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Female swimmers sue Niagara University, alleging harassment by men's team

A member of the Niagara University women's swimming team and two of her former teammates have sued the university, charging that they and others were sexually harassed by members of the men's swimming team, with the knowledge of their coach.

The plaintiffs are Nastassja Posso, a senior who remains on the swim team; Jaime Rolf, a senior who quit the team in February 2018, forfeiting her swimming scholarship; and an unidentified woman who competed as a diver for four years before graduating in 2018.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, says Posso and Rolf sought treatment for depression, while the former diver "suffered from anxiety and depression."

"We went from being strong, competitive women who were sectional swimming champs in high school, to feeling broken down, depressed and drained of confidence," Posso and Rolf said in a statement released by their attorneys. "This is not how any college athlete or woman on campus should be treated."

The female swimmers said they and their teammates were ranked in order of physical appearance by the male swimmers, ridiculed for their weight and called vulgar names denoting female genitalia.

One woman allegedly was called a "water buffalo," while another allegedly was referred to as "Princess Thigh Gap."

Aside from one of the women being bumped into a bush, they made no allegations of improper physical contact.

They said Ben Nigro, who coaches both the men's and women's teams, failed to intercede and told the women to "be a duck," by which he apparently meant the women should let the verbal abuse roll off them like water off a duck's back.

Nigro, according to the lawsuit, told the women that the men on the team were immature, saying, "90% is how you react and 10% is what they do." He also said, "Boys will be boys," according to the lawsuit.

"The only 'locker room mentality' we should tolerate is one which supports, educates and demonstrates respect for all of our athletes; which recognizes that half the people in locker rooms across the country these days are women," said attorney Laurie A. Baker, who filed the suit along with attorneys Cheryl Meyers Buth and Brian M. Melber.

The former diver alleged that she complained to the assistant athletic director in 2016 about Nigro's response to an incident in which a male swimmer had sex with a female recruit. Nigro's response, according to the lawsuit: "He must not have been very good since she (the recruit) is not coming to NU."

"The coach and athletic department were either so unaware or so dismissive of the humiliating treatment of women swimmers that this appalling behavior became acceptable and continued year after year," Melber said.

The lawsuit also asserts the university violates federal law and NCAA rules because the women's team is treated unequally in terms of coaching and equipment.

"We are aware of a lawsuit that was recently filed in federal court," the university said in a statement Tuesday.

"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. Where it is necessary and appropriate, the university engages independent investigators," according to the statement. "To ensure the integrity of the process, and out of respect for every individual involved, we do not comment on ongoing matters."

The suit claims the university slow-walked a formal complaint filed last December, dragging out the internal investigation until some of the accused male swimmers graduated and could no longer be punished.

No action has been taken yet in regard to the internal investigation, which involved the questioning of 22 witnesses, the lawsuit says.

The university's Title IX coordinator allegedly claimed the complaint was triggered by a female swimmer's animosity against a male swimmer who she used to date, according to the lawsuit.

Nigro coaches with the assistance of a male diving coach, Josh Larcom. The last female assistant coach, a diving specialist, quit in 2016 because of poor pay, according to the suit.

The structure, in effect, made the women's team "an appendage of the men's swim team," the lawsuit claims.

That structure "permitted, fostered and created a hostile environment," the lawsuit says.

"It’s not just the offensive language and behavior our clients were subjected to," Meyers Buth said. "It’s the negative message conveyed by the university by not having a woman head coach, woman assistant coach, woman trainer or women in other key roles. They learn women are not valued."

"For example, over a period of at least five years, men and women were required to stay on the same floors in hotels; the coach made sexual remarks, encouraged women to simply ignore derogatory language used by male swimmers, and failed to report or take steps to eliminate gender-based harassment, including body-shaming," the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs said they knew before enrolling at Niagara that the men and women sometimes practiced together.

"They didn’t realize the women didn’t really have their own team or own coaching staff, nor were they told that male and female swimmers and divers were required to be together as a team every day – they practiced, studied and ate together and participated in other mandatory joint training and social activities," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says Nigro spent most of his time coaching the faster swimmers, which were the men, leaving the women to receive little feedback.

Nigro, 47, is in his 14th year at Niagara, according to the university website. Previously, he coached at New Hampshire, Vermont and North Carolina-Wilmington, his alma mater.

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