Midway through her freshman season at Oregon State, Kyla Waiters locked herself in the bathroom, and a concerned teacher’s assistant called 911. “I just thought I didn’t want to live anymore,” Waiters said.
Her decision a few months earlier to accept a scholarship to play volleyball for coach Mark Barnard’s team had been seeded with promises and hope. Named to a high school All-American team and attracting interest from a handful of Division I schools, Waiters said Barnard and his staff had promised to teach her a new position, give her a redshirt year to learn it, then potentially build a winning team around her.
Before a single semester had passed, all that was gone.
By the end of the season, Waiters — her arms and wrists scarred from a cutting habit she said she’d developed due to the stress of volleyball at Oregon State — was in Barnard’s office, being told he was shopping her scholarship. Her best plan, he said, would be to find another school.
“The sooner you move on, the better,” Barnard told her in a conversation she recorded and provided to The Associated Press.
That message came only weeks after police responded to the 911 call. Waiters is the third Oregon State player to seriously contemplate suicide since 2016, according to first-hand accounts from two of those players, along with three accounts of the aftermath of the other player’s near attempt that were provided to AP by people familiar with that episode. Those people did not want their names used because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Waiters was among a half-dozen players who reached out to the AP after a July story in which players, parents and people familiar with the program said Oregon State volleyball coaches physically and emotionally abused some players while the administration took no outward steps to address complaints.
About a year before Waiters’ call to the police, another promising freshman, Amya Small, was taken to the hospital after downing dozens of over-the-counter medications. Barnard pulled Small’s scholarship shortly after her hospital trip.
Waiters said she had been stunned to read about Small’s suicide attempt and an account of mental and emotional issues that Small said stemmed in part from her treatment by members of the volleyball program.
“I genuinely thought the article was written about me, that’s how similar my story was to Amya’s story,” Waiters said.
She is among 11 players to quit or transfer from the Oregon State program since 2016, with some of them forced out using similar methods.
Two additional players — setter Delaney Taylor and another who did not want her name used for fear of backlash from former teammates — joined Waiters in telling AP they had also experienced many of the abuses outlined in the July story. That included coaches running practices that put players at risk and Barnard and others dangling four-year scholarships and then withdrawing them due to on-court performance, unusually harsh even at the top level of college sports.
They also said the coaching staff pitted teammates against each other, in part by asking players in postseason surveys to name the team’s weakest links and then trying to drum those players out of the program.
The university said it had opened investigations after receiving other complaints and that those investigations were closed. It did not disclose the results. Waiters said she did not take her issues to school administrators because she felt it would jeopardize her standing on the team.
The AP has reached out multiple times to ask Barnard and administrators for comment. They would not make Barnard available for an interview, and school spokesman Steve Clark said “OSU continues to dispute the allegations that you share or make.”
He said privacy laws prohibit the school from discussing individuals’ cases and said the school provides mental-health counseling for all students.
After the initial AP story, a senior on the team sent a group text to teammates warning them against speaking to reporters without having the requests vetted by school officials.
“Your scholarship can be taken away,” the text said.
Clark said no such policy exists at the school.
Before that text was sent, several former players already had mounted a campaign, mostly on social media, to defend Barnard, who has a four-year head coaching record of 53-73 that includes one trip to the NCAA tournament followed by two last-place finishes in the Pac-12. They described him as a leader who took pains to build a winning, inclusive culture and who did not use intimidation or threats to motivate players.
“I would say what’s described there is 180 degrees from what actually happened,” 2019 graduate Kory Cheshire told the AP, referring to the July story.
Cheshire agreed OSU’s transfer rate was high but said that was not due to the coaching staff. “Oregon State just had some bad luck the last couple of years,” she said.
Waiters, Taylor and the other former player who reached out to AP all said they had endured the same sort of treatment described in the July report. They told of being pressured to practice while injured and being emotionally manipulated to give up their spots on the team. “He would run these drills where he’d single us out for making a mistake and just run us dry,” Waiters said.
The player who did not want her name used, despite being a detractor of Barnard’s, called some of those “character-building drills, and every coach I’ve ever had has done that to me.”
That player added, however, that Barnard tried to ease her out of the program by telling her that her teammates didn’t like her and that she would be miserable if she returned the next season.
“I left in tears,” she said. “I called my teammates. One had told me that upon leaving the program, Mark made them rank the players who were returning from best to worst so he could whittle out the weak links.”
Clark said that while coaches have asked athletes for their opinions of other players, “this input was never a factor in coaching decisions regarding players or scholarships.”
Taylor said Barnard promoted a “toxic environment” that pitted starters against non-starters.
Both she and Waiters said captains ran a “three-strike” system that would trigger conditioning punishments for players who reached the strike threshold. Taylor said Barnard signed off on the system, while employing his own form of punishment during games.
“Whenever there was a mistake made, you’d come into the huddle and a player would hold herself accountable and say ‘my bad,’” Taylor said. “After that, I’d hear him say, on multiple occasions, ‘It was my bad for recruiting you.’”
Taylor also said she was forced to practice injured, adding hers to other accounts from players who say they were pushed past the point of safety. She left after 2016, her only season at Oregon State.
“My wrist was in a brace, but I was the only setter at that time,” Taylor said. “He needed someone to chuck balls up for the hitters to hit, so I was forced to practice while injured. He knew there could be potential risk there.”
Clark said trainers, not coaches, make decisions about players’ availability when they’re injured.
Waiters, who was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia shortly after starting college, also said she felt she had little choice but to practice past what was safe because of her status as a vulnerable newcomer who had been harshly criticized by coaches and teammates.
She said she had played middle hitter through most of her prep career, but because of her relatively short stature – 6-feet – the Oregon State coaches told her they would bring her to the Corvallis, Oregon, campus and give her a year as a redshirt - scholarship players who don’t participate and get an extra year to compete - to learn how to play outside hitter, a position not as reliant on height.
Midway through the season, she said Barnard put her in a game, wasting a a year of eligibility.
The Beavers finished 11-21 that season and followed it last year with a 9-22 record. In addition to the high turnover on the roster, a common theme over the last few years has been an unusually high injury rate – one the team website uses as a way of explaining the team’s struggles.
“We had players getting hurt left and right but he said he wasn’t going to just throw me in a game,” Waiters said. “And then that’s exactly what he did.”
Not long after that, Waiters said, her suicidal thoughts became more intense, which led to the 911 call. She said she went to the school medical office, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication. Barnard suggested she share her emotional issues with the entire team, much the way another player had done several months earlier.
“He told me what I needed to do was to open up and be vulnerable with them,” said Waiters, who subsequently stopped her medication after seeing other therapists who did not go along with the bipolar diagnosis. “He kept insisting on it. He just made me feel like I didn’t have any other choice but to tell them, or I’d be excluded from the team physically and mentally.”
Waiters said Barnard told her the 911 call and mental-health issues wouldn’t impact her scholarship. Waiters said that, as he had done with other players, Barnard had promised her a four-year ride but signed her to a letter of intent good only for one year. Clark said the school abides by NCAA rules that forbid coaching staffs from pulling scholarships for performance-related reasons.
Barnard based his effort to get rid of Waiters on the notion that lifestyle choices were doing her in. In the meeting she recorded, the coach frequently brought up a secondhand account that Waiters had made plans with a recruit to smoke marijuana. Waiters told him that she hung out with people who smoked marijuana, but did not do so herself.
Barnard then reminded Waiters of an earlier conversation in which he said they talked about a path for her that might not include volleyball.
“We need to get working on this one,” he told her. “So, realistically we’ve got to be able to turn over this scholarship fast. We’re already talking to other people.”
A few days later, Waiters was submitted to her first and only drug test at the school. It came back negative. A few weeks after that, Waiters had secured a scholarship at Nevada, where she played last season.