supporting Northwestern Football,” according to the complaint, which included allegations that the university violated Title IX, a federal law that bars sex discrimination in education.

Accusations of rampant hazing, racism, abuse and other troubling behaviors have since surfaced in several sports at Northwestern, which faces mounting lawsuits filed by multiple former student athletes. Storied head football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired in July; a few days later, the university dismissed its head baseball coach as well, amid accusations of bullying and abusive behavior.

University President Michael Schill in a statement last month acknowledged that hazing on the football team has “included forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values.”

In a Tribune opinion piece last week, Schill called hazing “unacceptable,” and apologized to student athletes and “all others who have been affected.”

But Schill added that he was “concerned that fingers of blame and accusation are now being pointed indiscriminately and too broadly.” His commentary went on to laud the accomplishments of the athletic program and affirm the integrity of the majority of Northwestern athletes, coaches and staff members.

To Richardson, this was not an apology, but rather “a legal statement to protect the university from bad PR.”

“If you really care and you’re really sorry, you don’t need to talk about how great other things are,” she said. “What he is doing there is basically scapegoating. He is trying to say, ‘Oh, it was one or two bad actors.’ Which is not true. Northwestern … is a system. It is accountable for the actions within that system.”

Schill’s piece included measures the university is taking to combat hazing, including “intensive anti-hazing training for all teams and coaches.” The university has also hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a broad review of the university’s processes to detect and respond to potential misconduct in its athletics programs.

Despite the president’s pledges for change and accountability, Richardson said she doesn’t believe the university is dedicated to true reform or the cultural overhaul that’s needed for student athletes to thrive.

“The penalty is not high enough for them,” she said. “If you don’t have anyone forcing you to change, you’re not going to change. It seems, at least so far, it’s been a lot of empty platitudes.”

Mandatory mingling

Growing up in Nebraska, Richardson had competed in gymnastics and competitive cheer since she was a young child, and then was part of her high school dance team.

At 19, as a sophomore transfer student, she was thrilled to be chosen for Northwestern’s cheerleading team.

She even bought a pair of purple shoes.

“That’s kind of the dream. Everyone works so, so hard so that one day they get to do collegiate sports,” she said. “It is something I had been working toward since I was a 4-year-old little girl.”

Cheerleading also helped pay for her education: Participation on the team earned her a scholarship of $5,500 in 2019 and just over $4,000 in 2020.

But she said she experienced troubling behavior as early as the first meeting, when the team was advised by a university official “that there are ‘always those creepy fans, and if they place their hand too low … just take the picture and move on,’” according to the lawsuit. It was made clear that the cheerleaders’ “number one priority was keeping the fans happy — they needed to always be ‘fun girls,’” the complaint said.

Richardson added that at that meeting, cheerleaders who had been on the team for several years were called on to recount “very disturbing experiences” they had had with fans.

“All of that was to normalize that behavior,” Richardson said.

The complaint detailed repeated instances during university-sanctioned events where drunken fans and alumni would grope Richardson, who was required to “mingle” with wealthy donors for the university’s financial profit.

“At every home game, the cheerleaders were instructed to saunter around the tailgating lots as if they were Victoria’s Secret models on a runway, unsupervised, in their skimpy cheerleading uniforms,” the complaint states. “They were expressly told to split up and flirtatiously mingle with extremely intoxicated fans alone and were not provided any security.”

On several occasions, Richardson said she was sent to the Wilson Club — a private space open to fans who have courtside, loge or club tickets — “to flirt with wealthy, elderly donors prior to the start of the game,” according to the lawsuit.

“Fans often badgered (Richardson) to drink alcohol, including taking Jell-O shots, even before she was 21, and placed their hands on her buttocks and breasts while taking pictures,” the lawsuit stated. “In order to keep her spot on the cheerleading team and avoid financial liability under the Spirit Squad contract and her cheerleading scholarships, (Richardson) knew that all she could do was smile and say ‘happy gameday.’”

The complaint documented Richardson’s multiple attempts to get help from university leaders, only to be rebuffed or accused of making things up. The lawsuit also recounted other abusive behaviors, like one away game when cheerleaders were allegedly instructed not to eat beforehand and food was taken away from them.

“It was more important for the team to look skinny on game day to entice fans and donors than to be appropriately fueled for physical activity,” the complaint stated.

‘Do better’

Then in May 2021, Northwestern hired a new athletic director — Mike Polisky, a deputy director for athletics who was one of several defendants named in Richardson’s lawsuit.

Several hundred Northwestern students, faculty members and community members — including Evanston Mayor Dan Biss — protested his hiring, citing the cheerleading lawsuit. An online petition created by another Northwestern cheerleader called for the university to reconsider Polisky’s promotion. The petition garnered more than 1,300 signatures.

“As an alum and former female athlete I call on (Northwestern University) to do better,” one supporter wrote on the petition.

“I am a concerned parent,” another signer wrote.

Northwestern University’s president at the time, Morton Schapiro, responded saying that Polisky met the “highest standard of conduct and character,” adding that an independent investigation found no evidence that Polisky “engaged in any conduct that is a violation of policy.”

But Polisky resigned as athletic director just nine days after his hiring, saying he “did not want to be a distraction.”

As for Richardson, she received a prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship in 2020 before graduating from Northwestern in 2021. She now works in Washington, D.C., as a political operative.

Her lawyer, prominent Title IX attorney Andrew Miltenberg, called Richardson “courageous.”

“Hayden’s situation was not an anomaly but in fact part of a culture that’s continually being perpetuated by the university,” he said. “She was way ahead and out and front on this issue … at Northwestern. And she didn’t flinch. I think she was really brave.”

While Richardson said her negative experiences on the cheerleading team and filing the lawsuit were a “time in my life that was very, very hard,” she stressed that she cares deeply for her university, the cheerleading team and athletics at the school.

“I love my teammates,” she said. “I still have a lot of passion for my school, and I think that’s something that gets lost.”

She still has her purple shoes.

“I love Northwestern and I love my community,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because I think when you love something, that you have to make hard decisions so that community becomes better for the people who come after you.”

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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