Back in February, when 80 faculty members — all female — wrote a heartfelt letter to the powers that be, begging the school to meaningfully address sexism and racism on campus, and specifically in the athletic department, Northwestern University assured them that the school “fully appreciated” their sentiments and wanted them to know that they took the conversation “very seriously.”
Yesterday, Northwestern reportedly hired deputy athletic director Mike Polisky as the school’s next AD, a decision that demonstrated that the university didn’t take faculty members’ concerns seriously at all.
Polisky is one of the named defendants in a lawsuit filed against Northwestern by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson. In a 58-page complaint filed in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Richardson described a pattern and practice of being physically groped, exploited as a sex object, and sexually harassed by drunken and belligerent fans — often wealthy donors to the university — at the direction of cheerleading coach Pam Bonnevier, who was fired by the university in October. Interacting with fans and alumni was a requirement of female cheerleaders, while male members of the cheer squad were not forced to take part.
The entire complaint is well worth your time, but here are some of the lowlights:
On countless occasions, the team was subjected to harassment and sexual assault from fans. 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. They were expressly told to split up and flirtatiously mingle with extremely intoxicated fans alone and were not provided any security. On several occasions, Bonnevier sent Plaintiff to the Wilson Club as a “splash of color” to flirt with wealthy, elderly donors prior to the start of the game.
From the very beginning of the football season, Plaintiff was demoralized and defiled due to the behavior she was forced to endure. By way of example and not limitation, on September 8, 2018, while Plaintiff was sent out to ‘mingle’ with fans, she was subjected to numerous sexually charged comments from fans such as ‘can you dance for me,’ and ‘you and I will have fun together tonight.’ Bonnevier instructed her to take photos with these fans, and, on numerous occasions these fans used the photo opportunities as an invitation to slyly slide their hands onto Plaintiff’s buttocks and breasts while putting their arms around Plaintiff to take the photo.
Richardson says she reported fans’ behavior first to Bonnevier, who did nothing, before seeking protection from the school’s Title IX office. In her complaint, Richardson detailed a meeting with Polisky in which he dismissed her claims, accused her of fabricating testimonials from other cheerleaders about sexual harassment, and questioned whether she had “sufficiently corroborated her claims” of sexual harassment by fans.
Richardson’s lawsuit says, specifically:
On January 24, 2019, Plaintiff and one of her teammates met with Defendants (Associate Athletic Director Heather Van Hoegarden Obering) and Polisky to discuss their concerns. Incredibly, Obering and Polisky accused Plaintiff of writing the letters and testimonials — which had been submitted anonymously — herself. Obering and Polisky then went so far as to question whether Plaintiff had sufficiently corroborated her claims. This was not a burden that should have been placed on Plaintiff under either the University’s Title IX policy or the 2017 Guidance.
Following Richardson’s lawsuit, further details emerged about racist policies on the cheerleading squad. Erika Carter, a Wildcats cheerleader from 2016 to 2018 who is Black, revealed that she was not allowed to wear her hair in braids or other “ethnically Black” hairstyles and that she was forced to stand apart from other Black cheerleaders to improve “optics.” Carter is also reportedly preparing to sue her alma mater.
It’s not like Northwestern didn’t have other (better) choices. Anucha Browne is a former basketball standout at Northwestern who has worked in a variety of leadership positions (in and out of sports) and won a sexual harassment and retaliation case against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks. Janna Blais is a current deputy athletic director in Evanston. Illinois state senator and former Wildcats football star Napoleon Harris III was considered for the job. So was Desiree Reed-Francois, the current AD at UNLV. Any one of those candidates would have been a better choice for a school with a history of mishandling sexual harassment and assault cases.
No matter how much Polisky might “fit” at Northwestern, no matter how much he might grease the fundraising wheels that make athletics in Evanston go, hiring a white man implicated in the minimization of sexual harassment on campus, sanctioned by the school, when 80 faculty members have demanded change, feels like a deliberate choice. More bluntly, it feels like a giant middle finger to every woman on campus, anyone who dares challenge the school, and the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements in general. What does it say when a university, awash in claims of sexism and racism against female students, chooses to continue to back a white man who was implicated in the dismissal and minimization of said claims?
It doesn’t say anything good.
At least one person close to Northwestern suggested to me that Polisky might be the choice of billionaire alum Pat Ryan, who once sat on the school’s Board of Trustees and is a major donor to the athletic department (both the school’s football and basketball facilities are named for him). Another wondered aloud why Jim Phillips, the former Athletic Director at Northwestern, was informally involved in the search for his replacement, given that Phillips is now head of the ACC. Despite the announcement of an apparently diverse and inclusive search committee, it appears that Polisky was the choice of a few key men.
There was a time when those in charge of any given entity could dismiss concerns of sexism and racism with a “we take these allegations very seriously,” before going back to business as usual, letting the ole boys club do it’s thing. But the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and the #BlackLivesMatter movement last summer are forcing largely white patriarchal institutions to do things differently. Will the feminist and Black communities in Evanston be able to force the school to reverse course on Polisky’s hiring? We’ll soon find out. As news of Polisky’s hiring broke late Sunday afternoon (thanks to the excellent reporting of Shannon Ryan at the Chicago Tribune), those working in sports and sports media began weighing in:
Will Northwestern be able to justify Polisky’s hiring to a campus increasingly distrustful of how the school addresses complaints of racism and sexism? The next few days will tell the tale. But either way, the 80 women faculty members who wrote the school have made it clear: Women in Evanston demand real, meaningful change.
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