The purpose of Title IX, which became law in the United States in 1972, was to outlaw discrimination “on the basis of sex” in any education program receiving federal financial support. It transformed college athletics by opening unprecedented opportunities to women.
Eliminating discrimination by law and in practice are two different things. That is one implication of a lawsuit filed by a member of the Niagara University women’s swim team and two of her former teammates, who maintain that female swimmers and divers in the program were subject to harassment.
The facts in their suit against the university will be up to a U.S. District Court judge in Buffalo to adjudicate. But the accusations paint a harsh picture of the treatment that some female swim team members alleged under former coach Ben Nigro.
Nigro was coach of both the men’s and women’s swim teams. A statement from Niagara on Tuesday said Nigro has departed the university and the school is searching for a new head coach for swimming and diving. That's a positive development.
According to the lawsuit, the male swimmers would rank the female swimmers by their physical appearance, mock them for their weight and call them vulgar names. The suit was filed by Nastassja Posso, a senior on the swim team; Jaime Rolf, a senior who quit the team in February 2018, forfeiting her swimming scholarship; and a former diver on the team whose identity was not made public.
The accusations describe an environment that no one would feel comfortable having their daughter, sister or themself in as a student-athlete. The plaintiffs claim Nigro told them “boys will be boys” after they complained about disrespectful treatment from their male counterparts. He told the women to just ignore the verbal abuse, they say.
A question for NU to consider during its coaching search: Is it a mistake to have a single coach for the men and women? A coach committed to equal treatment for men and women would make that question unnecessary. According to the suit, the last female assistant coach of the women’s team quit in 2016 due to poor pay. The remaining structure makes the women’s team “an appendage of the men’s swim team,” the lawsuit charges.
At a minimum, separate practice times might be useful. It’s not a solution to intolerable behavior, but keeping the teams apart might at least help to relieve the pressure.
A judge will rule on the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The charges by the plaintiffs suggested a team culture that was sadly in need of change.