A former Wheaton College football player is suing the school and seven ex-teammates, alleging campus officials knew about the team’s hazing tradition and did nothing to prevent an attack in which the player said he was kidnapped, beaten and left half-naked on a baseball field.
The lawsuit, filed early Friday in DuPage County, has been expected since September, when five football players were charged criminally in connection with the March 19, 2016, incident at the small Christian liberal arts college. The charges are still pending, and the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
The injured player, Charles Nagy, 21, of Indiana, said in the 37-page complaint that the coaching staff, including head coach Mike Swider, and the college administration turned a blind eye to a violent and pervasive tradition against freshmen players by creating a “sham hazing policy that it never intended to or actually did enforce in any meaningful way.”
Hazing was “an open secret at Wheaton College, a practice well-established and long-standing within the Wheaton College football program, handed down from class to class while the head coach and other adults, aware of the practice, looked the other way in disregard of the health and safety of players,” attorney Terry Ekl, who filed the suit on behalf of Nagy, said in a statement Friday.
Wheaton College allowed the hazing practice as a “means of building character and a perceived unity within the team,” Ekl said.
A Wheaton College spokeswoman could not immediately comment because school officials have not seen the lawsuit.
Ekl said he is seeking more than $1 million in damages from the college. The suit also seeks at least $50,000 from each of the named seven players. Four of them — James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, and Samuel TeBos — are facing criminal charges. They are all 22 and live out of state.
The fifth charged player, Noah Spielman, 21, was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Ekl said his client has ongoing settlement discussions with Spielman and both sides agreed to a 30-day extension to Monday’s one-year statute of limitations for litigation.
The suit also names three other Wheaton College football players who prosecutors did not charge criminally but who Ekl said conspired with their teammates in the alleged attack.
The Tribune sought comment early Friday from the players’ lawyers.
“This incident is overblown and sensationalized,” said attorney Paul DeLuca, who represents Kregel in the criminal case. “It’s sad. These are good young men who have been portrayed as thugs by virtue of this lawsuit. We expect and believe the evidence in the criminal case will contradict a number of the allegations.”
Todd Pugh, who represents TeBos, said Nagy is likely going after the college because it would have more money than the football players.
“It appears to be the strategy of the plaintiff’s attorney and the plaintiff to reach deeper pockets,” Pugh said. “I don’t disagree with the strategy from a plaintiff’s lawyer’s perspective, but the facts don’t support it.”
Nagy reported to authorities that he was watching the NCAA basketball tournament in a dorm the night of the incident when several teammates entered the room and tackled him, according to the lawsuit and investigative records obtained by the Tribune. Then a 19-year-old freshman, Nagy said he kicked his legs and yelled at them to stop, only to be punched and have his bare legs and wrists wrapped in duct tape.
The players put a pillowcase over Nagy’s head and took him from the residence hall. Nagy was placed in the back seat of a teammate’s vehicle and held down by at least two players while others piled into the vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
After the vehicle began moving, they played Middle Eastern music, and at one point the players suggested to the freshman that he had been kidnapped by Muslims who wanted to fornicate with goats, the lawsuit states. They patted his foot and suggested he would be their “goat” for the evening, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit states the players restrained him with more duct tape during the drive, pulled down his shorts and underwear, then tried to insert an object into his rectum. After the freshman yelled at them to stop, he was beaten, according to the lawsuit.
The accused players have denied trying to insert anything into Nagy’s rectum. None of the criminal charges against them allege a sexual offense.
The players drove to a park off campus and carried the teen onto a baseball diamond, the complaint states. Nagy told investigators that players threw dirt on him, took his cellphone and left him half-naked on the field.
Nagy, who went to the hospital and spoke with police officers later that night, suffered two labrum tears that required surgery, authorities said. He withdrew from the school a short time later.
A second player also was targeted that night, but he was not injured and did not file a complaint. He remained on the football team last season.
Five players — Spielman, Cooksey, Kregel, Pettway and TeBos — were charged with aggravated battery, mob action and unlawful restraint. They were suspended from the team’s games and practices following the charges.
Under an intense national spotlight after the Tribune broke the story announcing the criminal charges, college administrators issued a harsh statement that called the incident “entirely unacceptable” and contrary to the school’s religious values and “values we share as human beings.”
Away from public scrutiny, however, the college stood more firmly behind the players after finishing its internal investigation a year ago. College officials, who hired a third-party investigator to review his account, sent the accuser a letter in November 2016 stating they found the players’ account “more credible” than his, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Tribune.
The complaint, however, alleges college officials have long known about the team’s hazing traditions for decades and have done nothing to stop it. The suit accuses the players of battery and false imprisonment. The college is accused of negligence and willful and wanton conduct, according to the lawsuit.
“The complaint seeks to have a public accounting of what happened, not only to compensate our client for the substantial suffering and losses that he has sustained because of the illegal conduct of Wheaton College and the involved players, but also to raise awareness of the significant risks of hazing to deter others from doing it and to encourage school and athletic officials to intervene and halt hazing practices where they occur and before the worst happens,” Ekl said, in his prepared statement.