The reports that surfaced last week about Oregon State’s volleyball team and its toxic environment were troubling, to say the least. Without more convincing evidence from the university, the program will continue to be viewed with suspicion.
For those who somehow missed the bombshell, the Associated Press detailed allegations of abusive and bullying behavior by head coach Mark Barnard, including pushing players past their physical limits in practice as punishment, calling them names, threatening to cut scholarships to struggling team members, forcing out those whom he viewed as underachieving, trying to quash reports of wrongdoing and more. The allegations also included reported racist comments by a former assistant coach.
The problems reportedly led to players quitting or transferring, as well as unusually high rates of injury, sources told the AP.
Perhaps most damning, the investigative article included information from a student-athlete who said, named and on the record, that Barnard’s abuse contributed to her suicide attempt eight months ago. The young woman added that after taking dozens of pills, she reconsidered and called 911. Another player reportedly considered hanging herself in the team locker room.
The AP story was based on interviews with athletes and others with ties to the team, as well as emails and documents that outlined many of the issues to both investigators and administrators.
Former OSU basketball player Ricky Lee, who has close ties with some volleyball parents, summed up the bad optics for Barnard’s program. He said he’s never seen anything like the volleyball team’s practices.
And Lee played for the Beavers in the 1970s under the legendary Ralph Miller, Oregon’s patron saint of curmudgeonly hardcase coaches.
Look, as newspaper employees, we know we’re viewed as pencil-necked geeks. But some of us actually played sports and had rather intense, old-school coaches during our teenage years. We got yelled at. We ran wind sprints during the days of water restrictions. We know about hellish practices in 100-degree heat, sometimes with fields burning nearby so black freckles formed on the shoulders of your shirts or clumps of charred grass floated down with the wind.
Even with this background, the reports about OSU’s volleyball program were eyebrow-raising.
There’s punishing activity as preparation, and then there’s punishment that’s akin to kicking your dog.
In response to the AP article, some former Beaver players have spoken out strongly in support of Barnard, saying they were never mistreated. We don’t doubt their earnestness. But we also wouldn’t consider these players as marginal talents in a top-flight NCAA conference. It certainly doesn’t disprove the theory that Barnard wanted to weed out the weak in hopes of improving his squad.
OSU’s administration also is denying the accuracy of many of the allegations laid out by the Associated Press, including the claim that some players contemplated suicide.
The school authorized an investigation that resulted in a report, dismissed a number of the claims and “took appropriate action,” according to a university official.
But OSU won’t discuss personnel matters, so the public doesn’t know what actions were taken. And when we asked for the report, we were told it couldn't be released due to privacy restrictions, including a federal medical law.
Not releasing the report, even in redacted form, strikes us as odd, especially if it actually exonerates the program and Barnard.
In this day and age, a statement that simply denies the allegations isn’t enough and people aren’t simply going to move on. We’ve witnessed criminal cover-ups at major universities to protect sports programs and reputations.
We’re not saying that anything criminal has occurred at OSU, of course, only pointing out that people have become more cynical regarding such statements from authorities.
In a very real way, this will tarnish the reputation of the volleyball team. OSU’s stance provides the appearance that the university is circling the wagons rather than trying to protect the very student-athletes it aims to mold into the leaders of tomorrow.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.