“Support the welfare and development of the student-athlete personally, professionally and socially through an integrated system of care and support by providing relevant, state-of-the-art, targeted programs and mental health services.”
– from the Purdue Fort Wayne intercollegiate athletics mission statement
Niecee Nelson, women's basketball coach at Purdue University Fort Wayne, stands accused by 14 players, an assistant coach and an athletic trainer of mental and physical abuse. The serious allegations raise troubling questions about university oversight of the program and demand Nelson's immediate suspension from coaching responsibilities while a thorough investigation takes place.
Nelson, who was hired in 2016, was placed on a one-week administrative leave in February 2019. WFFT-TV reported at the time that a parent of one of the players said a charge of abuse might have led to the leave. According to a statement issued by the university Wednesday, its Office of Institutional Equity reviewed the allegations, interviewing each student athlete and staff member associated with the women's basketball program.
The university released a statement at the time citing “allegations from an anonymous source” and stating that a thorough investigation found “no athletics department or university policies had been violated.”
“We are pleased this issue has been resolved,” Kelley Hartley Hutton, director of athletics, said in the 2019 statement.
But it was not resolved, according to a 71-page document prepared by Martin Greenberg, an attorney representing players and parents, according to the Indianapolis Star. As reported, the charges of bullying and abuse are alarming.
The university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a strong statement Thursday calling for PFW to conduct an independent internal investigation “to examine the manner in which the university handled these allegations initially, how it reached its decision to reinstate Nelson, and whether its own internal policies were followed, as well as those of Purdue University, in the handling of both allegations and investigation.”
Stephen Buttes, vice president of the local AAUP chapter, said the issue is concerning because the alleged behavior affects faculty's ability to serve students. He said the faculty group wants transparency and shared governance in addressing the charges.
“Are student-athletes being treated the way every student on the campus should be treated?” asked Buttes, chair of the Department of International Language and Culture Studies. “Our responsibility ... is to consider if there are conditions on campus that prevent them from being successful.”
“No success of a Division I athletics program, however alluring, should rest upon the physical or emotional abuse of its own athletes,” reads the AAUP statement. “We call upon the university to cooperate fully in any existing investigation into allegations of ongoing abuse on our campus, and to launch its own separate, internal, and faculty-led investigation into how the university handled these reports.”
The university declined to respond to questions Thursday regarding Nelson's status with the team; whether any oversight of the women's basketball program was added after she was placed on leave two years ago; or what efforts are being taken to ensure there is no player abuse elsewhere in the athletic program.
“Purdue Fort Wayne Athletics' top priority is the health and well-being of its student athletes,” according to a statement issued Wednesday by Geoff Thomas, PFW's senior director of media relations. “Coach Nelson is very aware of the concerns raised by some of her students and has worked closely with Athletics leadership to maintain a positive team environment and encourage clear lines of communication over the past 23 months.”
The new allegations suggest the environment was anything but positive. PFW officials should remove Nelson once again while they take a closer look.