Michigan State kept ties to coach Rick Butler, who was accused of sexual abuse

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The Illinois state senate is expected to hear testimony next week from women who say Rick Butler abused them as teens. | File photo

Michigan State University, already reeling from the scandal involving a gymnastics doctor who molested young athletes, maintained ties to a prominent volleyball coach long after he was publicly accused in 1995 of sexually abusing and raping six underage girls he trained in the 1980s.

Letters obtained by The Associated Press from advocates for the accusers reveal the school has been under pressure for at least a year to sever its relationship with Rick Butler. He runs training facilities in suburban Chicago that for decades have been a pipeline for top volleyball recruits, including Michigan State.

Butler’s accusers say he threatened to use his national influence to thwart their college prospects if they did not accept his advances.

Questions about ties to Butler add to the scrutiny of Michigan State that began when Dr. Larry Nassar was charged in 2016 with abusing scores of gymnasts over 20 years while he had an office on campus. A former dean, William Strampel, was recently charged with failing to protect patients from Nassar and with sexually harassing female students.

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Colleges nationwide have recruited players trained by Butler and sent teams to play at his facilities, but one of Butler’s 1995 accusers, Sarah Powers-Barnhard, said there’s a special onus on Michigan State in the wake of Nassar to have nothing to do with him. Instead, she said, the school “turned a blind eye” to Butler’s sordid history.

“If we don’t stop supporting the top abuser in volleyball, how can we ever claim zero tolerance for sexual abuse?” she said from her Jacksonville, Florida, home.

The 63-year-old Butler has never been criminally charged. 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.

Powers-Barnhard 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.

In a short Monday statement responding to AP questions, the university said Butler is currently “not affiliated with MSU in any way.” The school, it added, “is not actively recruiting players from his program at this time.”

The statement did not address other questions, including when any affiliation with Butler might have ended or why the university had ties to him for so long after he was publicly accused.

In a 1995 report, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found no evidence to support Butler’s claim the three athletes were lying. He acknowledged during a 1995 hearing held by USA Volleyball, the sport’s national governing body, that he had sex with the three. He insisted it was after they turned 18 and was consensual.

A statement issued Tuesday by his attorney, Danielle D’Ambrose, said the allegations he sexually abused anyone “are absolutely false.” It added that his volleyball program “has no affiliation with Michigan State University or any other collegiate program.”

USA Volleyball in December banned Butler from its events for life, and the Amateur Athletic Union stripped him of his membership this year.

Many college coaches are reluctant to criticize the onetime Olympic team trainer. That’s partly because he consistently produces stellar recruits via his flagship company, Sports Performance Volleyball, and his 12-court Great Lakes Center. Both are in Aurora, west of Chicago.

The long list of schools that signed recruits once trained by him includes the University of Notre Dame and the University of Nebraska.

Each year, Butler holds what many colleges have considered can’t-miss recruiting events showcasing his players. Coaches from around 50 schools nationwide were on a list of attendees for the event last February, though no Michigan State coaches were. Notre Dame and Nebraska also weren’t listed.

“Coaches are afraid that if they don’t show deference to Butler, he’ll steer recruits to other schools,” said Kay Rogness, who in the ’80s helped establish Sports Performance. She fell out with Butler around 1990 and has since become one of his harshest critics.

Among the many coaches who worked early in their careers for Sports Performance was Michigan State head volleyball coach Cathy George. Since becoming coach in 2005, most of her teams have featured one or more players trained by Butler. Michigan State’s website mentions Butler by name, citing athletes trained by him.

Powers-Barnhard and George knew each other, and George called her after the allegations emerged in 1995. George expressed sympathy but said she couldn’t refuse to deal with Butler, according to Powers-Barnhard.

At the time, George was head coach at Western Michigan University. “She said, ‘I’m sorry all this happened, but I will still have to recruit from him,’” said Powers-Barnhard, a three-time All American.

There was no response to messages left for George.

Michigan State cannot plausibly claim it was unaware of the allegations.

Chicago-area media widely covered the accusations in 1995. And they’ve been covered periodically since then, including in a 2015 feature on the ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and in a recent Chicago Sun-Times series.

Efforts to banish Butler have been driven partly by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimming champion who later became a civil rights lawyer. She now leads a Florida-based group called Champion Women, which advocates for female athletes.

The school’s volleyball coach “is conducting business with … a known sexual abuser,” Hogshead-Makar wrote on July 21, 2017 , to then-Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis and to the school’s then-general counsel, Robert Noto. She got no response.

She also attached a photo of George sitting with Butler at a girls’ national volleyball tournament in Florida last year, when multiple players for other teams wore T-shirts citing allegations against Butler. The photo was from a report by Jacksonville’s First Coast News television.

In a Jan. 19 letter, Hogshead-Makar said the university had obligations to avoid dealing with Butler under Title IX, the federal law forbidding sex discrimination in education. Michigan State didn’t respond.

In response to a similar note by email last year from part-time volleyball coach and activist Chris Murdock, associate athletic director Shelley Appelbaum said issues surrounding Butler were “still unfolding” and the university would “monitor the situation.”

Butler sounded confident in a statement to PrepVolleyball.com after the Amateur Athletic Union cancelled his membership, saying he emailed 600 families about the AAU action and that no families pulled kids from his programs. Those programs, he added, “will not miss a beat.”

The bans on Butler do not prohibit him from training children, said Emily Swanson, a Denver lawyer who has also spoken out against him. She said his staying power derives from coaches who keep going to him for recruits. She urged schools to refuse to recruit his athletes, even if some miss out on scholarships as a result.

“If schools stopped recruiting his players, players would stop going to him to train,” she said. “That would shut him down.”

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