Three former Northwestern baseball staff members filed a lawsuit Monday against the university, baseball coach Jim Foster, athletic director Derrick Gragg and two other athletic administrators, alleging they were retaliated against for reporting concerns about an “abusive, toxic, and dangerous environment” within the program.
Former assistant coaches Dusty Napoleon and Jon Strauss, and former baseball operations director Chris Beacom allege that Foster bullied and abused them, asked them to violate NCAA rules and denied medical care to certain players. They are suing for breach of contract and negligence, citing Foster’s alleged history of bullying and abuse at previous jobs, which they say Northwestern should have discovered before hiring him from Army in June 2022.
The three plaintiffs alleged they began reporting Foster’s behavior to Northwestern administrators in October 2022, filed a formal complaint to human resources on Nov. 30 and reported Foster to the NCAA for potential violations. Their initial complaints included Foster making a disparaging remark about a female team manager and racially insensitive remarks about recruits, discouraging injured players to seek medical attention and displaying “volatile, unpredictable behavior with frequent blow-ups.”
Northwestern initiated an investigation into Foster, but the coach worked through the 2023 season and was “relieved of his duties” only July 13, three days after the highly publicized firing of longtime football coach Pat Fitzgerald, amid a hazing investigation into that program.
In announcing a leadership change for baseball, Gragg said in a statement: “This has been an ongoing situation and many factors were considered before reaching this resolution. As the director of athletics, I take ownership of our head coaching hires.”
In addition to Foster and Gragg, Monday’s lawsuit names deputy athletic director Monique Holland and Rachel Velez, Northwestern’s associate athletic director for human resources. The three former baseball staff members alleged that they heard nothing from human resources until January and soon learned the investigation would not include interviews with players or medical professionals. They added that Foster, who had become aware of their complaints, escalated his mistreatment of them.
According to the lawsuit, Beacom sent three emails to Velez in January about Foster’s conduct, and both Beacom and Strauss emailed Gragg, requesting a meeting to discuss the problems in the program. They received no response. The three plaintiffs learned in mid-February that Northwestern had substantiated several of their complaints, and on Feb. 22 received a letter confirming Foster had violated university policies. The letter read in part: “Coach Foster engaged in bullying and abusive behavior, made an inappropriate comment regarding a female staff member, and spoke negatively about his staff to other staff members.”
The lawsuit states that on the same day, Gragg confirmed that Napoleon, Strauss and Beacom would not return to the staff. All three were “forced by Northwestern to become remote special contract workers to receive pay for the remainder of their contracts, but they ultimately lost their positions on the baseball team at Northwestern in June 2023 in a retaliatory move,” according to the complaint. The plaintiffs allege that Holland, who was aware of their concerns but often defended Foster, would often tell them: “Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the best thing.”
Attorney Chris Esbrook, who is representing all three former staff members, said no official reason was provided for the demotions and eventual release of the three staff members.
“Northwestern had told these gentlemen what they had said was true,” Esbrook said. “Northwestern found that Coach Foster engaged in bullying, abusive, racist and sexist behavior. But they didn’t suspend Coach Foster, they didn’t place him on leave, and they didn’t terminate them. What they did was they told these gentlemen and these student-athletes, ‘Just deal with it.’ Northwestern says it doesn’t tolerate conduct in the workplace. That violates its code of conduct. But it did tolerate it and endorsed it.”
The lawsuit alleges that Northwestern, despite confirming allegations of Foster’s conduct, allowed him to coach the season and was “only forced to take action when these issues came to public light via multiple media outlets and litigation.” Northwestern went 10-40 during the 2023 season, and since May, 14 players — about half of the roster — have entered the transfer portal.
Northwestern pushed back against Monday’s lawsuit, calling it “without merit,” a different tone than the university has taken in response to recent claims filed by more than 10 former football players.
“When the athletic director and the University were first made aware of complaints about Coach Foster, the University immediately initiated a human resources investigation,” Northwestern’s statement read. “The assistant coaches and director of operations received full support from the University, they were paid for their full contracts and, at their request, were allowed to support other areas of our athletic department as needed. Coach Foster has been relieved of his duties. In this instance and others, the athletic director and department acted promptly and handled the complaints in accordance with established University policy and protocols.”
Esbrook said as the lawsuit moves forward, “long evidence” will emerge that Foster had similar conduct issues at other programs and “Northwestern failed to do the appropriate diligence” before hiring him.
Napoleon and Beacom both joined Northwestern’s staff before Foster, while Strauss was hired in August 2022 after seven years at Baylor. None are currently employed, and Esbrook said their future employment prospects have been “seriously harmed by this experience.”
“It’s disappointing,” said Beacom, a former player and team captain for Northwestern in the late 1980s. “Institutions are only as strong as the people who run them, and unfortunately, in this case, the people running, in particular the athletic department, are not strong.”
Brian Anderson, a former major league outfielder, has been leading the program since July 13. Inside NU reported last week that Anderson, who joined the baseball staff in March and gained popularity among the players, was told he would not be the team’s coach in 2024 and that Gragg did not directly inform players of the decision.