A tip and a five-month AP investigation led to detailed accusations by players of abusive treatment by a college coach whose bullying and threats reportedly drove almost a dozen players to leave campus and at least two to contemplate suicide.
Denver-based national sports writer Eddie Pells was first approached in February by the mom of a player who said she had some concerns about abuses going on in the volleyball program at Oregon State. She was referred to Pells by a friend in Eugene, Oregon, who thought Pells – who has led AP’s coverage of the SafeSport program to protect athletes – would be a good fit for this story, giving it the attention and approach it deserved.
Over the next five months, Pells conducted dozens of interviews with about 15 people, both in and out of the program. He was careful to separate actual abuse from hard coaching, and checked with experts to learn if the behavior by volleyball coach Mark Barnard was over the line.
Several college athletes – usually afraid to speak to reporters at all, let alone share complaints – spoke to Pells as he reached out to them again and again. His key interviews were with former player Amya Small, who spoke at length about how she was cut and lost her scholarship a few months after trying to overdose.
After working with editor-at-large Kristin Gazlay and assistant general counsel Brian Barrett, who reviewed the story for liabilities, Pells contacted the university. Oregon State refused to make Barnard available and sent brief comments on the allegations. AP also reached out directly to the coach and other key officials, but none responded.
Since publication, players have sent Pells group text messages saying that team leaders threaten teammates – if any of the players speak to Pells they will lose their scholarship.
Pells’ exclusive led to immediate calls for the coach’s firing and questions about the university officials who didn’t act after hearing complaints about the behavior months ago. The editorial director of ESPN.com reached out to compliment AP’s reporting, and the site made Pells’ story the top headline in college sports for most of the day. National publications and three Oregon newspapers highlighted the story online, while global volleyball websites have spent the past week debating the story and how tough coaches can be in the #MeToo era.
For months of persistent and sensitive reporting despite uncertain prospects, resulting in an impressive story with impact, Pells wins this week’s Best of the States award.