CHICAGO (AP) — Several dozen colleges have kept ties to an influential volleyball coach long after he was publicly accused of sexually abusing and raping underage girls who trained with him in the 1980s.
The coach’s accusers, who have been pressing Michigan State University for months to sever all ties with Rick Butler, say all schools have a moral obligation to end their relationships with him.
The campaign against Butler comes as Michigan State deals with questions about whether it could have done more to thwart Dr. Larry Nassar from abusing scores of young gymnasts over 20 years. In addition, a former dean was recently charged with failing to protect patients from Nassar and sexually harassing female students.
Schools across the nation have engaged with Butler for years by attending his recruiting showcases or playing at his suburban Chicago facilities, which for decades have been a major pipeline for top volleyball recruits and coaches.
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The annual recruiting events have long been viewed as can’t-miss gatherings by volleyball recruiters. Even after media reports re-examining the sexual abuse allegations, coaches from nearly 50 schools nationwide signed up to attend, including from Oregon State, Colorado, Bucknell and Western Kentucky.
Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin are among the schools that have played exhibitions at Butler’s facilities, which include his 12-court Great Lakes Center. It and his flagship company, Sports Performance Volleyball, are in Aurora, west of Chicago.
Sarah Powers-Barnhard, one of three athletes who first came forward in 1995 to accuse Butler of rape, was among those who argued that there’s a special onus on Michigan State in the wake of Nassar to have nothing to do with Butler. And since the allegations are widely known, other schools should also ostracize him.
“Everyone has a moral compass,” she said, explaining her hopes that “these coaches understand that it is high time to stop dealing with him.”
Powers-Barnhard, of Jacksonville, Florida, said Butler molested her hundreds of times over two years starting when she was 16 and he was around 30. She says he raped her at his home, in cars and even in a train-car bathroom as her teammates sat nearby.
Now 63, Butler has never been criminally charged and has denied ever abusing anyone. The alleged abuse occurred more than 30 years ago and was already beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution when the first three accusers came forward in 1995. Three others came forward more recently.
USA Volleyball in December banned Butler from its events for life, citing the allegations, and the Amateur Athletic Union stripped him of his membership this year.
If colleges abandon Butler or the young players he trains, the price will be paid, in part, by girls in his program who are counting on volleyball scholarships, some of which are worth $200,000 or more.
It’s a regrettable price, but one that should be paid, said Emily Swanson, a lawyer in Denver who has also spoken out against Butler.
The fact that coaches keep going back to Butler gives him his staying power. And even if some players lose scholarship opportunities, refusing to deal with him in any way is “the right thing to do,” she said.
Darren Adam Heitner, a Florida-based sports attorney with no connection to Butler or the activists, disagreed, saying the athletes’ interests should be paramount.
“There’s absolutely an ethical dilemma here,” he said. “But look at the individual (accused). You try to make that individual suffer without causing suffering among those who have nothing to do with the transgressions.”
Coaches’ career prospects can rely on landing solid recruiting classes and especially wooing one or two star players — the kind Butler’s facilities have consistently produced for years.
There are signs more and more institutions are deciding to at least keep Butler at arm’s length.
Hours after The Associated Press published a story Tuesday highlighting Butler’s ties to Michigan State, the Brownstown Sports Center in suburban Detroit issued a statement assuring members that the training facility was taking “far-reaching precautions” for a planned July volleyball camp that will be hosted by Butler’s company.
The sports center “fully and unequivocally condemns the actions of Rick Butler,” said the statement, which called the allegations “disturbing.” While it wasn’t canceling the camp, the center said it had received assurances Butler would not attend.
Most colleges seem reluctant to weigh in.
The AP contacted around a dozen schools that have dealt with Butler, at least by recruiting his players. Most did not respond.
One of just three schools that did respond at any length was Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
School spokesman Andy Hirsch said one assistant volleyball coach attended Butler’s recruiting event in February. That was before the school became aware of the allegations in March, he said.
Whether there’s an ethical issue in recruiting players from facilities run by someone accused of serious abuse or whether refusing to recruit those players would unfairly penalize young athletes “is an excellent and complex philosophical question,” Hirsch said Wednesday. It would take a few conversations and more than a few hours to answer the question, he said.
The University of Colorado also responded. Spokesman Ryan Huff said in a brief email that the school had just learned of the AP story and was looking into the details regarding Butler.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm