"You walk around that university, you take your headphones out," her mother told her. "You take your hoodie off. Don't look at your phone until you get back to the dorms."
Adia Brisker felt eyes following her everywhere at Niagara University. The "microscope," she called it.
It was worse on the road, staying in hotels with NU women's basketball teammates she couldn't trust.
"Just imagine being in a room with your teammates and you know what's going on behind your back," she said. "(Teammates) could be jotting down my whereabouts or listening when I'm talking to other teammates on the phone, people back home who I'm close with."
Brisker was a freshman last year on the NU women's basketball team. A pretty good one, too. She established herself as a key player early, earning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week honors three times over her first 11 games. She finished the season fifth on the Purple Eagles in minutes per game (22.6), fourth in points (7.3) and second in rebounds (4.7) and was a unanimous pick for the MAAC All-Rookie Team.
Brisker seemed poised to be a huge part of — if not the face of — Niagara's program for the next three years. But rather than lay the foundation of a bright future, her freshman season drove her out the door.
Trouble in the stands
Brisker heard the murmuring early. A freshman starting at a mid-major college basketball program usually means there's another player getting a lot less time than expected.
For Niagara, that player was Maggie McIntyre, a white senior who'd started 82 games over her first three seasons on Monteagle Ridge. Brisker and sophomore Jordan Edwards — both Black girls from Pittsburgh — each started at least 24 games for NU while McIntyre started only seven. After leading the team with 32.3 minutes per game as a junior, McIntyre's playing time dropped to 23.8 in her final season.
McIntyre's parents didn't take too kindly to their daughter's demotion, according to a discrimination complaint former NU assistant coach Jamesia Smith filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights in June.
Smith, who was in charge of Niagara's rotation, claims in the complaint that McIntyre "became complacent," missing weekly training and film sessions. As a result, her minutes were cut.
But Smith was also from Pittsburgh and recruited both Brisker and Edwards to NU. And the Purple Eagles were struggling through a 1-7 start.
In Smith's complaint, she says McIntyre's father, Michael, sent racist text messages to head coach Jada Pierce, who is also Black. Texts referred to Brisker and Edwards and "Smitty s relatives" or "family n friends n Pittsburgh blood." Michael McIntyre wrote that Maggie was "not given the same opportunity because she is not black" and that "Smitty needs to get a job at Walmart."
Brisker heard much of the same while playing. She said Michael McIntyre, his wife, Colleen, and parents of other Niagara players directed "undercover" racist comments at both her and Edwards.
The tipping point was a game in which Brisker's mother, Mijohni, was also in the stands.
"I kind of deal with stuff on my own," Brisker said, explaining her initial internalization of the comments. "... Then my mom comes to the game, and she was very uncomfortable, which allowed her to come out and tell me about the situation.
"Once she told me that, for her to even notice it when she was at a game, I felt very unsafe and unprotected by the university."
Brisker also said she and another teammate caught Colleen McIntyre taking pictures of her and Smith while the two were chatting on the bench during a game. Smith accused Colleen McIntyre of recording her in her June complaint.
Brisker and Smith have a lot in common. Both are from the east side of Pittsburgh, members of big families with ties to just about every corner of the Steel City's athletic scene.
Smith went to high school with one of Brisker's brothers. Another of Brisker's brothers, Jaquan, is a senior safety on the Penn State football team, where Smith's uncle, Terry, is an assistant head coach. The two knew each other before Smith started recruiting Brisker to Niagara.
Both have also dealt with tragedy. Smith's best friend, Tracy Carrington, was murdered in 2018. Brisker lost one of her brothers, Tale', and a friend, Leona Dailey, in shootings. Dailey was killed Dec. 16, 2019 — while Brisker was on winter break at the midway point of Niagara's season.
Smith knew of Dailey and understood what Brisker was going through. Naturally, she became an "outlet."
"Everything I needed, I never hesitated to call her," Brisker said. "She was always there. That's just the person she is.
"I had serious downfalls — I wouldn't want to come out of my dorm room, or I might go shoot hoops and ignore everybody that day, just be grieving and silent. She noticed it. ...
"I got very down on myself until she realized my mental health was at risk. She was there all the time, telling me to keep going, keep your head up, sending motivational texts, even reaching out to my mother."
Their bond led to rumors. On Feb. 10, according to Smith's complaint, Brisker was called to meet with Dean of Students Jason Jakubowski, who was investigating allegations that the two were having a sexual relationship.
Brisker and Smith both deny the allegations. Jakubowski, according to the complaint, told Brisker she had been "falsely accused."
"That was another very uncomfortable situation for me," Brisker said. "None of the coaches even went in and asked me or came in with me. I'd never seen this man, never heard of him."
Brisker's biggest issue with the situation wasn't the comments or the accusations, but Niagara's lack of response. It's also the main contention in Smith's legal complaint.
"I don't really understand how this happened, how the university was able to sweep everything under the rug," Brisker said. "I would have never expected it to get to that point, but it drained me."
According to Smith's complaint, Pierce shared the text messages from Michael McIntyre with director of athletics Simon Gray on the same day she received them, Dec. 15, 2019. Smith allegedly asked Pierce to talk to the McIntyres, who were continuing their harassing behavior.
It wasn't until Feb. 21, when Smith sent a formal complaint to the university through her attorney, Lindy Korn, that NU acted.
Smith's complaint says Donna Mostiller, NU's human resource director, apologized to Smith for not taking earlier action. Gray allegedly sent a statement in support of Smith to faculty and staff on March 9.
Brisker said that outside of the meeting with Jakubowski, of which she and Smith were the focal point, she never heard from anyone at the university about the situation.
"The athletic department and coaching staff (were) well aware of the situation but never dealt with it," she said. "They never came to me to ask, 'How are you doing?'"
The university did ask for extra security at the MAAC Tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., according to Smith's complaint. The Purple Eagles played two games there, March 10 and 11.
That's wasn't enough for Brisker.
"There were no repercussions," she said.
Brisker wasn't sure what to do when the school year ended. She prides herself on her ability to get overcome adversity.
"If (Niagara) had followed their mission, I may have still been there and made a decision to stay," Brisker said. "As an African American woman, I felt like I was under a microscope. ... I felt uncomfortable for my mental health.
"For my mom to be four hours away, worried about me; that let me know that I did not belong there."
She announced her decision to transfer on July 20, and a week later committed to Morgan State University, a historically Black school in Baltimore. Ironically, Smith was a three-year player at Morgan State, eventually becoming a team captain.
"As a HBCU, being able to be around that environment and culture, I was able to really see where I needed to be at," Brisker said.
Edwards also transferred. She landed at High Point University, a private Division I school in North Carolina. Smith, the assistant coach, resigned from her position on Aug. 19 and has a pending legal battle with the school.
Pierce and Edwards declined to comment, while Gray and the McIntyres did not reply to multiple requests.
Niagara's attorney, Ginger Schroder, issued the following statement:
"We are in receipt of the complaint and the university will vigorously defend itself against these claims. To that end, the university has filed its position statement, clearly underscoring the baseless nature of the complaint.
"The university is confident that its policies and procedures support its mission to protect the safety and well-being of each member of the campus community.
"Niagara University absolutely responds quickly and appropriately to each and every complaint, and it investigates each matter completely. In addition, the university offers extensive support and resources for any individual who files a complaint.
"Out of respect for everyone in the process — most especially the privacy of the university’s current and former students and employees who may be involved — and to protect the legal process, we will not comment further on this matter."
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