Powerful Volleyball Coach Accused Of Sexually Assaulting 6 Teenage Players

Photo: DAVID SANCHEZ/AFP/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Illinois accusing top volleyball coach Rick Butler of raping and sexually abusing underage players for over three decades. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by the mother of a former player, Butler and his wife, Cheryl Butler, deceived parents into joining their gym, and "concealed his abuses for years by pressuring his victims — often by threatening to end their futures in the game — to remain silent."

Butler is described in the lawsuit as "the most powerful coach in youth volleyball," and his gym, Sports Performance Volleyball Club, feeds many of the elite volleyball programs across the country. Butler was responsible for ensuring young athletes got spots at top college volleyball programs around the country. But the lawsuit states "[Butler] used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls, and likely more."

The lawsuit details stories from several survivors — including Sarah Powers-Barnhard, Julie Romias, Christine Tuzi, and Beth Rose — that describe how "Butler set up an environment of dependency and fear." Butler would call players and ask to talk to them privately, request that they meet him in romantic hotels to "talk about training," and write "love letters," the Chicago Sun Times reports. He is accused of forcing players to watch pornographic movies to "learn," or making them watch him masturbate.

In one instance, Butler offered an unnamed teenage player a ride home from practice, and "told her she was too sweaty to go home and she should stop at his apartment and take a shower," the lawsuit states. Butler raped her, and continued to rape her more than 40 times after in the years following, per the lawsuit.

[Butler] used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls, and likely more.

In 1995, three players came forward to the Ethics and Eligibility Committee of the USA Volleyball Association to discuss his actions. By that time, the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes, according to the Sun Times. Somehow, Butler was able to stay within the system. He argued that USA Volleyball did not have rules that prevented a coach from having sex with a teenager, a minor, or a player, so they couldn't punish him. In fact, he called the hearing "a witch hunt," according to a 1995 story in The New York Times. The committee ruled that his behavior constituted "immorality, lack of judgement, and unacceptable behavior," and he was banned from USA Volleyball.

Meanwhile, that year, Butler was investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which confirmed that he had sexual relationships with at least three players. Despite this, the USA Volleyball ban was partially lifted in 2000 (for an unknown reason), allowing Butler to continue coaching — just not the junior teams.

Another disturbing detail in the lawsuit is that Butler's wife, Cheryl Butler, harassed and threatened the survivors who came forward on social media, and tried to convince them to stop telling their stories. The lawsuit claims that she called Powers-Barnhard a "disgrace to true victims" saying, "because of you and others, one real victim will not be believed because you have tainted the water with all the lies."

This January, USA Volleyball announced they would ban Butler, citing that they "received allegations of sexual misconduct and abusive coaching practices." Lori Okimura, chair of the USA Volleyball board of directors, told NBC News, "We are very grateful to the courageous women who came forward. USA Volleyball is committed, through the U.S. Center for SafeSport program, to ridding our sport of coaches and others who engage in hurtful actions against athletes and young people. We will continue to have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior."

This month, the Amateur Athletic Union banned Butler from the organization. Coincidentally, this is coming to light at the tail end of the case against Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor found guilty of sexually assaulting hundreds of gymnasts.

What's true about both of these cases, and sexual abuse as a whole, is that the problem won't go away once one bad person is ousted. It's a systemic issue that needs to be solved from the top down. Whether or not USA Volleyball will take steps to ensure this never happens again remains to be seen. But if the hundreds of USA Gymnastics survivors have taught us anything about sexual assault in sports, it's that athletes are strong inside and out — and they will not back down.

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