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‘Fighting for what I know is right’: Idaho volleyball players will face coach accused of abuse

Idaho Vandals volleyball coach Chris Gonzalez has been accused of physically abusing and bullying his players. | Courtesy of Idaho Athletics
MOSCOW (The Spokesman-Review) — Emma Patterson, a 22-year-old senior from Boise, will walk into Memorial Gym on the campus of the University of Idaho in Moscow on Thursday and practice in front of a volleyball coach who she personally accused of physical and emotional abuse.
Patterson said she’s doing it out of respect for a university attended by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. And because athletic administrators have left her few other alternatives.
“I think it’s important that people who are speaking out are not silenced by the school’s inaction,” Patterson said. “I also have such a huge love for the University of Idaho and Vandal athletics that I am not trying let the school’s inaction and abuse from this coach ruin an experience that has been my dream, and other players’ dreams, since we were little.
“I’m fighting for what I know is right.”
At last count, Patterson expects to be among only nine players to arrive Thursday for the beginning of offseason workouts for the season, which is officially played in the fall.
The 18-player team, which finished 1-27 last year under coach Chris Gonzalez, lost six players who transferred, including one player who was among a handful of those who have accused Gonzalez of both physical and emotional abuse over the past two seasons.
One player is recovering from surgery unrelated to controversy surrounding Gonzalez, and two other named accusers will not attend practice out of fear of retaliation from Gonzalez, Patterson said.
Those allegations have been documented in a series of stories by the Orange County Register, which through interviews and documents claims to have uncovered an alleged history of abuse and bullying from Gonzalez going back decades to his time in Southern California.
To date, several current or former Idaho players, six parents and three university employees say Gonzalez has bullied and physically, verbally and emotionally abused Vandals players, pressured them to play or practice while injured, and denied athletes food throughout his two seasons at UI.
Gonzalez also is alleged to have pushed or shoved two players to the ground during practices in 2022 and to have improperly touched athletes during practice drills, according to player interviews and university documents reported by the Orange County Register.
Idaho Athletic Director Terry Gawlik, through a university spokeswoman, did not make herself available for interviews Wednesday or earlier this month.
A request to interview Gawlik, Gonzalez and President C. Scott Green, and a series of questions referring to allegations against Gonzalez, were met with a one-sentence response on Jan. 5 by Idaho spokeswoman Jodi Walker: “I am sure you can appreciate that we cannot discuss the details of an active investigation or personnel issues.”
Patterson, the player, said those teammates who have been named in the formal complaints earlier this week asked Jackie Wernz, the interim director of the Office of Civil Rights and Investigations, to file no-contact protection orders so that the accusers would not have to confront Gonzalez at practice.
Patterson said Wernz said this week the no-contact requests would be handled case-by-case “if they had reason to believe their safety was a concern. But a full no-contact protection order was not something that would be necessarily feasible because the office of civil rights can only work through a very limited scope.”
But Wernz appears to have dual roles. In addition to being listed as the interim director of the Office of Civil Rights and Investigations, she’s listed as a staff attorney for Texas-based Thompson & Horton, LLP.
The Idaho website uses the same photograph for Wernz as the law firm’s website. An effort to reach Wernz late Wednesday was unsuccessful.
Thompson & Horton, based in Houston, is the law firm hired by the University of Idaho to conduct what has been described to the players as an “objective” third-party review of the volleyball team’s climate and culture.
That law firm is also the same one that defended the Baylor University, which settled a civil suit in 2023 filed by 15 survivors of sexual assault who alleged that Baylor “permitted a campus rife with sexual assault” for years.
That case led to the firing of football coach Art Briles, two other football coaches and the resignation of Baylor president Kenneth Starr, who earlier served as the independent counsel that investigated allegations against President Bill Clinton involving Monica Lewinsky.
Objectivity questioned
Haley Larsen Janicek, 36, is a member of the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame for her volleyball career that ended in 2008.
A fundraiser for the school, Janicek has been vocal in her opposition to how the university has handled allegations against Gonzalez.
“When you look at the situation with these kids, they have gone through every step. They went to their superiors. They went to their parents. They went to the athletic director. They went to the athletic trainers. They worked through all of these processes. They finally went to OCR,” she said, referring to the Office of Civil Rights and Investigation.
“Now, they are being told that this law firm is going to be objective. I just don’t think that’s the case,” she continued. “It feels like it’s about disproving the kids’ claims.
“When you look at what Thompson & Horton is known for, it’s obvious they are experts in protecting universities from claims filed to the OCR office. I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t feel right.”
Texas attorney Chad Dunn agrees with Janicek’s concerns.
Dunn, and his partner Jim Dunnam, represented the 15 victims in the Baylor litigation that lasted seven years before both parties agreed to settle last year. The terms were not disclosed.
Dunn said Thompson & Horton, which represented Baylor, made a business by defending officials against Title 9 discrimination and sexual assault claims in Texas, which has several hundred school districts throughout the state.
Dunn said he thought Idaho’s retention of Thompson & Horton to be premature.
“I’m not aware of Thompson & Horton undertaking independent investigations of wrongly accused conduct by a university,” Dunn said. “I’m familiar with them being retained to defend the university against claims brought by the students.”
‘Not the Vandal way’
Patterson, the volleyball player, credited Dean of Students Blaine Eckles for being one of the few administrators at Idaho who appeared to want to help.
Eckles, who did not immediately respond to an interview request on Wednesday, has assigned someone to watch practices to monitor interactions between the players and Gonzalez.
“I’m not necessarily sure what one more person at practice will do,” Patterson said. “The person will be monitoring practices and will make a report. But, we’ve reported this and nothing has happened.”
That is especially true for how the accusations were received by the athletic department, she said. Athletic director Gawlik was made aware in 2022 of abuse allegations against Gonzalez, according to published reports.
Patterson, who transferred to Idaho for the 2023 season after three seasons at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said she met with Gawlik on Oct. 30 along with two team captains to voice their concerns.
Prior to the meeting, Patterson said the players forwarded all of their complaints, which they meticulously had been documenting, to Gawlik.
In the meeting, the captains attempted to explain how “we’ve tried to address this as a team by working with the players and coaches, but because of the reactions and our lack of safety and fear of retaliation and abusive treatment, we are now coming to you in your role as athletic director for you to provide us a level of protection.”
Gawlik, according to Patterson, replied with a question: “Is that it?”
“I was shocked. Our team captains are sophomores. They didn’t know what to say,” Patterson said. “Nobody expected the dismissive, not-wanting-to-act response from the person in place to ensure our safety. That’s when I spoke up.”
The team briefly met with Gawlik this week, following published reports of abuse allegations by Gonzalez, in a session that was scheduled to last 1½ hours.
It ended in about 35 minutes, Patterson said.
“Gawlik opened the meeting. She spoke very briefly about the investigation and said investigations take time. She said if the lawyers reach out to you, find time to speak to them and be honest. Then she handed the meeting over to Dean Eckles.”
Janicek, the former player turned booster, said it was difficult to defend Gawlik after Janicek learned from the players about their concerns.
“When I joined the University of Idaho as an athlete, I was somewhere about seven months from the death of my brother. I credit the university and the athletic program for being a source to funnel my grief and heal in a healthy and proper way,” she said.
Playing collegiate sports takes commitment and toughness, Janicek said.
“They are supposed to live through challenges. They are supposed to go through hard things. They are supposed to be tested in the gym and tested in matches,” she said. “But they are not supposed to be belittled. They are not supposed to be abused, or shamed, or body-shamed.”
Janicek said she hates being in a position to criticize her former school.
“I think the responsibility of a coach is to foster and create a good environment for kids to perform well,” she said. “And, the athletic department’s responsibility is to hire someone to accomplish that.
“I just feel like there have been so many failures here, the only thing left to do is fall on your sword and say, ‘Maybe I made the wrong hire.’ It happens in every field.”
She fears the teammates who already left the program and those who remain will never get to look at their time in Moscow “as the best four years of their lives.”
“Now the challenges they are facing are going to have a lasting impact in a negative way,” Janicek said. “That’s a real shame. That’s not the Vandal way.”
The post ‘Fighting for what I know is right’: Idaho volleyball players will face coach accused of abuse appeared first on East Idaho News.

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