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Northwestern’s controversial new AD, Mike Polisky, has close ties to mega-donor Pat Ryan


Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.

Northwestern University’s Ryan Field.
Photo: Getty Images

The calls are growing louder for Northwestern University to reconsider its decision to hire Mike Polisky as athletic director.

The school announced Polisky would succeed former AD Jim Phillips, now head of the ACC. The announcement was met with surprise and shock from many woman and Black students, as well faculty and staff, given that Polisky is a named defendant in a federal sexual harassment lawsuit filed by cheerleader Hayden Richardson in February, in which she alleges Polisky turned a blind eye to the sexual assault and exploitation of cheerleaders. She also alleges that he accused her of fabricating evidence. A second cheerleader, Erika Carter, has also said she plans to sue the University for racist policies on the Cheer Squad, which fell under Polisky’s purview as Deputy Athletic Director.

Last Friday, dozens of Northwestern students and faculty marched through campus to protest Polisky’s hiring.

Now, more details have come to light about Polisky’s chummy relationship with Northwestern mega-donor Pat Ryan, who has given more than $200 million to the school, and for whom both Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena are named. Deadspin has learned that O’Brien Plaza, which connects Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan basketball arena to the Ryan Stadium, was named for a long-time friend of Ryan’s, Kevin O’Brien, at Ryan’s insistence. Further, O’Brien, who passed away in 2011, was Mike Polisky’s father-in-law. A source at Northwestern told Deadspin that members of the search committee were never told of Ryan’s decades-long friendship with Polisky’s father-in-law and were furious upon hearing the revelation.

To date, Northwestern has not held a formal press conference to announce Polisky’s promotion to AD, and Deadspin’s attempts to contact both the Athletic Department and Polisky have gone ignored. Last week, University President Morton Schapiro released a statement backing Polisky, which said in part:

The University employed an external search firm. As part of the search firm’s process, they conducted a detailed examination of Mike’s background, which involved interviews by a former FBI supervisory special agent and a review by a former federal judge. Their findings gave me further confidence in Mike’s full fitness for the position, and I would not have hired him if he did not meet the highest standard of conduct and character.

Meanwhile, six women professors have come forward to pressure the University into transparency regarding Polisky’s hire. They’ve posed a list of questions to Schapiro, including asking why, if only an “initial inquiry” has been conducted into Richardson’s claims, was Polisky hired so quickly? Did the full AD search committee vet the complaints about Polisky’s behavior toward members of the cheerleading team? And, in a question posed directly to Polisky, “do you believe the women’s accounts?”

To date, no one at either Schapiro’s office or the school’s athletic department has answered the question many students, faculty, and alumni want the answer to: Does the school not believe the women’s stories, or do they just not care?

Meanwhile, at least one coach at Northwestern has weighed in on Poliksy’s hiring while ignoring the questions of sexism and racism swirling around him. Patrick Goss, director of golf and player development at the university, posted the following on his Twitter account:

Which led to a good reminder of the old trope that just because a man hasn’t treated women badly in front of his buddies doesn’t mean he hasn’t treated women badly.

A petition in support of Polisky, calling for “integrity,” is now circulating online, demanding that the university make it clear that Polisky is not being sued for personally sexually harassing students. That’s true enough, Polisky is being accused of reinforcing the power structure that keeps sexual harassment claims under wraps and keeps victims from coming forward. After all, allegedly accusing a victim of fabricating evidence isn’t nothing. In fact, it’s exactly why victims often stay silent.

Deadspin reached out to the sponsors of Northwestern Athletics for comment. Energy Company Constellation, who is listed on Northwestern’s website major athletic sponsors, declined to comment. Wintrust Financial, Matthews Roofing, Athletico, and Under Armour had not responded to our request for comment at the time of publication.

While the administration at Northwestern digs its heels in, the calls for Polisky’s ouster, before he’s even formally been installed, keep growing. This week, self-proclaimed #MedillMafia alum Professor Kevin Blackistone, as well-respected a journalist as exists in sportswriting, wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he called Polisky’s hiring “insulting” to Richardson and “embarrassing” for alumni.

If only the members of the good ole boys club in Evanston were as insulted and embarrassed as their students, faculty, staff, and alumni seem to be.



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