Out-of-bounds: A local volleyball coach's fight to get accused abuser banned from coaching

Volleyball is a game of boundaries. On the court, the lines are clear, but anything outside of them is off limits. None

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Volleyball is a game of boundaries. On the court, the lines are clear, but anything outside of them is off limits.

It's a game that Sarah Powers-Barnhard has mastered. The 52-year-old Jacksonville coach was a teen volleyball star who turned into a pro.

"It was like a cult, really," she said.

Back in the '80s, Powers-Barnhard started playing club volleyball at Sport Performance Volleyball, just outside of Chicago, when she was 15. At the time, her coach, Rick Butler, promised to take her to the next level and succeed in the sport.

Butler, who is considered a high-profile coach in youth volleyball, ran one of the most successful junior volleyball programs in the country. He was Powers-Barnhard's surest path to a college scholarship, she said.

"Rick made it really clear that if you play for anybody else, you probably weren't going to get that scholarship; that this was the only place you're going to get it," she said. "So you're well aware, yet you were tied in it and you need to commit to whatever that meant."

What that meant for Powers-Barnhard, however, was something she described as completely out-of-bounds.

In 2016, Powers-Barnhard filed a lawsuit against the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), alleging Butler sexually abused her while he was her coach and she was his star player.

THE ALLEGATIONS

In her complaint, Powers-Barnhard said that she was 16 years old to 18 years old when Butler sexually molested her. The lawsuit alleges the first incident happened in 1983 when they were on an out-of-town volleyball trip.

"He's explained to me that I needed to follow him blindly," she said. "I need to do whatever he said and that if I wanted to be great and I wanted to be better than everyone else, I had understand what it took and it means that I had to follow whatever he said whenever he said it."

"He leaned over and kissed me and I had no clue it was coming," she explained. "No idea. It was very confusing."

Powers-Barnhard said that incident was just the very beginning of many. She said she lost her virginity to a coach she trusted.

"The sexual abuse started that summer and it came with him inviting me over to his house to talk about the team," she recalled.

When asked how many times Butler sexually abused her, she replied: "More than I can count. Yeah, hundreds."

Julie Bremner Romias, 47, and Christine Brigman Tuzi, 49, said they were also sexually abused by Butler when they were in high school.

"He was a classic predator," Romias said. "The first time he actually physically touched me was when we were at a tournament in Japan... That's when he kissed me and groped me."

"Shortly thereafter when we got back to the States is when he forced himself on me and raped me," she said. "I was 17 at the time."

Tuzi said just the thought of his name brings back fear and panic.

"I'm not ok," Tuzi said. "I'm not ok. You can ask my kids and husband. I'm not ok. I have issues and I have to work on them daily and that's because of him."

BANNING BUTLER

In 1995, Powers-Barnhard, Romias and Tuzi told the USA Volleyball Association (USVBA) Ethics & Eligibility Committee, Butler had sexually abused them when they were minors on his team a decade before. In transcripts obtained by First Coast News, Butler told the committee that the relationships with all three women began after they turned 18 years old and were no longer on his team.

The women allege the relationships began when they were minors and that the sex was not consensual.

The committee found the allegations credible and said he violated USVBA rules.

"There is no question he is a talented and charismatic coach," wrote Rebecca Howard, the chair of the committee at the time of the ruling. "Nonetheless, the psychological harm caused by his having entered into sexual relationships with children entrusted to his care far outweighs these accomplishments and necessitates the imposition of grave sanctions."

Butler never faced criminal charges (the statute of limitations expired for Powers-Barnhard's case), but USVBA issued a lifetime ban against him. However, USVBA reversed its decision and allowed Butler to reapply for conditional membership in 2000, five years after his ban. He was reinstated as long as he promised, in writing, that he wouldn't coach junior girls in any of the organizations events.

He also denied sexually abusing any of his team members.

His lawyer, Tracy L. Stanker of Ekl Williams & Provenzale, also claims the panel violated his due process rights.

"Prior to making the findings, USVBA unfairly prevented Rick Butler from defending himself against the allegations by not allowing him to present witnesses in his own defense at the hearing or cross examine his accusers," according to Stanker's statement

In a statement to First Coast News, the current chairwoman of USVBA's board of directors, Lori Okimura, said Butler was given the opportunity to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses at the time.

Okimura also said the decision to reinstate his membership was "a mistake," but didn't go into detail. She assured that Butler is still banned to this day from coaching junior girls teams. 

THE LAWSUIT

To this day, Butler remains a prominent figure in youth volleyball. Despite the ban, a separate organization, AAU, continues to allow Butler to coach volleyball at its events. Unlike USVBA, AAU allows him to coach both boys and girls junior-volleyball teams.

"USVBA does not control other independent volleyball organizations and cannot compel those organizations to impose similar restrictions on Mr. Butler's activities within those organizations," Okimura said in the statement to First Coast News.

Since 2000, Butler has coached more than 20,000 junior-aged female athletes through the AAU, Stanker said. 

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"Butler has remained... in good standing for the last 16 years," Stanker said last year. "Not a single complaint or accusation has been made against him for any improper conduct against athletes."

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, Powers-Barnhard operates Power Volleyball Club, a prominent volleyball program. In June, her club's team plans to compete in the 44th AAU Girls' Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando.

It's during this competition where Powers-Barnhard could come face-to-face with Butler, something she says has happened in the past; something she still worries about today.

"[I] heard his voice, I looked up and he was sitting close to my table and the reaction to me was, I felt sick to my stomach," she said recalling a recent volleyball event where she saw him.

Powers-Barnhard filed a lawsuit against the AAU in 2016. She said her ultimate goal is to get the AAU to ban Butler from coaching underage girls. By allowing him to continue coaching junior girls teams, the lawsuit accuses the AAU of violating its own policies.

Under membership limitations, its codebook states: "It is the policy of the AAU to deny participation in the AAU to any individual for whom there is reasonable cause to believe that they have engaged in sexual misconduct." The lawsuit claims this rule also includes those who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

"AAU knows it has a duty to remove Butler from his position of coaching underage girls, but has failed to do so," the lawsuit reads. 

Powers-Barnhard believes the AAU allows him to stay on the courts because it is more concerned about making money than protecting girls, she said. In a 2017 article published by ESPN, Sports Performance is a "perennial power... he helped start the Junior Volleyball Association, merged its national championship with the AAU's in 2010, creating a mega event that lures thousands of teams and earns millions of dollars." 

"He's one of the top junior volleyball coaches in the nation and brings a lot of money," Powers-Barnhard said. "That money is creating a situation where they won't take him out and that's sad because they're saying money is more important than the safety of these young players."

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Butler's attorney, Stanker says the allegations of the lawsuit are "absolutely false, maliciously motivated and are being made for the sole purpose of defaming Rick Butler and the AAU."

First Coast News has reached out to the AAU, but the organization declined to comment.

On May 9, a judge dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice due to an inconsistency. It reads: "[Powers-Barnhard] asserted that her claims are not based on alleged acts or omissions during the time when she was a minor. [Powers-Barnhard's] Complaint, however, purports to assert claims that are based on alleged acts or omissions when [she] was a minor."

The judge dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, giving Powers-Barnhard until May 29 to fix any inconsistencies and re-file the lawsuit, something she said she plans to do.

"No one was there for me," Powers-Barnhard explained. "I am doing anything that keeps somebody away from a little girl or gives voice to a little girl then it means something to me and I'll keep doing it."

LINKS TO DOCUMENTS IN THE CASE

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