Players describe abusive environment on Oregon State team

Athletes and others with ties to the program told The Associated Press that the head volleyball coach at Oregon State University runs an abusive program that has seen 11 players quit or transfer since 2016 and two team members contemplate suicide, with one attempting an overdose.

In interviews with the AP and complaints made to the university, they said that Mark Barnard, who has led the program for five years, pits players against each other in team meetings, threatens to revoke scholarships for struggling players and pushes team members past health warnings in practice as punishment.

They said they were perplexed by the administration not taking decisive action against Barnard after repeated complaints about the program, some of which triggered what university spokesman Steve Clark called a “full and impartial” investigation. The AP reviewed emails and documents that laid out many of the issues to both investigators and administrators.

Former player Amya Small, along with two other players and three former Division I athletes with ties to the program, portrayed a coaching staff that has regularly bullied players, some of them to tears, in practices. Most did not want their names used, fearing they would endanger the status of the 12 athletes remaining on the team. But Small, who had her scholarship pulled in April, said she already had lost all she had to lose.

Small said the abuse contributed to her taking dozens of pills eight months ago, but that she changed her mind about her decision to overdose and called 911.

“My teammates showed up for me that night. I love my teammates. It’s just Mark that makes it terrible,” said Small, who since has received a scholarship offer at Florida A&M and will enroll there this fall.

Another player shared with her teammates a plan to hang herself in the locker room, the AP was told.

In an email to the AP, Clark disputed the characterization that players were pushed past their physical limits as punishment or that a harsh environment had led team members to contemplate suicide. He also said Oregon State clearly communicates its scholarship offers and honors its commitments to student athletes.

He said “appropriate action was taken” by athletic director Scott Barnes after an investigation conducted by the school’s Equal Opportunity and Access office was concluded, but did not elaborate.

Neither Barnard nor Barnes responded to questions sent to them by AP; Clark said they had asked that all questions be directed to him.

Counting his seasons as an assistant, Barnard is entering his 16th year on campus.  He served as an assistant coach for the Australian Olympic team at the Sydney Games in 2000, coached at the high-school level in Australia, and played on the 1984 Australian junior men’s team. He came to Oregon State with longtime U.S national coach Terry Liskevych and landed the top job after Liskevych retired.

Some of those interviewed by the AP recalled Barnard and his staff, as punishment, forcing a player to repeatedly perform a difficult drill that involved her jumping and swinging at balls lobbed above the net and then digging balls hit toward the ground. They said the coaching staff ignored warnings from a system that alerts coaches when a player’s number of vertical jumps is reaching a dangerous threshold.

“We witnessed Mark tear her apart,” said a parent who was at the practice and asked not to be identified. “He made the whole team sit and watch a drill. He isolated her, made her do it over and over again. I was mortified.”

One team member told an investigator that Barnard said he was going to force the team to perform a particularly hard drill “likely until the end of practice” because he thought the team’s energy was off.

Some of those who spoke to AP said they believe Barnard has created a toxic environment that led to unusually high rates of injury. According to Barnard’s bio on the team website, nine players missed significant time due to injuries or illness during the 2018 and ’19 seasons. Over that time, the team went 20-43 and finished last in the Pac-12 twice after making the NCAA tournament in 2017.

Players, parents and others close to the program described a pattern of Barnard promising four-year scholarships during recruiting but then producing letters of intent that covered only one year, which they called a pointed way to remind team members that they were expendable.

“I thought I was signing up for four years, and it didn’t seem right when they gave me the letter,” Small said. “But I was a high school kid and I wanted to play, so I signed.”

The practice of manipulating scholarship terms isn’t unheard of in Division I volleyball, especially at the setter position, where competition for spots is fierce. Five of the 11 players who have left OSU have been listed as setters.

Still, players and parents have described Barnard as sometimes using harsh methods to try to force players out. One player, who is no longer on the team but negotiated to keep her OSU scholarship, told the AP that Barnard told her to consider transferring after one season and that “if I stayed, I’d be so unhappy here, I would lose all my friends and I’d be miserable.”

“There are ways to handle situations, but the way he went about it was so wrong,” she said.

“He’d call us entitled brats, a bunch of princesses, tell us how much we suck, and how we’re unworthy of being here. He’d push players beyond the limits of what they physically and mentally could do.”

More than one of the interviewees described an instance in which Barnard called a player an “(expletive) idiot” during a timeout. That player quit after the 2019 season, her third with the team.

Two athletes and two parents said that in end-of-season meetings last year, players were brought into the coaches’ office in small groups and asked which of their teammates were holding back the program. After comparing notes, the players -- many of whom were reluctant to answer – said they recognized Small was one of two team members that the coaching staff was targeting.

The AP interviewed three Division I coaches and administrators about transfers and using scholarships as leverage. While they agreed that it’s not unprecedented, one athletic director said pulling scholarships should mostly be reserved for players who break rules or don’t make grades and not for performance-related issues, which ultimately fall on the coaching staff for either recruiting or training poorly.

The rate of turnover at Oregon State is higher than at most schools. At Colorado, another below-.500 team in the Pac-12 that has 18 players on its roster, only three players have left or transferred since 2018. At OSU, at least six players have left the team since the start of 2019 alone.

“There’s an inherent power imbalance between a coach and an athlete, and that just comes with the territory,” said Bill Kerig, a longtime innovator in grassroots sports and founder of the website Great Coach. “When a coach actively seeks to further exacerbate that power imbalance using scholarships as a weapon, that’s a huge red flag.”

Former NCAA executive Ed Ray, who was roundly criticized for his role in the NCAA’s handling of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal, served as OSU’s president for nearly 17 years until his retirement last month.

The AP was told that a complaint was made directly to Ray’s office in one case and that he reached out to assistant athletic director Marianne Vydra, who oversees the volleyball program and is the university’s Title IX liaison. Some of those interviewed said Vydra listened to the players’ complaints and gave some the option of reporting issues to the school’s office of Equal Opportunity and Access.

But Vydra’s impact might have been blunted by the team meeting that started the 2019 season, in which a team leader said all complaints about Barnard and his staff should be kept “in the family” -- brought not to administrators, but directly to the coaches themselves. That message, according to two players present, was delivered while Barnard was present.

Clark said that both Vydra and Ray also asked that questions be directed to him.

Earlier this year, the Equal Opportunity and Access office did authorize an investigation into “possible violations of OSU policies with regard to bullying, retaliation and racial discrimination,” according to an email sent to one of the people involved in the process. The outcome has not been disclosed.

According to an investigator’s notes, one of the players referenced the team’s early-season meeting, saying: “Mark said ‘There should be no communication with Marianne about anything going on with this team unless I am physically assaulting someone.’ I recall these were his exact words.″

While the investigation was ongoing, two of Barnard’s assistants left. Three people interviewed by the AP said one of those assistants had a pattern of making racially insensitive comments to a Black player, including saying she was on the team because being Black enabled her to jump high. They said that when the player complained, the coach went to other Black players and asked if the person making the complaint was being too sensitive.

Several people interviewed by AP said they felt the EOA process was tainted from the start. The independent investigator hired for the case had a history of contract work for the university, which has created “a working relationship between herself and OSU,” according to a letter former OSU basketball player Rickey Lee sent to Ray.

In response to questions from the AP, Clark said the investigator’s ties “definitely would not compromise her professional integrity and ability to serve as an impartial and professional investigator.”

Lee said he had reported the program because he still has ties to OSU sports and is close with some of the volleyball parents.

Lee played basketball in the 1970s for Ralph Miller, known as an unforgiving taskmaster. His summary of some of the methods used in present-day Oregon State volleyball practices: “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my days in sports,” he told the AP.

The player who managed to keep her scholarship despite losing her spot on the team said the retention resulted from an agreement with the athletic department that it would more closely monitor conditions on the team in exchange for her not filing an official complaint with the EOA office.

Only a few months later, she said she learned coaches were threatening another player’s scholarship much the way they did hers. “Hearing her saying what happened to her, I just started crying. I felt I was living my experience again,” she said.

When he got the head job in 2016, Barnard spelled out his coaching philosophy in a feature story on a website affiliated with the university.

“The players want to know basically that you care about them as people,” he said. “They want that personal interaction. They don’t just want you as a coach. They don’t want you in their lives 24/7 either, but they want you to be someone that is in their lives just beyond volleyball.”

At the time, one player described Barnard as “very sarcastic and sassy, but always in the best way. It’s very entertaining.”