Crisis Communication Lessons: The Northwestern Football Scandal Unraveled

Crisis Communication Lessons: The Northwestern Football Scandal Unraveled

The recent crisis at Northwestern University involving its football program provides valuable insights for corporate communicators facing challenging situations. Amidst a hazing investigation, the university had to navigate critical crisis communication questions. In this article, we examine the handling of the crisis, the communication strategies employed, and the implications for reputation management. Tom Corfman, a lawyer and senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group, shares his expertise, shedding light on how crisis communicators can learn from this high-profile sports controversy.

Crisis in College Sports: A Valuable Lesson

While critics may argue that big-money college sports lack long-lasting life lessons for players, crises like the one Northwestern University faced offer crucial guidance to corporate communicators, irrespective of their interest in sports. The incident that embroiled Northwestern’s football program serves as a case study to explore fundamental questions crisis communicators often encounter: How can organizations control the release of unfavorable news? How do they assess the likelihood of the worst-case scenario becoming public? How can accurate information be obtained and evaluated to manage the situation effectively? And can full transparency help curtail the controversy and its impact on reputation?

The Investigation and Crisis Unfold

The crisis at Northwestern began with a complaint about hazing in the football program, leading the university to initiate an independent investigation. The suspension of the popular head football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was announced, followed by subsequent developments that would significantly alter the course of the crisis. The handling of the crisis highlighted the delicate balance between communication and transparency in such situations, as organizations strive to protect their reputation while addressing the demands for openness.

Communication Challenges and Responses

The press release announcing Fitzgerald’s suspension was carefully timed and structured to downplay the news, but it drew attention from news media outlets and prompted further reporting. Subsequent revelations in The Daily Northwestern, the school’s student newspaper, exposed more detailed allegations of hazing, amplifying the crisis to a national scale. As the controversy intensified, President Michael Schill contemplated reversing his decision but eventually proceeded with Fitzgerald’s dismissal.

Crisis Communication Effectiveness

The effectiveness of crisis communication lies in objectively assessing the situation and anticipating potential consequences. President Schill’s reevaluation of the crisis after reading The Daily Northwestern’s report highlights the importance of considering the facts impartially. Crisis communicators must understand the magnitude of an issue, acknowledging its potential impact on various stakeholders. Failure to do so can lead to a tidal wave of consequences, as demonstrated by the escalating crisis at Northwestern.

Ongoing Impact and Future Challenges

The aftermath of the crisis at Northwestern continues to unfold, with more lawsuits and investigations underway. The hazing story remains unresolved, demanding further transparency from the university. As the football program’s scandal evolves, lessons can be drawn for crisis communication strategies in the face of legal challenges and public scrutiny.


The Northwestern football scandal serves as a compelling case study for crisis communication professionals. From the handling of initial press releases to the explosive revelations in The Daily Northwestern, the crisis showcased the delicate balance between transparency and reputation protection. By learning from this high-profile incident, corporate communicators can equip themselves with valuable insights to navigate crises effectively. Objectivity, transparency, and timely responses are critical elements in the arsenal of crisis communicators, and lessons from the Northwestern crisis will undoubtedly shape future communication strategies in similar challenging situations.

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