Members of the Oregon State University volleyball program alleged to the Associated Press (AP) that the team’s head coach, Mark Barnard, has been running an abusive program for years, resulting in 11 players quitting or transferring since 2016, and two members contemplating suicide.
Barnard, who has led the program for five years, has been accused of pitting players against one another, threatening to void scholarships, and punishing team members by pushing them past health warnings during practices.
Athletes from the team said they were baffled by the OSU administration not taking decisive action against Barnard after a plethora of complaints were made about the program. These complaints even led to what Vice President of University Relations Steve Clark referred to as a “full and impartial” investigation.
One former player, Amya Small, spoke out about Barnard’s alleged bullying with two other players and three former Division I athletes connected to the volleyball program, who chose to remain nameless in fear of the effects on the 12 remaining players on the team.
Small, who had her scholarship pulled in April, said she has nothing left to lose. She was one of the athletes who reportedly contemplated suicide, attempting the act by taking dozens of pills eight months ago. She ultimately changed her mind about overdosing and called 911.
Small has since received a scholarship offer at Florida A&M and will be enrolling there this fall, telling the AP, “My teammates showed up for me that night. I love my teammates. It’s just Mark that makes it terrible.”
Another anonymous player shared her story with teammates – a plan to hang herself in the locker room that she fortunately never went through with.
In an email to the AP, Clark disagreed with allegations about players being pushed past their physical limits as punishment and also disputed that the program led team members to consider suicide. Additionally, he said that OSU clearly honors scholarship commitments to its student-athletes.
Clark asserted to the AP that “appropriate action was taken” by Athletic Director Scott Barnes after an investigation was concluded under Oregon State’s Equal Opportunity and Access office.
Barnard and Barnes did not comment on the situation, asking Clark to handle all questions.
Barnard is now entering his 16th year with Oregon State University, having previously served as an assistant coach before taking the job as head coach when his predecessor Terry Liskevych retired.
The AP reported that Barnard and his staff also forced a player to repeatedly do a hard drill, ignoring “warnings from a system that alerts coaches when a player’s number of vertical jumps is reaching a dangerous threshold.”
A parent, who asked to not be identified and attended this particular practice, told the AP, “We witnessed Mark tear her apart. He made the whole team sit and watch the drill. He isolated her, made her do it over and over again. I was mortified.”
Some who spoke to the AP believe Barnard created an environment so toxic, that it led to “unusually high rates of injury.” Nine players reportedly missed time due to injuries or illness during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Other people tied to the program also recalled that Barnard would promise four-year scholarships during the recruiting process then write letters of intent that only covered a year.
Small said, “I thought I was signing up for four years, and it didn’t seem right when they gave me the letter. But I was a high school kid and I wanted to play, so I signed.”
Though manipulating scholarship terms isn’t unheard of in the sport, players and parents claimed Barnard would sometimes use harsh methods in attempts to force players off of the team. One player who left the team but was able to keep her Oregon State scholarship, told the AP that Barnard tried to convince her to transfer by telling her that if she were to stay, she would be unhappy on the team and lose all of her friends.
She also claimed that Barnard would often call them “entitled brats, a bunch of princesses,” saying that they sucked and were “unworthy” of being on the team. Multiple interviewees also told the AP that Barnard once called a team member an “(expletive) idiot” during a timeout. The player quit after the 2019 season.
At OSU, at least six players have left the volleyball team since the start of 2019. For comparison, at Colorado – another -.500 below in the Pac-12 – only three players have left or transferred since 2018.
OSU’s president of 17 years, Ed Ray, was heavily criticized for his handling of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal while in the position of NCAA executive.
When one complaint reached his office directly, Ray took to reaching out to Assistant Athletic Director Marianne Vydra, who listened to some of the players’ complaints and informed them of their option to report issues to the office of Equal Opportunity and Access (EOA).
Some players reported that after Vydra revealed that this option was possible, it was encouraged by a team leader to keep such issues “in the family” and go to coaches with complaints rather than the administration.
Despite these requests, the EOA office at Oregon State did conduct an investigation into “possible violations of OSU policies with regard to bullying, retaliation, and racial discrimination.” The outcome of the investigation has not been revealed.
One player recalled that in an early-season meeting “Mark said ‘There should be no communication with Marianne about anything going on with this team unless I am physically assaulting someone.’ I recall these were his exact words.”
Two of Barnard’s assistants left during the investigation, with one allegedly being known for making racially insensitive comments to a Black team member, in one instance saying that she was on the team because her race allowed her to jump high.
Several also reported to AP that they felt the EOA process was unfair because the independent investigator hired for the job had a history of contract work for OSU.
Clark argued against this claim, saying that the investigator’s ties to the university wouldn’t compromise “her professional integrity and ability to serve as an impartial and professional investigator.”
When Barnard initially was hired as head coach in 2016, he explained his coaching philosophy in a feature story on a website connected to OSU: “The players want to know basically that you care about them as people. They want that personal interaction. They don’t just want you as a coach. They don’t want you in their lives 24/7 either, but they want you to be someone that is in their lives just beyond volleyball.”
By Cara Nixon