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NU swim coach replaced in wake of women's sex harassment lawsuit

Niagara University swimming coach Ben Nigro left his job last week, university spokesman Thomas Burns said Tuesday.

Nigro was blamed in a lawsuit filed by one current swimmer and two former teammates, all women, of permitting a culture on the team that allowed sexual harassment, verbal abuse and body-shaming by male swimmers.

Dedra Palmer and Mike Skowronski are leading the team while the university looks for a new full-time coach, Burns said. Palmer is Niagara's associate athletic director, while Skowronski, the assistant director of career services, previously coached the swimming and diving teams for 10 years.

Nigro, 47, had coached at Niagara for 14 years. The university's statement didn't specify whether he resigned or was dismissed.

"Anything and everything that Niagara University can do to change the way the swimming program is organized and run and led is a good thing, and long overdue," said Brian M. Melber, one of the swimmers' attorneys.

A university statement said that when there is a complaint, "We ensure that we take any and all steps to accommodate students and ensure that their academic, residential, and extracurricular experiences continue without disruption, and to ensure equal access to educational opportunities and programs and to protect the complainant as necessary.

"This may include modifying class schedules and residential living assignments, and adjusting practice schedules and travel arrangements. We offer resources to students to ensure that they have the supports they need during the investigation and resolution processes. For example, we offer counseling services – and we utilize internal and external resources to meet students’ specific needs, including scheduling of appointments and travel accommodations," the statement said.

The lawsuit against the university, filed Sept. 20 in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, said the women's team is treated unequally in terms of coaching and equipment, an alleged violation of NCAA rules and federal law.

Nigro had coached both the men's and women's teams. The last female assistant coach quit in 2016 because of poor pay, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleged that the men on the team ranked the women in order of physical attractiveness and ridiculed some of them for allegedly being overweight.

According to the lawsuit, Nigro blamed the immaturity of the male swimmers for these comments and allegedly told the complaining women to "be a duck," apparently mean they should let the complaints run off their backs like water off a duck's feathers.

He also allegedly said, "Boys will be boys," and "90% is how you react and 10% is what they do."

A former male swimmer who contacted The Buffalo News after the publication of the first article about the case said that the women also had a physical ranking system for the male swimmers.

Melber said the evidence he has shows the women were harassed by the men. "Any suggestion that there was some sort of equal or two-way street in that regard just isn't supported by the facts," he said.

The graduated swimmer, who asked not to be identified, said one of the female plaintiffs allegedly stopped training during summer vacation and gained substantial weight, leading to criticism from her teammates. The lawsuit alleges that one of the women was called "a water buffalo" and another was dubbed "Princess Thigh Gap."

The lawsuit said Niagara's Title IX administrator thought the complaint was rooted in animosity after a female swimmer and a male swimmer ended a romantic relationship.

An internal investigation that included the questioning of 22 witnesses began after a complaint was filed by the women in December 2018. The lawsuit accuses the university of delaying the results until after graduation so the male swimmers accused of harassment could no longer face university sanctions.

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

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