Strong women who joined Niagara University’s swim and dive team were scarred by the program’s culture of rampant sexual harassment, the athletes said in a public statement Wednesday.
Their remarks follow a federal lawsuit filed last week that alleged the school’s investigation into their complaints was biased against them and allowed their harassers to dodge potential accountability, the court documents said.
Current seniors Natasha Posso and Jaime Rolf, as well as an anonymous 2018 graduate, had decorated athletic resumes when they were recruited to NU. After joining, the women were repeatedly harassed by male athletes while their coach did nothing to intervene, the lawsuit charged.
The behavior permeated the program, they discovered only amounted to an “appendage” of the men’s program, the documents said. The female athletes were without their own practice schedule, their own coaching staff and, effectively, their own team, according to the lawsuit.
“We are competitive, strong women who were sectional swimming champs in high school,” Posso and Rolf 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.”
All three plaintiffs’ mental health suffered from the environment. One became suicidal for a time.
The decision to go public with their identity and claims was a difficult one, Meyers Buth said. The filing is a result of the way the university handled the women’s internal complaints and is rooted in a desire that the school “provide equal opportunities to women,” the attorney said Wednesday.
And after the suit’s public filing in the federal courts, the firm’s office phone has been ringing, Meyers Buth said.
“We’ve talked to a number of young women since filing the complaint,” she said. “We’ve also gotten calls from parents whose daughters had similar experiences.”
ALLEGATIONS OF AN ENGRAINED CULTURE
The suit noted the harassment was “primarily verbal, as opposed to physical,” but described it as pervasive and “engrained” in the swimming program.
The harassment included numerous incidences of: “body-shaming” and other weight-based remarks; use of demeaning terms like “slut” and other vulgarities; ranking female swimmers by physical appearance, including references to one female swimmer as “water buffalo” and another as “princess thigh gap,” and other behaviors.
Coach Ben Nigro, who instructs the male and female swimmers, was aware of the conduct and behavior but showed “deliberate indifference” to it, the lawsuit said.
A separate complaint about Nigro was filed as early as four years ago by a male athlete. The 2015 complaint said the coach “makes inappropriate comments ‘about having sex with mothers, sexual preferences and all-around rude comments,’ “ according to the court documents.
The anonymous plaintiff, identified as “Jane Doe-1,” from the federal suit filed a different complaint against Nigro in 2016, as well. The lawsuit said Doe reported that after Nigro was told a male swimmer had sex with a female recruit, the coach replied, “He must not have been very good since she (the recruit) is not coming to NU.”
The lawsuit said Nigro told the women “boys will be boys” and “the male swimmers’ misbehavior is simply due to immaturity,” as well as suggesting the female athletes “be a duck,” a remark meant as shorthand for a woman to let the behavior “roll off her like water rolls off a duck’s back.”
“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 said.
Posso, who remains on the team, has sought treatment for depression. Rolf forfeited her swimming scholarship last year, left the team in an effort to escape the verbal abuse and sought subsequent mental health care.
“The sexual harassment and abuse negatively affected (Rolf’s) grades and when the male swimmers were in her classes she was too intimidated to actively participate,” the lawsuit said. “The abuse was to such a degree and for such a duration that she was deemed by medical providers for a time suicidal.”
Jane Doe also needed assistance for her depression and anxiety, the suit said.
Beyond the specific allegations of sexual harassment, the lawsuit makes broader claims that the university has violated National Collegiate Athletic Association regulations and federal law in its unequal treatment of the women athletes.
A spokesman for the university said officials “are aware of a lawsuit.”
“Niagara University’s foremost priority is the well-being of every member of our campus community. We proceed with due diligence to examine any issue that is brought forward that may compromise our culture, while ensuring that we do not rush to judgment or reach conclusions before the completion of the process,” the statement said. “Where it is necessary and appropriate, the university engages independent investigators.”
“To ensure the integrity of the process, and out of respect for every individual involved, we do not comment on ongoing matters,” it continued.
ALLEGATIONS OF RETALIATION AND BIAS
After using the university’s internal reporting procedure, all the women faced retaliation from the male members of the team, the suit said. In addition, the suit described the university as “negligent” in its investigatory process, which “demonstrated bias against the victims.”
One of the women’s complaints was characterized by a university investigator as the “result of personal animosity with a male swimmer who she used to date,” but was eventually recognized as legitimate and an internal and external investigator were appointed.
After a five-month investigation in which 22 witnesses were interviewed, students who allegedly participated in the harassment were allowed to avoid responsibility, court papers said.
However, the process is not yet complete and not determination has been made. The probe concluded in May of this year, but it took another four months for a “fact-finding report” to be transmitted to a dean, which has yet to be reviewed, the suit said.
“The inordinate delay in investigating the complaints by plaintiffs allowed time for some of the male swim members who had engaged in the offending behavior to graduate, thus avoiding any discipline or sanction,” the lawsuit said.
Later the court papers said the witnessed who could have corroborated the victims’ claims graduate and became “effectively unavailable to investigators.”
The lawsuit contained further allegations that investigators “ignored certain information submitted by plaintiffs.”
“They applied different standards to the victims of harassment by refusing to credit their allegations unless corroborated while finding other witnesses credible even in the absence of corroboration,” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for their suffering in excess of $75,000 jurisdictional limit for each of the five causes of action they brought to the courts, as well as the award of their attorneys fees and other expenses.