Ben Nigro had been the head coach of the mens and womens swimming teams for 14 years at Niagara University. He had become a mainstay at the University. However, he is no longer with the program after allegations that Nigro made sexual remarks toward female swimmers and encouraged gender-based harassment in his program. To make matters worse, the University is accused of various Title IX violations causing a toxic culture where female swimmers were verbally abused and where their calls for help fell on deaf ears.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo details these allegations and others made against Nigro, several male swimmers and Niagara University. It describes a toxic culture in which male swimmers were given preferential treatment and were encouraged to insult and degrade their female teammates. The original lawsuit was filed by current swim team member Nastassja Posso, former NU swim team member Jamie Rolf and a former team diver who elected to remain anonymous and appears in the lawsuit as “Jane Doe.” An attorney for the plaintiff commented that they are “pleased to see Coach Nigro is not with Niagara, but it is a shame it took a lawsuit to address a longstanding problem.”
Allegations Against Nigro and Other Male Swimmers
The lawsuit charges Nigro with allowing male swimmers to body shame female swimmers. The male swimmers would rank the female swimmers by appearance and call them inappropriate names like “water buffalo.” The suit alleges that this type of degradation was tolerated and encouraged by Nigro. Nigro would encourage female swimmers to “be a duck” as a way to say they should let the insults roll off their backs. Nigro also served as the main apologist for the behavior of male swimmers. He dismissed their behavior as simply boys being boys. Aside from one incident where a female swimmer was pushed into a bush, the abuse remained verbal. Lastly, it is clear that Nigro tolerated this type of behavior season after season. This allowed the abuse to become normal and commonplace.
Allegations Against Niagara University
The lawsuit places much of the blame on the University and its athletic department. The suit blames the school for failing to properly train its staff on gender-based harassment. Furthermore the suit charges Niagara with, “failing to properly supervise and discipline the swimming coach based on past complaints” and for “retaining the swimming coach after credible complaints of misconduct were made against him (Nigro).” The suit claims that in 2016 a complaint was lodged against Nigro, but it was ignored by the athletic department. This allowed Nigro to continue his abuse for two more seasons.
The lawsuit also alleges that Niagara violated Title IX by treating male and female swimmers unequally. The male team had better coaching, equipment and traveling arrangements. This reduced the women’s team to “an appendage of the men’s swim team:, which in turn resulted in a hostile and abusive environment. The women’s program did not have its own coaching staff and was required to practice with the men’s team on a regular basis. The two teams spent a lot of time together, often studying and eating together. This increased the opportunity for abuse, further harming the female team. Niagara University responded by issuing a statement that said in part, “We proceed with due diligence to examine any issue that is brought forward that may compromise our culture, while ensuring that we so not rush to judgement or reach conclusions before the completion of the process.”
An additional wrinkle that could come into play is the new legislation adopted by the NCAA in response to the College Basketball scandal. The new legislation essentially requires an “attestation of compliance” from athletic departments. This greatly increases the potential liability they could face in the wake of a scandal like the one Niagara finds itself in. Although unlikely, it is even possible for a school administrator to go to jail as a result of noncompliance. If Niagara’s athletic department complied with the new regulation, then the school’s administration and athletic department could find itself exposed to greater liability. The NCAA gave athletic directors until October 15th to complete the attestation paperwork. It is possible that this could factor into Niagara’s decision on how to proceed with the lawsuit.
An Additional Swimmer Joins the Lawsuit
A fourth swimmer recently joined the lawsuit against Niagara University. “Jane Doe-2” claims that she was sexually assaulted by a member of the men’s swim team when she was a freshman. The student reported the assault to the University’s Title IX coordinator. She was told that it would be “difficult on her” if she filed a formal complaint. Instead a “mutual” no-contact order was issued. However, the order failed to state the reason for it, or that the student feared for her safety. As a result the victim was intimidated by the male swimmer and others. Lastly, the lawsuit alleges that Niagara had prior knowledge of the student and his previous “law enforcement contact.” Instead of taking the appropriate action, Niagara allowed the student to remain on the team.
So What’s Next?
As a result of the misconduct, all of the female swimmers have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. They have been unable to pursue their collegiate dreams in a safe and accountable environment, and they assert that heir lives have forever been changed.
Niagara University is still investigating the issue, but there seems to be little doubt about what the investigation will yield. A subversive and abusive culture was ever present. Male swimmers were allowed to shame and verbally abuse their teammates without consequence. The University has only itself to blame. Rumors of the misconduct were present and female swimmers had lodged credible complaints that were ignored. Furthermore, as mandatory reporters of sexual harassment under Title IX, Niagara University administrators have an ongoing responsibility to provide a safe environment where discrimination and abuse are not tolerated. Niagara underfunded and understaffed the women’s program. The two teams weren’t treated equally based on the simple fact that Nigro was essentially the men’s coach. By taking a cheaper alternative, Niagara helped create an environment where abuse could occur. The female swimmers had no advocate and no one to turn to, especially after earlier complaints fell on deaf ears. This created a culture that shielded the men’s team at the expense of the women’s team.
The University has a real problem on its hands. It is unclear whether Niagara will fight this in court or try to quietly settle. It seems the swimmers have a strong case, assuming there are other team members who can confirm the abuse and mistreatment. There is also the very real possibility that other swimmers may come forward and join the lawsuit. The University may be wise to own its mistakes and correct the apparent Title IX violations. For a school that likes to avoid controversy, Niagara certainly has one on its hands.