Former players and former assistant coaches on the volleyball team describe a culture of unanswered concerns. Photo by Lauren Gdowski.
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Editor’s Note: The Butler Collegian interviewed Associate Athletic Director for Communications John Dedman at 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 7 after requesting comment for this story. A press release, announcing the retirement of head coach Sharon Clark, was released at 4:25 p.m. on the same day.
The Butler Collegian sent the request for comment on Feb. 6 to John Dedman, with Athletic Director Barry Collier, Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Operations Mike Freeman and Associate Athletic Director for Administration Molly Sullivan copied on the email.
All former players and the former assistant coaches who were interviewed asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation and the personal nature of the stories shared. All of the players were a part of the program between 2014 and 2022 and played in a variety of positions. Some were starters, and some were not. Some were scholarship athletes, and some were walk-ons. They will be referred to as numbered Players 1-7 and Former Assistant Coaches 1-2. Some former players declined to be interviewed because they did not want to think about or relive their time in the program.
“What’s going on with the volleyball team?”
For years, members of Butler’s women’s volleyball team have been asked a similar question. With players and assistant coaches leaving the program from year to year, many on the outside often wonder why there has been so much turnover.
During extensive interviews with The Butler Collegian, numerous former volleyball players and former assistant coaches, who were with the program between 2014 and 2022, shared how they brought their own concerns to the attention of high-ranking administrators within Butler’s athletic department. These concerns often revolved around consistent turnover within the program, inappropriate conversations between coaches and players and a lack of communication with the athletes.
The student athletes interviewed do not feel as though their concerns were appropriately addressed. After numerous conversations and emailed complaints, many players felt they had no choice but to leave the program — some transferred to play at other schools, and some quit volleyball altogether.
Sharon Clark was head coach of the team for 23 seasons. On Jan. 6, Butler Athletics announced in a press release that Clark would be taking a leave of absence, effective immediately.
On Feb. 7, Butler Athletics announced Clark’s retirement. Assistant coach Jalissa Trotter will oversee the program as acting head coach while a national search for a new head coach takes place.
According to the NCAA, in 2015, the percentage of Division I women’s volleyball players transferring from one four-year college to another four-year college was 8.2%.
Between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, according to the rosters on the Butler Athletics website, seven of the 15 players on Butler’s team — 47% — who had remaining years of eligibility left the program — this includes players who transferred and those who left the program for other reasons.
The most recent data from the NCAA is from 2019, where 9.7% of total Division I players transferred.
After the 2021 season, six of Butler’s 15 players — 40% — who had eligibility remaining did not continue playing at Butler. After the 2022 season, five of the 11 players — 45% — with eligibility left the program. These statistics do not include players who decided to use their fifth year of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic at a different school. As of Jan. 20, Butler has seven players on the roster. At the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year, there were 15 players on the roster.
There were at least nine assistant coaches under Clark between 2014 and 2023, excluding volunteer assistant coaches.
Player 3 said that the revolving door of players and assistant coaches made it difficult to establish a healthy team culture.
“It’s so hard to build a program, build a team, stay consistent and win,” Player 3 said. “You come here because you want to win, and you literally cannot do that because you’re being prevented from doing that with people leaving the program, whether it’s coaches or players or teammates. But you’d literally walk in the locker room after a season and say, ‘Ok, who’s next?’ … You would see all of the plaques in the locker room [come] down, down, down, down.”
Some players who stayed had considered leaving at some point during their time in the program. Player 2 explained that there are a variety of reasons different players decide to stay or leave.
“There have been people … who did their four years and then decided to grad transfer [for] something new,” Player 2 said. “There have been people who did their four years and then called it a day, like, ‘I did my time, I’m out.’ [There are] people who have transferred out because [of] this experience. They still like volleyball; they [just] didn’t like it here. Or people who [their experience at Butler] literally ruined it for them … That is honestly probably one of the worst things I witnessed, was someone absolutely losing their love for this sport and wanting to be done completely.”
Where’s the standard?
The former players interviewed said they understand that in sports, like in life, there is going to be favoritism. They had concerns, however, about the way players who were not “favorites” were treated and the unequal standards to which they were held.
“One of my coaches once told me that their best performers are going to be their favorites, which makes sense because you are paid to play,” Player 2 said. “[Players are] on the court to make the coach successful and everything.”
However, Player 2 went on to explain that within Butler’s volleyball program, she found favoritism was not based solely on performance and that every player was held to a different set of expectations.
“If there was a line that was the standard, [I think Clark] would move it up and down for different players just depending on who they were,” Player 2 said. “ … I think there should be a standard of ‘this is Butler volleyball — this is what we hold ourselves to.’”
The consequences of this inconsistent standard could be seen not only in playing time but also in personal conversations between coaches and players.
Some players knew they were not the best on the team, and therefore did not expect to get as much playing time as their teammates. They often felt, though, that their role on the team was overlooked or devalued.
“If I were on the bench, and I still was getting opportunities when I was successful at practices and everything, or even just, you know, treated like a person, I feel like I wouldn’t have had all these issues,” Player 2 said. “But it was basically like [Clark] didn’t want me there.”
Player 7 said that even though she was a “favorite,” she was very aware of the unfair treatment her teammates endured. This inequality was one of the reasons she decided to transfer.
“My [experience] wasn’t that bad, at all,” Player 7 said. “But just noticing how [Clark] treats the other players made me [say], ‘I’m not staying here anymore.’”
Player 4 said she was often nervous going to practice because she saw herself as a common target of Clark’s.
“It got to the point where I was like, ‘What’s she going to say to me today that’s going to embarrass me in front of the whole team?’” Player 4 said.
Former Assistant Coach 1 said that the way players were often treated in practice and during games led to an uncomfortable team dynamic.
“It just wasn’t an uplifting environment,” Former Assistant Coach 1 said. “It wasn’t empowering. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good for the coaches; it didn’t feel good for the players. It was just hard.”
Multiple players said it was difficult watching the effect Clark’s words had on their friends and teammates.
“There was a lot of times you’d come in the locker room, and you’d just see somebody so beat up over what [Clark] said to them in practice, and that’s probably one of the worst things to see, to be a part of,” Player 6 said.
For the past several years, players on the team have kept a stuffed animal in the locker room. Player 3 said it would be passed down, from player to player, to the person they believed was mistreated most often.
Numerous players discussed how the topic of their weight often came up during one-on-one meetings with Clark. Player 2 explained how it was part of conversations as early as her first year.
“Whenever I would have a meeting with her, whether she called it or it was just a check-in meeting, she would make remarks about my weight,” Player 2 said. “I think she could have handled it differently if there was a medical, health [or] athletic reason … [and] direct me to resources that were appropriate to do so. But it was always treated as a joke.”
Players 4 and 6 talked about how they were told to lose weight, oftentimes in response to asking what they needed to do to improve as athletes or get more playing time.
“We had our meeting,” Player 6 said. “ … she started telling me how I was too big and how I needed to lose weight, and how from ‘here’ to ‘here’ on my leg it was too large and too wide and how I would probably never play at that weight. I counted on my phone how many times she would tell me I needed to lose weight.”
“You shouldn’t have to ask”
Not all members of the volleyball team travel for away games. Some players said they were unaware of this when they committed to Butler. Players who did not travel said sometimes they would get a reason for their staying behind, but other times there was no explanation provided.
There were times when players would not know if they were traveling until the day before a trip. If they had not heard from Clark, sometimes they would have to ask her themselves whether or not they were going.
Former Assistant Coach 1 said they remember the confusion around who on the team would be traveling.
“I remember [Clark] wouldn’t tell players they were traveling or not until the day before,” Former Assistant Coach 1 said. “And that’s a lot on a college athlete. You’re responsible for a lot of things — and you have to tell your professors when you’re leaving.”
Player 4 said especially during her first year, it was difficult feeling like a valuable member of the team when she was not informed of her travel status until she asked Clark herself.
“There were many occasions where I had to ask if I was traveling and not be told,” Player 4 said. “As a freshman, that’s really self-degrading. And as an athlete in general, you shouldn’t have to ask your coach if you’re going. And then her being like, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you’ makes you feel like a piece of sh*t, like you aren’t a part of the team.”
Miscommunication occurred while the team was on campus, too. Multiple players said there was often confusion around scheduled practice times or team meetings.
“We would show up in the locker room, and then we’d go [to the court], and no one would be up there,” Player 7 said. “And this is in our calendar … so we didn’t really have any concept of trust when it came to communication.”
Team versus business, person versus player
During their time in the volleyball program, there were players who felt they were not treated like valuable members of the team — or of the athletic department as a whole.
A few players said they often felt like they were working for a business rather than playing for a team. Player 4 said she did not feel respected as a player or as a person.
“It definitely felt like I wasn’t really a person,” Player 4 said. “I was just there. An extra body in the gym most of the time. And I do understand that it is a business, and they are getting paid, this is their job, but at the same time, we’re human. We deserve to be treated like humans and with respect.”
During her time in the program, Player 5 felt she was constantly disrespected and never comfortable. She decided not to transfer, though, because she “did not want to let [Clark] win.”
“There were so many instances where I just didn’t feel safe,” Player 5 said. “I think that was my main grievance with Butler volleyball, was that in a place I spent so much time in and spent so much of my life in, I felt like I was on edge constantly, being watched always.”
If players needed time off for personal reasons, such as physical illness or mental health struggles, many felt like their feelings were disregarded, and they were encouraged to push through.
Player 5 said she was prepared to be challenged as a student athlete in a Division I program, but her grievances were a result of not feeling respected as a player and the conversations about her personal character. She, and other former players interviewed, said their commitment to the team and to the sport was often questioned.
“Please don’t think I am some kind of soft person who doesn’t expect college athletics to be hard because of course that’s the expectation; it’s the stereotype,” Player 5 said. “I wasn’t ever going into Butler thinking I was going to be coddled or praised. No, never. I always had tough coaches — I was ready to be coached tough. However, it was the actual principle of the person that I was being coached under that I just could not deal with.”
Round and round
According to the Student Athlete Handbook, if student athletes have athletic concerns that need to be addressed, they are encouraged to go through the following steps:
- Visit with their head coach regarding their specific concerns.
- If the student athlete’s concern involves the head coach or their assistant coach, or the student athlete feels that their concerns have not been properly addressed after visiting with the head coach, they should contact the athletic administrator who has direct administrative responsibility for overseeing that specific sport.
- If the student athlete continues to feel that their concerns are not being properly addressed, they should address their concerns to the Athletic Director and/or the Senior Women’s Administrator (SWA).
Every player interviewed said they brought their concerns about the program to the attention of at least one of the administrators in Butler’s athletic department, of which include Athletic Director Barry Collier, Senior Associate Athletic Director Mike Freeman, Associate Athletic Director Molly Sullivan and former Deputy Athletic Director Tom Crowley.
After The Butler Collegian asked Associate Athletic Director for Communications John Dedman, Collier, Freeman and Sullivan for comment, the four spoke internally and decided Dedman would be the spokesperson for the department.
Some players had individual or group meetings with the previously named administrators, while others sent emails or expressed their concerns in the end-of-season surveys. Parents have also met with members of the athletic department to share their perspectives on various issues.
Athletes are asked to complete an end-of-season survey with a variety of questions centered around what they believe to be the strengths of the program and ways it needs to improve. Dedman said while the surveys are not anonymous to the administrators receiving them, they would not reveal a student’s identity to any of the individuals referenced in the comments. That includes coaches.
Sometimes after the surveys were submitted, players would be called in for one-on-one meetings with athletic administrators. There were multiple players who also requested meetings on their own throughout the season and off-season.
Player 3 said she met with administrators numerous times while at Butler. She told them of her concerns in addition to providing recommendations on how to make the program better.
“It felt like we were in this constant circle of like, ‘Okay, we’re here, that’s awesome, now we get to talk to this person, okay, that’s great, now we’re sent back to this person,’ and it just kept repeating, and it just wasn’t going anywhere — our concerns,” Player 3 said. “I didn’t see much change, really, in the sense of where the program went, other than girls taking initiative themselves.”
In 2017, a group of players brought a binder with statements from players on the team and detailed complaints about the program to former Deputy Athletic Director Tom Crowley. Player 5 was a member of the group that called the meeting. She said she and her teammates felt immediately dismissed and did not get to go through the documents with anybody in the department.
Some players said they first brought their concerns directly to Clark. When they felt like they weren’t receiving a direct answer, they went to the administrators in the athletic department.
Other players did not feel comfortable bringing their concerns to their coach. However, Player 4 said she had countless meetings with athletic administrators where they told her she needed to address her concerns directly to Clark.
“It was really hard for me to talk to her, so I figured going to compliance, that would help, and it just didn’t help at all,” Player 4 said.
Player 2 said when girls did have regular meetings with Clark, there were inconsistencies in the feedback they received.
“I had never been more anxious in my entire life [than] to go in for those meetings,” Player 2 said. “ … Having a meeting with [Clark] was the most nerve-wracking thing ever because you never knew what was going to be said that day. It could be a, ‘You’re doing good at X, Y, Z, [but] improve in this,’ or you could have your whole character put into question. So you just never knew what you were going to get whenever you went into her office.”
After numerous meetings with people in the athletic department in which these concerns, and others, were shared, the former players ultimately felt like they were not treated properly as student athletes.
“I feel like our athletic department does not do a good job of protecting and supporting its athletes,” Player 2 said. “People are reaching out to the athletic department — the people who can do stuff — with issues, [and] even if someone isn’t fired, maybe they go through some sort of training or some sort of communication class or something … But it seems like the effort isn’t put in to do the bare minimum.”
Dedman said that when student concerns are brought to the attention of higher level administrators in the athletic department, if there are themes they believe need to be addressed with the coach, they initiate those conversations.
“From the feedback we gather throughout the year in various ways, each administrator meets with their particular coaches and provides, ‘Here’s things that are being really well received … and here are some things that perhaps could be improved upon for the student athlete experience,’” Dedman said. “We’re doing that with really all of our coaches. Those conversations are always had … sometimes a student athlete may not know that that conversation is happening because … those [are human resources] items; they’re personal, so they’re not widely shared.”
While many former players said they understand there may have been steps taken internally to improve the program, they never felt like they saw the results.
“Previous girls had told me [talking to the athletic department] doesn’t work,” Player 4 said. “No matter how many times you go to these people, it doesn’t work … Stuff might have happened behind the scenes, but my biggest thing … was if I do not hear anything from the girls, then I know nothing is changing.”
Former Assistant Coach 2 said that they, like the players, struggled bringing concerns to administrators in the athletic department. They said they were told to figure it out on their own. They saw the effect numerous meetings with no answers had on the players, too.
“I am disappointed in admin,” Former Assistant Coach 2 said. “I think it’s gone a little too far for too long … those are your big support people … when you don’t have someone you trust as an outlet, and they kind of just sweep it under the rug, it’s like, ‘What am I worth?’ So that’s pretty tough.”
After countless attempts, many players felt defeated when they did not see any direct changes as a result of their reported complaints.
“Players have been going to them for years,” Player 7 said. “So I’m like, ‘If I’m not going to make a difference, then I’m not going to try anymore,’ and I just left … The higher up it got with admin, I didn’t feel supported just because at the end of the day, I knew they’d choose Sharon over us.”
“I wish I had known … ”
Many players felt they were not given an accurate depiction of the school during their recruiting process.
Player 7 said there were things that happened during her visit to campus that should have been a clue as to what to expect.
“My visit wasn’t an accurate representation of the program whatsoever,” Player 7 said. “It was kind of painting out the picture of what we wanted to see … The players, I’d asked them some questions, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we love it here,’ and they’d kind of giggle … So looking back on it, that was probably a red flag.”
Some former players have trouble talking about their time in the program because of the emotions associated with their memories. Other players want to talk about their experiences to ensure future players understand all aspects of the program when they commit.
“I can talk about my experiences, and I honestly want to because I don’t want people to go through what I went through,” Player 2 said. “And there are a lot of bad college coaches out there. I’m sure there is some stuff people have dealt with that is sadly worse than what I went through, but I still don’t want people going through what I went through.”
When asked, “What do you wish you had known before you committed to Butler?” the former players said:
Player 1: “Yeah, Sharon. I wish I would have known her, known what she was about, known this is the way she goes about things. I wish that [I] would have talked to girls who would have been honest … I wish I would have known how the program was run before I came.”
Player 2: “I wish I would have known that my hard work and effort, no matter how much I put in, wasn’t going to matter.”
Player 3: “I wish I was told to go somewhere where you are wanted as a person as much as a player.”
Player 4: “I wish I would have known who Sharon really was … She does a lot for the community and Butler in general, but behind that, it’s a completely different face. I wish I could sit here and say she didn’t ruin me, but she did, and a lot of my other teammates were stronger than me, and they didn’t let her ruin them.”
Player 5: “I wish I had known what to expect mentally. Physically, I could handle it. But it was really the [mentally] trying to break us down, and then trying to restructure how we thought and acted — that was like something I had never experienced before, and I wish I had literally gone to therapy before going to Butler.”
Player 6: “I wish I knew more details about all the transfers that had left.”
Player 7: “I wish someone would have told me to mentally prepare or would have given me a little bit more honesty of what actually goes on behind closed doors.”
If you lead, they will follow
Despite a fractured relationship with their head coach and those in the athletic department they confided in, many of the former players found a supportive community amongst their teammates.
“The best part is the team,” Player 1 said. “I love the girls. We had a really close bond. Everyone gelled together so well. Obviously every team has issues, but they weren’t bigger than the team itself. And I really do have many lifelong friendships from Butler.”
Former Assistant Coach 2 said they could see the players acting as a support system for one another.
“They’re a sisterhood, for sure, because they understood each other and what they were going through, and they were basically all going through the trenches,” Former Assistant Coach 2 said. “You have to have a certain strength to be there.”
In addition to their teammates, there were certain people within the athletic department whom many former players felt they could lean on for support.
“I loved the girls, I loved playing in Hinkle, I loved our facilities,” Player 2 said. “I think there’s really great support staff — I loved our weights coach [and] our academic advisor Sonya. There are so many people who are involved that I really felt lucky to have.”
Leaders have the power to transform lives for better or for worse. Former Assistant Coach 2 said that what the team needs most is a leader who will fight for them.
“If they don’t have [a leader] to go to, who do they go to?” Former Assistant Coach 2 said. “Your parents aren’t there. They can’t help you out [with] those things. And assistant [coaches] can only do so much … so I do think if they had a leader who would fight for them mentally, emotionally, all those things, that they could be great. Butler is a great school. In the Big East, you are going to be competing every day … if they have [a good leader], they can do so well.”
The Butler Collegian interviewed current player Destiny Cherry and acting head coach Jalissa Trotter on Jan. 20. A member of the athletics communications department was present at the interview. The Butler Collegian is unsure if Cherry and Trotter were permitted to answer questions with full transparency, so the editorial decision was made to not include Cherry or Trotter’s quotes in this story.