The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 21, 2021 1:00 am

PFW team a 'toxic environment'

Abuse among claims against women's basketball coach

VICTORIA JACOBSEN | The Journal Gazette

De'Jour Young always thought that no one could kill another person's love for basketball. 

But after playing in what she described as a “toxic environment” under head coach Niecee Nelson at Purdue Fort Wayne, she sees how that could happen. 

“A lot of people say, when you get to Division I athletics or even college athletics in general, it's very tough, trying to balance your studies and playing basketball,” Young said Wednesday. “But when you also add that toxic environment, it's even harder. ... Being in college athletics but on top of that being belittled, being pretty much mentally abused, it's very tough and very challenging. Sometimes challenging to the point where you can't even focus on your school work or your basketball performance.”

Young, a Concordia grad, played in nearly every game over four Mastodons seasons, 2015-2019, and in her final season led the team in points (12.1) and minutes per game (32.9 per game).

Even so, Young said she witnessed and was sometimes the target of verbal and mental abuse from Nelson. She was one of more than 20 people linked to the program, most of them former players and their parents, who submitted statements to lawyer Martin J. Greenberg describing their experiences. The Notice of Alleged Abuse and NCAA Violations compiled by Greenberg, which was first publicly reported by the Indianapolis Star on Wednesday, was dated May 4, 2020, and addressed to several key figures in the Purdue University system, including President Mitch Daniels, Purdue University Fort Wayne Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer, Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski and PFW athletic director Kelley Hartley Hutton. 

The document, obtained by The Journal Gazette, includes 48 pages of notes, almost of all it detailing Nelson's mistreatment of players and others associated with the team. Some key themes emerge from the document and independent interviews with several of the individuals who submitted statements to Greenberg:

• Since Nelson took over the program in April of 2016, when it was still Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, the Mastodons have never won more than seven games in a season (this season's team is 0-12). After losses, Nelson would blame individual players instead of attributing the loss to her own coaching or to a lack of execution by the entire team. 

• The coaching staff uses exercise and mental health services as punishments, rather than tools to help athletes improve. 

• Players were harshly criticized for weight, appearance or eating habits. 

• Multiple people involved with the program reported mental health issues that they tied to their experience with Nelson. A former team athletic trainer attempted suicide within a year of Nelson's arrival.  

• Players said they felt their injuries were not taken seriously by coaches, and in some cases were pressured to play or take part in training exercises even when not healthy. 

• Many individuals had informed the school of conditions within the program, most notably when Nelson was suspended and investigated for “practice drills and possible NCAA infractions” in 2019. But she was allowed to return to her post, and the behavior continued afterward. 

Requests for comment made to the school Wednesday were not returned.

PFW has not released a statement by Nelson, Hartley Hutton or any other administrators.

According to the IndyStar article, Nelson denied she had ever “physically, mentally or emotionally abused” a player in the program. The Star also reported that Nelson said any emphasis on nutrition was “in the context of performance” and was not about appearance. 

Still, Young and many of the other players said Nelson's reasoning for singling out one player could be capricious and inexplicable. 

“It wasn't like, 'It was a team effort, that everybody lost,'” Young said, describing scenes that would play out in the locker room. “It was one person. And that one person was pretty much yelled at after a game, every single time. 'You didn't do this, you brought the whole team down, you're the reason why we lost.'

“Even people who didn't play, she would point to them and blame the loss on them because they didn't have 'energy.' And it just didn't make sense.”

Jazzy Hughes, a junior college transfer from Tucson, Arizona, who played in 28 games for PFW in 2019-20, said she noticed a similar dynamic and said that Nelson once even harangued a redshirt player following a game. 

“She gets punished too, beaten down verbally, mentally, all those things. And she's a redshirt. How can a game be her fault, when she's not even playing?” Hughes said. 

Hughes said that she and a fellow junior college transfer, her roommate Michelle Nicholls, told each other “this is too good to be true” when they first arrived on campus. Neither returned for the 2020-21 season. 

Hughes said “the switch flipped” after the Mastodons picked up their first few losses of that season, and that Nelson “lost control” during the San Diego Thanksgiving Tournament. 

“She screamed at a freshman, Shayla Sellers, for not having a hard hat, which was a symbol of our team,” Hughes said, explaining that each player was supposed to carry around the hard hat for a set period of time, but Sellers had left it behind to save space on the flight to California. “Our team didn't even like the symbol, we were doing it to please the head coach. And we had mentioned that we don't want to do it any more, it doesn't feel like a thing that fits our group, it feels like we're trying to be something we're not. And she just threw it all back on us, why are we committing to something we don't like.

“It was one of those things where if you don't do it, it's your fault. But if you do it, it's still your fault.”

After that incident, Hughes reached out to former players, and only then did she learn that Nelson had been put on administrative leave the previous winter. 

Nelson's alleged treatment wasn't limited to players. Athletic trainer Chelsea Driver wasn't technically a member of the team, or even a PFW employee – she was employed by Parkview, which had a contact with PFW.

When Nelson took over, Driver, who had already worked with the team for a season, said she was expected to follow the same rules the players did, and behave like a player, not a medical professional. 

“If I wasn't clapping or enthusiastic during practice, I didn't 'contribute to the energy,'” Driver said. “She said the girls vibed off that, and I was bringing the practice down.”

Nelson also attacked Driver's treatment of an injured athlete in a meeting with the athlete and her father – an incident that Driver recorded on her phone.

Driver shared the audio with her own supervisor, who went to Hartley Hutton, the PFW athletic director. Nelson apologized, but when another basketball player got hurt at practice while Driver was working with the cross country team, Nelson came to Driver's office and started yelling at her in front of other trainers. 

Eventually, Driver said the stress sent her to the emergency room with what she thought was a heart attack, but was actually a panic attack.

The situation came to a head in December, when Driver said she fell ill during a tournament at Wright State and arranged to leave early, alerting Nelson and contacting an opposing team's trainer to make sure the Mastodons were covered for the next day's game. 

When she got home, her manager called to tell her she was suspended: Nelson had told them that Driver left the tournament without telling anyone, according to Driver. Emails and texts proved this was a lie, but her supervisors decided to move her to Manchester to extricate her from the situation.  

Days later, Driver got home from work and tried to kill herself. She called a friend on the training staff at PFW, and he took her to the hospital before it was too late. 

“It's every athletic trainer's dream to work at some point in Division I sports. I was so young, and I had already accomplished it,” Driver said. “I felt like I was doing something really good, and then I kind of felt like I was demoted, going down to work at D-III.”

She had another self-harm incident a month later, and she said it took a while to get her mental health back to a good place. Driver is in her third year as head athletic trainer at a junior college in Milwaukee. 

“I tried to stand it as long as I could, because I felt like that was going to better my career,” Driver said of her time at PFW. “I was so one-track minded, being at a Division I school, that's what you have to do.

“I should've stepped away a long time (earlier). There's no reason why someone should be treating someone like that. ... Now I know, I'll never work at another Division I school or sport. It's too much.”  

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