Through the years


A timeline of major events during Mike Polisky’s 11 years at Northwestern

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When the news broke on May 2 that Northwestern was naming Mike Polisky as its 22nd Athletic Director, a wave of criticism arose from students and faculty alike. They argued that Polisky – who in February was named a defendant in a sexual harassment case filed by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson – was the symbol of a true “boys’ club” at Northwestern, representing a disregard for students’ safety and only caring about the bottom line. University President Morton Schapiro, in a statement released May 7, reaffirmed his decision, saying “the safety and well-being of the Northwestern community is our top priority, and Mike and his Athletics and Recreation leadership team are deeply committed to the same.”

This isn’t the first time, however, that Northwestern Athletics has been in the spotlight for its handling of student athletes. Since Polisky’s hiring in 2010, there have been several notable examples of media attention surrounding the department for controversies, internal conflicts and ongoing power struggles between the students and higher administration. This timeline, which begins with the hiring of Polisky, aims to summarize and share some of these examples, along with some other notable events within the program, in order to better understand his time with Northwestern.


Mike Polisky wearing a suit jacket and purple tie in front of a sign for the Walter Athletics Center.
Mike Polisky. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

MIKE POLISKY HIRED: Under then-Athletic Director Jim Phillips, Northwestern hires Polisky as the Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs. During his tenure with the program, he worked on advertising and partnerships outside of the University, with his most notable work being a collaboration with the Chicago Cubs. He also coined the slogan “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” According to his Northwestern athletics bio (now deleted), Polisky’s efforts helped double season ticket sales for both the football team and men’s basketball team and allowed the ’Cats to return to a dominant presence in both the Big Ten and the Chicagoland area.

JANNA BLAIS HIRED: Blais – who currently works as Deputy Director of Athletics in Administration – was also hired in 2010 to work in compliance and academic services and student development, among other departments. Blais also serves as a Deputy Title IX Coordinator during this time, involved with discrimination and harassment prevention, and directly oversees sports like women’s lacrosse, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.


WILDCAT DOMINANCE: In one of the greatest years in the program’s history, the Wildcats return to national attention and begin what can only be described as the greatest era in Northwestern Athletics. The football team, winning 10 games and finishing at No. 17 in the AP Poll, wins their first bowl game in 64 years, and the women’s lacrosse team wins their seventh national championship. Hype for the Wildcats is at an all-time high, and donors are beginning to notice. Talks begin about potential renovations to the school’s ancient athletic facilities.


Chris Collins shouts from the sidelines of a basketball game. Behind him is a large crowd in the stands wearing orange.
Chris Collins on the sidelines of a Feb. 27, 2020 basketball game against Illinois. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

CHRIS COLLINS HIRED In what was considered to be one of the most important moves in team history, the men’s basketball team receives a new coach: Chris Collins. Collins, who worked under Mike Krzyewski at Duke and helped win two national championships, is seen as one of the top assistants in the country, one that’s desperately needed to whip the team into shape in a top-heavy Big Ten conference.


Fitz wearing a face shield, sunglasses, and a Northwestern cap and sweatshirt.
Pat Fitzgerald at training camp ahead of the 2020 football season. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

THE FOOTBALL TEAM'S EFFORTS TO UNIONIZE: In January 2014, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, along with Ramogi Huma – founder of the College Athletes Players Association – announces his effort to unionize the Wildcat football team, with union cards signed by almost every current member of the team. According to Colter, the effort comes as a result of trends he noticed while with the team, including small stipends, some students’ failure to graduate and a lack of medical coverage. Colter meets support initially following the filing, including from head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, but once the case is won, the union effort falls through.

Sports Illustrated writes that Fitzgerald announced to players to vote down the union, after initially saying he supported unionization. He tells the team he doesn’t believe the need for a third party between himself and his players is necessary, and the team told players that benefits may be lost if a union is introduced. What’s more, alumni also reportedly call current players and gave threats: their new planned athletic center would fall through, Fitzgerald might leave and their job prospects would be slim. With all this in mind, the union falls through. To this day, it is the only such effort to unionize at a Division I FBS school.


BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST INTERRUPTS GROUNDBREAKING: At the groundbreaking of Ryan Fieldhouse – the $260 million lakefront athletic facility that today is the crown jewel of the program – Black Lives Matter demonstrators occupy Henry Crown Sports Pavilion, where a ceremony is being held to celebrate the event. Protestors speak directly to Schapiro, in attendance for the ceremony, with a list of demands, feeling that the University president has not done enough to address the institutional issues that Black students face at Northwestern, inspired by other protests around the country, including at the University of Missouri. Following the protest and subsequent departure of protestors, Schapiro and Phillips tell the crowd they are proud of the students for speaking out like they did.


JOHNNIE VASSAR SUES NORTHWESTERN BASKETBALL: Former Northwestern men’s basketball player Johnnie Vassar files a class-action lawsuit against Northwestern and the NCAA, saying the University attempted to “run him off” the team so that his athletic scholarship could be used for another player. Among his complaints, Vassar claims the team instead put him on an “internship,” doing janitorial work, and that Collins berated and mistreated him, saying Vassar had no future with the team, and that he “fucking suck[ed]” on one occasion. The lawsuit, dropped and refiled in 2018, is still ongoing.


Three cheerleaders hold their pom poms in the air on the sidelines. One wears her hair in braids.
Northwestern cheerleaders on the sideline of a football game against Iowa on Oct. 26, 2019. Beginning the 2019 football season, the policy prohibiting cheerleaders from wearing their hair in braids was removed. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

BLACK CHEERLEADERS ARE REPORTEDLY TOLD THEY WON'T RECEIVE UNIVERSITY SUPPORT FOR PROTESTING THE NATIONAL ANTHEM: During the 2017 NFL season, several prominent players kneel or protest during the National Anthem to speak out for racial justice. As the protests spread across America, Black cheerleaders at Northwestern are reportedly told that if they kneel during the mational anthem, they would receive no support from the University – it would be their burden to bear alone. A Northwestern spokesman denied this and told the Chicago Tribune that “The cheerleaders did kneel during the anthem at Ryan Field, multiple times, and were fully supported.”

BLACK CHEERLEADERS ABUSED BY COACH Black cheerleaders were subject to abuse by head cheerleading coach Pamela Bonnevier, who was fired by the school in Fall 2020. According to the Daily Northwestern, Bonnevier discouraged Black cheerleaders from wearing their natural hair, and an official policy prohibited cheerleaders from wearing their hair in braids. They also reportedly could not stand next to their other Black teammates on the sidelines due to “optics.” Communications senior Skyler Maeso said Bonnevier once grabbed her by the hair during a game because her hair wasn’t straight and threatened to bench her. The incident was reported to Polisky, but seemingly no repercussions occurred during the season when the incident took place.


SEXUAL MISCONDUCT DISREGARDED: In her first season with the Wildcat cheer squad, Hayden Richardson is instructed, along with the rest of her team, to parade around tailgates in their “skimpy cheerleading uniforms,” according to a 2021 lawsuit filed by Richardson, and to “mingle with extremely intoxicated fans alone.” This led to sexual harassment from fans. The same practices continued during alumni events, around “men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers.” A recent comment by Northwestern cheerleader and Weinberg junior Jennifer Pius-Alonee says the practice came to a head when, in San Diego for the 2018 Holiday Bowl, the squad is forced to enter a bar and interact with intoxicated fans.


POLISKY DISMISSES LETTER-WRITING CAMPAIGN: Following the 2018 football season, Polisky rejects a letter-writing campaign organized by the cheerleading team to bring these issues to light. Polisky accuses Richardson of fabricating the letters. Instead of a formal investigation, Bonnevier is put through Title IX training and keeps her job with the school. Cheerleaders no longer attend tailgates the following season but are still expected to interact with alumni at school events.


Five members of the women's basketball team, wearing black, huddle around Popovec, wearing purple with her back to the camera.
Members of the women's basketball team huddle up around assistant coach Kate Popovec during a Feb. 28, 2021 game against the Maryland Terrapins. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

FOOTBALL & BASKETBALL TEAMS SPEAK IN SUPPORT OF RACIAL EQUITY Following a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer of 2020, the men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as the football team, speak in support of racial equality. They wear shirts communicating the message and participate in protests of the national anthem: the women’s basketball team, for example, does not take the floor during the anthem.

The football team also briefly becomes a focal point at an NU Community Not Cops protest, as the football team's first game of the season – played on the night of October 24 against Maryland at Ryan Field – becomes a rallying location for a protest held that night and is met with police resistance outside the stadium.

NU FOOTBALL, MEN’S AND WOMEN’S BASKETBALL ALL RANKED: On December 19, for the first time in school history, Northwestern football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball are all ranked by the Associated Press in their respective polls. Northwestern Athletics shares this message proudly, with the mantra of “top athletics, top academics” ringing through on social media.

JIM PHILLIPS LEAVES NORTHWESTERN: Following 12 years in Evanson, Phillips announces he’ll be leaving Northwestern to take the open role as commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Janna Blais serves as interim director, and a search committee is opened for a new athletic director, featuring many prominent coaches and former student athletes.


Signs strewn on the ground during the May 7 
          protest. One reads Where Is President Schapiro? and another reads Women Faculty Against Purple Ties.
Signs by the Rock for protesters to carry during the May 7 march against Polisky's hiring. Photo by Coop Daley / North by Northwestern

CHEERLEADING LAWSUIT FILED: In late January, cheerleader Hayden Richardson formally files a lawsuit against Northwestern University and Polisky, claiming the school attempted to cover up the complaints of sexual harassment. The 58-page report also says Richardson never received word on the investigation held by the athletics program. The suit is met with support from the Northwestern community, as 80 faculty members, all of whom are women, sign a letter to University leaders expressing their concern and disappointment with the program.

POLISKY OFFICIALLY HIRED AS NEXT ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: On May 2, Mike Polisky is officially hired as Northwestern's new athletic director, despite reports that the search committee recommended against his hiring. In a letter to the community, Schapiro writes that he “felt certain” about hiring Polisky, believing him to be the best candidate based on his “understanding of the University community.” According to Deadspin, Polisky also has a connection to one of the most important donors for the school, Pat Ryan. No press conference is held to discuss the hiring further, as Schapiro is out of town when the announcement is made.

NU FILES A MOTION TO DISMISS HARASSMENT LAWSUIT: On the same day as Polisky’s hiring as AD, the Daily Northwestern reports that Northwestern is attempting to have Richardson’s lawsuit dismissed, with University spokesmen explaining that there is no belief of wrongdoing by Northwestern. In a same message to the community, Schapiro says that “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.”

PROTESTERS MARCH TO SCHAPIRO'S HOUSE AND CALL FOR POLISKY'S FIRING: On May 7, six Northwestern faculty members hold a protest march along with students and community members in response to Poliksy’s hiring. Present and former members of the cheerleading team speak during the march and raise a demand in front of Schapiro’s house: investigate Polisky and fire him.

POLISKY RESIGNS: On May 12, five days after the protest, Polisky announces in a press brief that he will resign from the position. In the brief, he says that he will not be “effectively” able to lead the department and that he is resigning so he won’t be a distraction to the student athletes as they continue to work. WBEZ reoprted that Polisky told student-athletes and staff that he wished he had “been more empathetic” to the cheerleaders, and that he had a “fix this” mentality rather than an emotional response. Polisky will not be returning to Northwestern.

In 11 years with Northwestern's athletics department, Polisky oversaw some fantastic highs for the program, including the growth of Northwestern sports as a brand and new national opportunities for the Wildcats. There were also patterns of dismissal, however, with the necessity to look for a quick fix and program growth taking priority rather than the safety of student-athletes – which Polisky admitted in his final statement should have been the priority all along.

While it may take time before a new director is finally announced, there is a desire for transparency in the search – something Schapiro has agreed upon. Students, faculty and athletes alike will be watching.