An Aurora-based club volleyball program is the target of a multimillion-dollar federal class action complaint alleging it failed to protect its athletes from a prominent coach with a history of sexually abusing players.
In a complaint filed Feb. 27 in Chicago federal court, plaintiff Laura Mullen said coach Rick Butler has a history of “sexual abuse of underage girls” in connection with Sports Performance Volleyball Club and Great Lakes Volleyball Center, operated by GLV Inc. Butler’s wife, Cheryl Butler, also is a named defendant. Mullen, whose daughter played at Sports Performance, said she and other parents “would never have sent their girls” to the club had they known “a child sexual predator would coach their teenage daughters.”
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Mullen, represented pro bono by attorneys Jay Edelson, Eve-Lynn J. Rapp, Christopher L. Dore, Alfred K. Murray II and Sydney Janzen, of the firm of Edelson PC, of Chicago, said coach Butler is “the most powerful coach in youth volleyball,” according to ESPN, noting he is able to place his players to top college programs throughout the country. She said Butler has, for more than three decades, “used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls, and likely more.” According to the complaint, both USA Volleyball and the Amateur Athletic Union banned Butler, who also has been the subject of state findings regarding sexual misconduct with minors.
The complaint detailed Butler’s ability to advance or impede a young athlete’s volleyball career, singling out his relationship with Michigan State University, where its head women’s volleyball coach was a Sports Performance coach during the mid-1980s and one of her assistants ran Sports Performance summer camps from 2000-2004. According to Mullen, “at least one Michigan State women’s volleyball coach has, as a proxy of Butler and Sports Performance, taken an active role in denying the accusations against Butler and discouraging victims from speaking out.”
Mullen’s complaint said the stories of Butler’s accusers have similar themes. Excepting one girl who lived with Butler, Mullen said the affected players all were candidates for scholarships at elite collegiate programs and that Butler leveraged his coaching power and influence to wield “abusive emotional, psychological and physical tactics to shame the girls and put them in vulnerable positions,” while intimidating them — including implying he would end their volleyball careers — to prevent them from stopping or revealing the abuse.
The complaint cited testimony from Christine Tuzi delivered at Butler’s 1995 U.S. Volleyball Association Ethics and Eligibility Committee hearing, discussing why she did not come forward with her allegations as they happened to her as a 16-year-old. It also details stories of several women who accused Butler of abuse as far back as 1981. Many of the accounts involved serving alcohol to minors, as well as isolating them from parents and teammates during various practices, competitions, road trips and team functions. The complaint also reproduced several handwritten notes Butler delivered to the women, each with a citation showing the recipient’s age at the time.
“He would tell her that college coaches were always calling about her and how she could make the national team under his guidance,” one woman reported. “But the threat of him taking it all away was always there.”
The complaint also alleged Cheryl Butler — who did not start her relationship with Rick Butler until 1991 — routinely called former players to threaten them with unknown consequences for going public with abuse allegations.
Mullen said her first daughter joined Sports Performance in October 2012. She alleged her daughters were subject to physical and emotional abuse that led them to leave the program, but as that was proceeding in June 2017, she found online documents substantially detailing the history of Butler’s sexual abuse allegations and formal discipline from the sport’s governing bodies.
The complaint alleges violation of the Illinois Physical Fitness Services Act, the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, fraud, fraudulent concealment and unjust enrichment in that the Butlers and the club did not adequately disclose “all relevant material facts regarding Rick Butler’s past sexual misconduct” and therefore misrepresented the ability to properly coach and supervise underage athletes.
In addition to class certification and a jury trial, the complaint seeks actual, statutory and punitive damages of at least $5 million.