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DIGGING DEEPER: Niecee Nelson facing allegations of abuse

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - A scathing IndyStar investigation recounts stories of 'toxic abuse' inside Purdue Fort Wayne Women's Basketball.

The alleged abuse is something a former assistant athletic trainer tells ABC21 has been happening for years.

"As a sports writer, to kind of uncover this and see this, it was mind blowing really," said Indianapolis Star reporter Dana Benbow.

Benbow has been a sports reporter for 20 years and says the alleged abuse she uncovered within Purdue Fort Wayne's Women's Basketball program is something she's never seen.

"It just floored me that this D1 program was allowing these things to happen. It wasn't as if these players hadn't kind of spoken up before, because coach Nelson has been investigated before," Benbow said.

Benbow's article details a 71-page document sent to Purdue University officials in May. Twenty-two people -- 14 players, 6 parents, an assistant coach, and an athletic trainer -- spoke out against coach Nelson.

Some say Coach Nelson would try to rationalize her behavior and berate those around her.

"Weight shaming these girls, withholding medical care, no allowing them see psychologists without another staff present. There was one who was sexually assaulted and allegedly the coaches told her to get over it. I think, this isn't what college athletics should be. And if it is happening in other programs, shame on them," Benbow said.

Benbow says what she read in the document is hard to forget.

"The trainer who was cutting herself, I haven't gotten her off my mind," she said.

Chelsea Driver is the trainer Benbow spoke about. Driver said, "It's not a normal thing in D1 to see this," she said.

"She'd come downstairs after a practice into my office and shut the door and stand over me while I'm at my desk and tell me things I did wrong. Or I need to be doing this, and this. Then when she'd leave I'd go to the locker room or something like that, and cut myself," the former assistant athletic trainer told us.

Driver told ABC21 Coach Nelson would verbally attack her, tell her how she should do her job, and that she wasn't doing it right. It got so bad driver says she couldn't even do her job.

"Any minor injury, I always sent them to the doctor just because she didn't trust me anymore," said Driver.

The emotional toll, and what she calls toxic environment, was so bad Driver said it played a role in her life on January 2, when she tried to commit suicide.

However, Driver says this isn't about her.

"My issues are done with her. It's just awful that they didn't take the action they needed to years ago, because now so many people are affected by this.

"This shaped me into a better person. I've grown immensely from this. I'm in a much better place. I'm at a job I love. But a lot of these girls aren't so lucky. And they might've had it worse, actually playing for her," she said.

De'Jour Young, a former player for Coach Nelson said, "You are told to suck it up. Listen to what the coach says. Do what the coach says, you have a scholarship, you have to work for that scholarship."

But Young says some days, the scholarship isn't worth it... that the environment made it dreadful.

She said, "Even if you didn't do anything, you could have your hands on your hips perfectly fine and you would still get punished."

That punishment is something Young says most times was running, on top of getting scolded and called names.

Young said, "Just going through the same things over and over again. It's just heartbreaking nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to go to a place where they hate going, but they want to play the game that they love and still get a scholarship and still get their education."

She details what Coach Nelson would allegedly say to the players.

"I don't even know if I can say it on TV how bad it was. 'You suck. You're fat.' I know for a fact she made people change their majors because she said they were too dumb to go and persue the major they were getting."

Driver says she contacted the school back in 2017 about the alleged abuse and her experience. She said officials told her it wasn't right and it couldn't continue. But still, no punishment for Nelson.

"I don't understand why people think that a position of power needs to be used like that. She talks about how she's shaping minds, being a leader and all this. There's many others ways to you know, to shape the young women that are coming through this program and it's really upsetting that Purdue Fort Wayne hasn't done anything," said Driver.

"It will absolutely stick with me. It's absolutely going to be one of my most memorable stories. When you hear about players that are attempting suicide and just battling these mental demons and calling their mom and bawling every single night. You just don't forget that," said Benbow.

As we reported in February of 2019, Nelson was placed on administrative leave after an anonymous source alleged abuse in her program.

She was brought back after the university concluded an investigation.

Nelson is still the head coach of the team.

Purdue's President Mitch Daniels refused our request for an interview on the matter.

We reached out to Coach Nelson and haven't heard back. Nelson did send a statement to IndyStar:

"While I respect these women and their right to speak out, I deny that I have ever physically, mentally or emotionally abused any player in our program," Nelson wrote, "I fully understand my obligations as a coach and as an educator to provide the services that these student athletes require to keep them physically and mentally healthy."

The school refused an interview with us, instead sending us this statement:

Purdue Fort Wayne Athletics’ top priority is the health and well-being of its student athletes. Because the allegations brought to the attention of the athletic department in late 2018 raised general concerns of fair treatment, they were also referred to the university’s Office of Institutional Equity, which conducted an additional review of the matter, interviewing each student athlete and staff member associated with the women’s basketball program. Coach Nelson was placed on administrative leave during the investigation and reinstated to her position after the university determined that she had not violated university policy. 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.

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Kaitlyn Kendall

Kaitlyn Kendall anchors ABC21 news at 5 and is the chief investigative reporter for the stations Digging Deeper team.

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