Women on the Niagara University swim team had a strategy for walking out to the pool: stay together, wear headphones, don’t take off your towel until the last possible moment.
They had to be vigilant, said Nastassja Posso, a member of the women’s team. Because the men’s team would already be lined up on the pool deck. And you never knew what they were going to say.
“They’d call us ‘princess thigh gap,’ ‘whale,’ ‘water buffalo’ … They would start pointing and laughing, making moaning noises, orgasm noises,” said Posso. “And our coach is just acting like he doesn’t hear it.”
Three members of the Niagara University (NU) women’s swim team — Posso, Jaime Rolf, and an unnamed Jane Doe — filed a federal lawsuit against their school in late September, claiming that the university knew about the sexual harassment taking place on the swim team, but did nothing about it. They allege that their coach, Ben Nigro, who has been coaching NU’s swim team for 14 years, witnessed the majority of the harassment. When the female swimmers reported the verbal abuse, Posso said, Nigro would tell them to “grow thicker skin.” He’d say, “boys will be boys,” according to the complaint.
Niagara University, a small private university in Upstate New York, has not commented on the specifics of the case. “Niagara University's foremost priority is the well-being of every member of our campus community,” NU spokesperson Tom Burns wrote in an email. “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.” (Nigro, the coach, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Posso started swimming at age 4. Throughout high school, in Miami, she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to go to swim practice. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, so she knew she had to get a scholarship for college. She was recruited by NU with a full ride.
When she first joined the team, Posso said, she was surprised to discover that the men’s and women’s swim teams did everything together. There was only one coach, one pool, one bus. Team members hung out outside of practice, too. If you didn’t sit with the team in the cafeteria, Posso said, everyone gave you a hard time.
That was all fine, she said, until she started hearing some of the things male members of the team would say to their female teammates. They would harass them at meets and practices, she said, teasing certain women about their weight, or making sexual innuendo as they got in and out of the pool. They’d say, “Let’s get wet,” according to the complaint, and, “finish harder.”
“I remember thinking, ‘What did I get myself into? This is a scary team to be on,’” said Posso. ‘“I hope I am never in that position.’”
The men began to target Posso more aggressively during her sophomore and junior years. The bus rides to meets, she said, were especially bad, because you couldn’t leave. She remembers one particular bus ride to from Buffalo to Akron, Ohio, when one team member, a former boyfriend, shared intimate sexual details with the rest of the group. Her male teammates started saying “roast beef,” she said, “referring to genitalia.”
When she got to the hotel, Posso locked herself in the bathroom.
“I was suffering so much at that point,” Posso said. Her swim times had slipped significantly. She wasn’t able to focus on swimming or school. She wanted to quit, she said, but she couldn’t: She wouldn’t be able to afford tuition without her athletic scholarship.
“Right then I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve got to end my life.’”
Eventually, a female teammate convinced her to come out of the bathroom and talk to Nigro. He promised he’d get the boys to “tone it down,” Posso said, but no one was disciplined, and the male swimmers continued to harass her. She filed a complaint with the school’s Title IX coordinator. Then months went by. It seemed like the university’s investigation was going nowhere, she said, so she decided to take her case to an outside lawyer.
Two of her teammates asked to join her.
“They said, ‘We want to say our piece. This is a culture on the team’” Posso said. (The other two complainants were unavailable for comment.)
The lawsuit claims that the NU violated Title IX — a law that guarantees all students equal access to any education program or activity, regardless of sex — by failing to adequately respond to the allegations of sexual harassment. But it outlines a second allegation, too: By fusing the men’s and women’s teams, the complaint states, the university violated a different aspect of Title IX.
“This is also a question of how the program is structured, and how they are using their athletic funds,” said Cheryl Meyers Buth, one of the lawyers representing the members of the women’s swim team. Under Title IX, women have the right to equal opportunities to participate in sports. At NU, Meyers Buth said, “the woman’s team is an appendage onto the men’s team.” If the women’s team had their own coach, Meyers Buth said, the complainants likely would have had an advocate.
Posso is still on campus, just starting her senior year. She’s still technically on the swim team, but hasn’t been going to meets or practices. She’s harassed about the lawsuit all the time, she said. Just last week, she said, she was walking across campus with a professor, and someone yelled, “slut.”
She’s trying to focus on the other women who have experienced this kind of harassment on the swim team. After hearing about this lawsuit, Meyers Buth said, multiple former students and parents have come forward with similar stories.
Posso is tired of people saying that it’s all “just teasing.”