Idaho expands investigation of volleyball coach Chris Gonzalez – Press Enterprise

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A University of Idaho spokesperson said Monday that the school has instructed an outside law firm to investigate the “climate and culture” within the school’s women’s volleyball program under head coach Chris Gonzalez amid allegations that he has routinely physically, verbally and emotionally abused Vandal players.

The move follows the December 30 publication of a Southern California News Group report in which six Idaho players on the 2023 roster, three former players, and a university employee, alleged Gonzalez physically abused and bullied players, pressured injured players to play and train against the orders of the school’s sports medicine staff, regularly deprived players of food on road trips, body shamed players, made racially insensitive and inappropriate comments to players, and pressured sports medicine staff to share confidential information about players’ weight.

“The University of Idaho is deeply concerned about the allegations brought by some members of the women’s volleyball team against their coach, Chris Gonzales,” the university said in a statement to SCNG Monday night. “As a result, an investigation started in November around legal issues and has been expanded to include climate and culture concerns. The start of the investigation was delayed at the request of those who filed the complaints, in order to finish the season.

“An outside investigative team is doing the investigation, in which Coach Gonzalves is fully cooperating. While they have been asked to expedite the investigation, we also do not want to forego quality for speed.

“Our goal is to ensure we understand the concerns, act on any findings and work to rebuild an effective and supportive volleyball culture.”

In interviews, letters, emails, formal complaints, confidential university documents and voice recordings of Gonzalez, athletic director Terry Gawlik, and other athletic department and university administration officials, the players allege that Gonzalez, a longtime fixture on the Southern California volleyball scene and once considered one of the college game’s rising coaching stars, has created an environment where he targets specific players for almost daily bullying and even physical abuse, where players suffered dozens of avoidable injuries from overtraining or because he ignored the instructions of doctors, trainers and a sports biomechanics expert, withheld food from the team to the point where all nine current and former players said they were constantly hungry and routinely played and practiced while feeling light-headed or dizzy, suffered tunnel vision, and often felt that they were on the verge of passing out or blacking out.

“Through many abusive behaviors, Coach Gonzalez and his staff perpetuate a culture of harassment, bullying, and belittling,” a current Idaho starter wrote on behalf of her teammates in a formal complaint to the university obtained by SCNG.

Interviews, emails, letters, confidential university documents and recordings also show that players, their parents, and at least three university employees have repeatedly complained or raised concerns about Gonzalez’s coaching methods and alleged abusive behavior to Gawlik, university administration officials and the school’s Office of Civil Rights and Investigations. At least 13 players have complained to Gawlik or other university officials, according to player interviews, formal complaints and confidential university documents.

SCNG provided Gonzalez a detailed list of the allegations raised in this report and gave him the opportunity to respond to each allegation prior to the publication of the December 30 report.

Instead, Gonzalez emailed SCNG a brief statement.

“These allegations are unfounded, displaced, and dishonest,” he said.

Gonzalez is 5-51 in two seasons at Idaho.

Player complaints have routinely been ignored and dismissed by Gawlik and other university officials, all nine players allege.

Players “don’t feel safe playing for (Gonzalez) anymore” a starter told Gawlik, Chris Walsh, the senior associate athletic director for internal administration and wellness, and Blaine Eckles, the university’s dean of students, during an October meeting, according to a recording of the meeting.

During the 2023 season this past fall, a group of Idaho players submitted an eight-page complaint to university officials detailing more than 80 examples of “verbal/emotional abuse, physical abuse, intimidation and harassment.”

Gawlik, Walsh and Eckles, the university’s dean of students, met with three players on October 30. Gawlik agreed to meet the players, according to an email she wrote to the athletes after she “was contacted by campus OCRI today and they mentioned some Volleyball Athletes spoke with them on some concerns,” although the players had asked to meet with her days earlier.

The players outlined their allegations, how Gonzalez had been dismissive during a recent meeting with team captains about their concerns, and how it was “terrifying” to talk to Gonzalez, according to a recording of the Oct. 30 meeting.

“I know what’s going on,” Walsh told the players during the Oct 30 meeting. “We’re aware of some of the rough waters you guys have been in.”

But Eckles also told the players, “we’re not looking to get into the details of the whole allegations” citing a desire to keep any potential investigation “pristine.”

Eckles sent the players an email after the meeting later that day.

“As a follow-up to our visit, I wanted to communicate a few take-aways from our visit,” Eckles wrote. “1. Your concerns are important and are heard. I want to assure you that they are and will be looked into for appropriate follow-up. 2. If you would like, I am happy to visit with the entire team (if you think that would be helpful) to reassure that retaliation is not appropriate.”

A case manager met with Idaho players on November 8, telling them they would follow up in the coming weeks but then did not contact the athletes again.

“(They) failed to get back to us,” a starter said. “It was a dead end. (They) talked to us and then we never heard from anybody.”

The players also said neither Eckles, Gawlick nor Walsh followed up with them after the meeting. Walsh did travel with the team on a late season road trip that Gonzalez missed because of a medical issue.

“Nobody got back to us,” a player said.

An Idaho player also reached out on behalf of the team to the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Investigation. On October 24, Trent Taylor, an investigator for the office, confirmed in an email that the office had received the complaint and offered the athlete the opportunity to meet. A week later, on Oct. 31, Taylor emailed the player that an outside law firm, Thompson & Horton, LLP, would be investigating the allegations raised in the players’ complaint.

Yet an attorney for the firm didn’t meet with players until December 13, nearly two months after Taylor first contacted the player. The attorney told the players during the meeting that the firm’s investigation would take at least 60 to 90 days to complete.

Although Eckles in the Oct. 30 meeting referred to “knowing that your season having just ended,” the Vandals still had five matches remaining.

Between October 24 when Taylor first contacted the player and the end of the season on November 17, Gonzalez’ bullying “only got worse,” said a starter, a statement that five other players concurred with.

“This is a pattern that isn’t something new,” said Marissa Drange, an outside hitter on the 2022 Idaho team.

It is a pattern that players coached by Gonzalez at other universities allege in interviews with SCNG and letters to Idaho officials, that extends back more than 20 years covering the majority if not the entirety of his college coaching career, and that Idaho players allege continued within weeks of his hiring at the Big Sky Conference school in February 2022.

Gonzalez pushed over Hailey Pelton, a veteran setter and four-time Big Sky Conference All-Academic team selection, during a spring practice in 2022 according to five people. One of the people confirming the incident is Bryan Bastuba, who at the time was an assistant coach.

Pelton declined to comment.

Gonzalez continued his alleged pattern of physical and emotional abuse, bullying and body shaming during the regular season, according to six Idaho players, a person familiar with the situation, as well as reports, complaints, and emails sent to Gawlick and other Idaho officials.

That autumn Gonzalez pushed Anna Pelleur, a freshman, so hard during a practice that he also knocked her off her feet, seven players allege in interviews and according to a complaint filed with Gawlik.

Pelluer, the daughter of former University of Washington and NFL quarterback Steve Pelluer, was a regular target of Gonzalez’s alleged bullying, seven players said.

“He was very hard on Anna,” Drange said. “I remember him jumping in the drill and setting and running up and saying Anna was in his way and instead of stopping the drill he pushed her and yelled, ‘Anna, get out of the way!’

“It was weird. He was always doing weird things.”

Said an Idaho starter who also witnessed the alleged incident, “He would get so into it, that he would push her hard enough to knock her to the ground. You could have just politely asked her to get off the court or been like, ‘Guys hold on, I’m going to take over the drill real quick’ instead of putting violence on the table.“It was absolutely unnecessary.

“He was angry at her that she couldn’t complete the drill the way he wanted her to so he felt he needed to step in and do it correctly so he just pushed her off the court.”

The incident again left players stunned.

“I remember all of us looking at each other ‘Did he seriously just push her?’” Drange said.

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