LEWISTON – Niagara University and the coach of its swim and diving team have parted ways after a federal lawsuit alleged a culture of sexual harassment was engrained in the athletic program.
A spokesman for NU, Thomas Burns, declined on Tuesday to clarify whether the coach had resigned or was terminated.
"We are actively searching for a head coach and an assistant coach to lead our women’s and men’s swimming and diving teams into the future," a statement provided by Burns said.
Ben Nigro, who led the program for 14 years, was named in a section of a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 20 against the university that claimed female athletes on the teams were subjected to sexual harassment from male swimmers even after they complained about the behavior.
The lawsuit said the "coach’s failure to discipline or sanction male swimmers encouraged an environment in which they were permitted to bully, intimidate and humiliate female swimmers."
The suit alleged NU's investigation into complaints was biased against the women who reported them and allowed their alleged harassers to avoid accountability.
The university statement said federal law restricts its ability to comment on specific complaints brought under the federal civil rights law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational settings.
The statement described the university's investigatory procedures as being conducted in accordance with the institution's non-discrimination policy and the law. It said NU is sensitive to the needs of complainants and offers support, including counseling services, during the process.
"We ensure that we take any and all steps to accommodate students and ensure that their academic, residential and extracurricular experiences continue without disruption, and to ensure equal access to educational opportunities and programs and to protect the complainant as necessary," the statement said.
"Throughout the investigation, the involved students are kept apprised of the status, and have a full opportunity to provide information and respond throughout," it continued. "It is important to note that we continually offer training and communicate with the university community about the resources available to report any incident – and in fact, we encourage individuals to come forward if they believe that a university policy has been violated."
The suit describes the women as being body-shamed, ranked by appearance and used as male athletes' targets for demeaning taunts like "slut," and others vulgarities. It was part of a broader environment where they received unequal coaching and access to other resources as an "appendage" of the men's team.
After complaining to Nigro, the women were allegedly told “boys will be boys” and the behavior reflected "immaturity" that a female athlete should let "roll off her like water rolls off a duck’s back.”
The school has not spoken to the specific allegations.
"We will address the allegations in our legal filings," the statement said.
The university has until Dec. 6 to submit its responses to the court, according to a summary of the most recent proceedings.
Attorneys for the three plaintiffs – two named, one anonymous – could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Earlier this month, seniors Natasha Posso and Jaime Rolf, issued a prepared statement about the emotional and psychological toll of their experience in the program.
"We are competitive, strong women who were sectional swimming champs in high school," they said in a statement provided by their attorneys, Laurie Baker and Cheryl Meyers Buth.
"This sexist, offensive behavior left us broken down, depressed and drained of confidence – this is not how any college athlete or woman on campus should be treated," the women said.
The university's statement said the swim and dive program will compete in the upcoming collegiate season. Posso remains on the team, but Rolf decided to forfeit her scholarship and leave the program to remove herself from the environment, the lawsuit said.
When Meyers Buth spoke to the Niagara Gazette earlier this month, she said the firm had received numerous calls since the lawsuit became public.
“We’ve talked to a number of young women since filing the complaint,” she said at the time. “We’ve also gotten calls from parents whose daughters had similar experiences.”