Michigan State kept ties to coach accused of sexual abuse, rape

In this Aug. 4, 2014, photo, Rick Butler, a nationally renowned volleyball coach from Chicago, watches a scrimmage during the first day of a volleyball camp at Abbott Sports Complex in Lincoln, Neb. Michigan State University has maintained ties to Butler for decades 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 accusers' advocates show the school has been under pressure since at least 2017 to sever ties with Butler. (Stacie Scott/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)

By MICHAEL TARM,
AP Legal Affairs Writer
CHICAGO — Michigan State University, already reeling from the scandal involving a gymnastics doctor who molested young athletes, has maintained ties to a prominent volleyball coach for decades 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. MSU also held exhibition games for successive years at his facilities, at least through 2014, according to online records.
Butler’s accusers say Butler threatened to use his national influence to thwart their college prospects if they didn’t 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.
Unlike Nassar, who will spend the rest of his life in prison, the 63-year-old Butler has never been criminally charged and has denied sexually abusing anyone. The conduct in question 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.
One of the initial accusers, Sarah 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.
Michigan State has “turned a blind eye” to Butler’s sordid history, she said.
“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.
In a short Monday statement responding to AP questions about Butler’s connections to Michigan State and its head women’s volleyball coach, MSU said Butler is currently “not affiliated with MSU in any way.” The university, it added, “is not actively recruiting players from his program at this time.”
But the eight-sentence statement did not address other questions put to it by the AP, including how long the school has been aware of the allegations, when any affiliation with Butler might have ended or why MSU had ties to him for so long after he was publicly accused of sexual abuse and rape.
In a 1995 report, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found no evidence to support Butler’s contention that the three athletes were lying.Butler 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. He has described the allegations as a “smear campaign.”
USA Volleyball in December banned Butler from its events for life, and the Amateur Athletic Union stripped him of his membership early this year. Those groups acted under pressure from some of the same activists now pressing Michigan State about Butler.
Many college coaches are reluctant to criticize the onetime Olympic team trainer. That’s true, in part, because he consistently produces stellar recruits via his flagship company, Sports Performance Volleyball, and his 12-court Great Lakes Center. Both of them are in Aurora, west of Chicago. Each year, he holds what many colleges consider can’t-miss recruiting events where his players are showcased.
“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.