It’s the match of Rick Butler’s life.
In 1995, Butler, one of the most dominant youth volleyball coaches in the country, survived the kind of scandal now bringing down powerful men on a near-daily basis: claims that he had sexual relationships with underage female players who saw him as their golden ticket to college scholarships and Olympic glory.
That year, the sport’s national governing body, USA Volleyball, banned Butler from its ranks.
But the ban didn’t stick, helping Butler, now 63, go on to coach more than 20,000 teenage girls. The Aurora-based club he built, Sports Performance Volleyball, boasts four Olympic medalists and nearly 100 national championships.
Throughout it all, Butler’s original accusers, all from Chicago’s western suburbs, have refused to remain silent. Now one of them, Sarah Powers-Barnhard, herself a coach, has challenged Butler on the volleyball court — and in a court of law.
Meanwhile, a fourth accuser alleging inappropriate sexual behavior by Butler has come to light amid a five-month long Chicago Sun-Times investigation of his volleyball empire.
And a fifth alleged victim has “elected to remain silent,” according to a year-old USA Volleyball internal complaint against Butler obtained by the Sun-Times. That document, the contents of which have never before been reported, outlines new claims of sexual misconduct and abusive coaching methods by Butler.
All five women’s complaints are relevant now because of multiple efforts to cripple Butler’s coaching career. The USA Volleyball complaint — which again seeks to ban Butler — has come to light because of an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by Butler in an attempt to thwart it. Meanwhile, Powers-Barnhard has filed a separate lawsuit in Florida that aims to have Butler banned from another major sports governing body, the Amateur Athletic Union.
Coach Rick Butler, his players — and the damage done
This is the first in a series of Sun-Times stories that will explore Butler’s complicated history, including a tragedy in his past, the accusations made against him in the 1990s, his ability to survive that controversy, the new threat to his career and legacy, and the passion he inspires in his many defenders.
His fans say Butler has helped thousands of young girls become better athletes and people. Through his attorney, he says he’s never sexually abused anyone.
His accusers tell a different story. They say they still grapple with what Butler did to them decades ago. While no claim has surfaced that Butler sexually abused a player in the last 20 years, advocates for sexual abuse survivors still fear children are at risk.
Powers-Barnhard told the Sun-Times she had just turned 16 and was on a road trip with Butler and her teammates when he first kissed her.
“He said come here, and I went into the middle of the gym and he’s holding a volleyball . . . and he goes ‘Jesus F—ing Christ,’ and he threw the ball as hard as he could against the wall,” she recalled. “So I went upstairs scared to death and he’s sitting there and he said to me, ‘You have to know you have to follow me blindly, if you have goals and you want to be great.’
“And of course, what am I going to say? Yes, I said ‘OK,’ and then he leaned over and kissed me. I mean, I was 16, I was a dork. I mean, I was a virgin. I hadn’t had a boyfriend.”
The kiss evolved into a pattern of sexual abuse, including intercourse, that went on for two years, she said.
Butler in the past has conceded to having sex with Powers-Barnhard and two other accusers — but only after each had turned 18, consented and had left his program.
Another woman steps forward
Central to the renewed effort by USA Volleyball to oust Butler is a Norridge woman named Beth Rose. Rose, 51, never played volleyball, but she alleges Butler sexually abused her in 1983 when he shared an apartment with her mother.
In 2000, USA Volleyball partially rescinded its 1995 lifetime ban against Butler, enabling his coaching business to thrive. But Rose’s claims have sparked the organization to again seek to ban Butler for life, according to the pending internal USA Volleyball complaint filed on Dec. 20, 2016.
Butler filed his unsuccessful lawsuit against USA Volleyball in DuPage County Circuit Court in January. The document that identified Rose and her claims became public through his lawsuit.
Butler’s teams also participate in other sports groups, including the Amateur Athletic Union, so expulsion by USA Volleyball wouldn’t necessarily end his coaching career. But it could cause AAU and other organizations to re-think his standing — especially in light of the string of powerful men accused of sexual harassment and misconduct nationwide.
Butler’s former player, Powers-Barnhard, sued the AAU in 2016 for turning a blind eye to Butler’s past. Butler called that lawsuit “false and maliciously motivated.” Butler also said in a statement released by his attorney, Terry Ekl, that he has “never sexually abused any individual.”
As that lawsuit proceeds, more than 3,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the AAU to also toss Butler. When Sun-Times reporters contacted the AAU, it asked for questions in writing — then refused to answer them.
AAU hosts part of its annual volleyball championship at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, according to its website. Disney officials did not return phone messages about the AAU and Butler.
Butler cites smear campaign
Butler has never been charged with a crime. He claims this is all part of “an orchestrated campaign” by Powers-Barnhard and a former business partner — Rose’s mother — to smear his reputation. Though Butler says he has “absolutely no desire to be a member of USA Volleyball given the egregious conduct displayed by the organization,” he said he plans to fight for his reputation.
Butler noted in his statement that while USA Volleyball’s complaint has been amended four times, USA Volleyball has “yet to give me the opportunity to defend myself,” and denied requests “for basic due process rights.”
His wife, Cheryl Butler, emailed the Sun-Times to defend her husband.
“These people thought they were going to destroy us and our success on and off the court in the volleyball world,” Cheryl Butler wrote, “and instead they have spent so much time trying to take us down that they have ruined their own business relationships, personal relationships and have little to nothing at the end of the day.”
USA Volleyball attorney Steve Smith declined to comment on the effort to oust Butler, but he said, “USA Volleyball absolutely provides fair process to those who are accused of violating our rules.”
Butler comes from humble beginnings and is a self-made success story in the world of youth sports. He lives in Aurora but also has a home on nearly 250 acres worth more than $1 million in Crook County, Oregon, records show. He came to Illinois in 1979.
Now he has established himself as one of the most influential youth coaches in the country. He coached in the 1984 Olympics and has bragged that he helped write USA Volleyball’s code of ethics on a fishing trip in 1988.
He is a self-described “hard-ass.” Former players have complained they weren’t allowed to wear nail polish or attend prom. They say he once pushed a player so hard during a practice drill that she wet her pants.
His team reportedly once gave him a t-shirt that simply read, “GOD.”
The lure of scholarships
One of his main accusers, Powers-Barnhard, went on to play at the collegiate and professional levels. Today, she is a club coach in Florida.
Earlier this year, her team played Butler’s in the AAU championship tournament. Though she said it was difficult to face Butler, she said her spirits were lifted when several parents and players wore shirts that read “I stand with them” — referring to Powers-Barnhard and Butler’s other accusers — and “ask me why.”
A Florida state senator who once sat on an advisory board of AAU, Lauren Book, said she believes Butler has been protected by a culture that values “money, power and winning.” She also said, “coaches have a very special place in the lives of kids.”
Book, herself a sexual abuse survivor, said parents also tend to think their children won’t become victims. She said they are lured into risky scenarios by the promise of scholarships.
“It should be that everyone in the community is sitting and screaming about what is happening,” Book said. “Parents need to be boycotting the AAU.”
Instead of being on a volleyball court, “Rick Butler should be in a court of law,” she said.
READ MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Rick Butler’s full statement in response to sexual abuse accusations