Over the past 14 months, student-athletes on Penn volleyball have been engaged in a power struggle with Penn Athletics.
The students have been in frequent communication with Penn Athletics administrators — voicing their opposition to coach Iain Braddak’s hiring, concerns about his conduct during their fall season, and frustration with Penn Athletics’ response to it all throughout. Eight of the players filed grievances against Braddak to the administration, but several of the complainants feel that those issues aren’t being taken into account.
The Daily Pennsylvanian released a report two weeks ago on the events that took place over the last year. In the report, players lamented their worst season in program history on the court, as well as a number of events off it that they said proved detrimental to their love of the game and their emotional well-being.
Three of the eight incidents detailed in the grievances were confirmed by multiple players to the DP. Those three were Braddak telling an assistant coach to hit a player in the face with the ball in practice, Braddak accusing the team of bullying over a misplaced jacket, and the coach telling a player that their lack of playing time could be worse; they could become addicted to heroin or commit suicide.
Several players said Penn Athletics’ responses to the student-athletes’ concerns have left them feeling even worse than the incidents themselves.
From the administration’s decision to hire Braddak, which the team advised strongly against, to its handling of the eight formal grievances filed against him since, multiple players on the team alleged that they have suffered at the hands of a leadership that consistently puts them second.
The controversy surrounding Penn Athletics and Iain Braddak began well before he ever arrived on campus as the team’s new head coach.
Penn volleyball’s 2017 season finished with the program’s best record since 2013, and the mood around the team was positive. The team’s new coach, Katie Schumacher-Cawley, brought a new energy and vigor that the team hadn’t seen for years.
But Schumacher-Cawley’s season was so successful that she received a call-up to be an assistant coach for her alma mater, Penn State. Her decision left Penn volleyball searching for its third head coach in three seasons.
Almost immediately after Schumacher-Cawley’s departure, Penn Athletics issued a press release announcing that they had assembled a hiring committee tasked with running a “national search” to find the program’s next head coach. Led by Senior Associate Athletic Director Scott Ward, the committee incorporated input from the team’s alumni board as well as the current players on the team in the interview process.
“I am confident that we will find a head coach that will carry on the momentum that was built this fall,” Athletics Director M. Grace Calhoun said in a statement at the time.
In April 2018, two months after Schumacher-Cawley’s resignation, the committee had come up with a shortlist of four candidates, according to multiple players. Among them were Josh Wielebnicki, the team’s then-assistant coach, and Braddak, then an assistant at Columbia.
A panel of four student-athletes on the team interviewed each of the four candidates. They took detailed notes and ultimately presented their recommendations to both the administration’s hiring committee and their teammates: They all wanted their current assistant, Wielebnicki, to become the head coach.
According to junior Caroline Raquel, every class agreed that Wielebnicki was their preferred candidate for the job. The rising senior class even wrote a letter of recommendation in support of him to supplement the student panel’s recommendation.
In fourth place was Braddak — one player on the panel told the hiring committee that the players would rank Braddak even lower than fourth if that were possible. The consensus of the panel, according to multiple players on it, was that they would be satisfied with any of the other three candidates on the shortlist, but not Braddak.
During the student panel’s interview with Braddak, multiple panelists made note of the “fluff” in Braddak’s answers, as well as his evasion of volleyball-specific answers, focusing instead more on off-court issues. They said that they had reservations about his “volleyball IQ.”
Braddak, for his part, spoke directly to the team’s need to build trust with their next coach, after having experienced so much turnover in recent years, according to a member of the panel.
Penn Athletics announced Braddak’s hiring in a press release in mid-April.
"Iain impressed us as a passionate, energetic educator who is sincere about his focus on the holistic development of young adults," Calhoun wrote in the statement.
“I am thrilled to join this department so dedicated to developing champions holistically,” Braddak echoed at the time. “I want to thank Dr. Calhoun, Scott Ward, and everyone involved in this process for their confidence in my ability to lead this program forward.”
While the players had their doubts, according to several, the team committed to giving Braddak a fair chance.
“We did have high expectations, but we were willing to work for whoever the next coach was,” Caroline Raquel recalled. “We weren’t just looking for Katie [Schumacher-Cawley], we were looking for another competent coach, and we weren’t provided with that.”
Even as the team carried on with its preparations for the season, questions lingered beneath the surface.
First, the question of why Penn Athletics went with Braddak, against the players’ explicit recommendation otherwise. The team was never debriefed after the hiring process, leaving players only to speculate privately as to the potential reasons for Braddak’s hiring. Though the players never discussed the potential reasons openly among themselves in-season, multiple sources indicated that it was a question they could never fully shake from their own minds.
Additionally, the panel of four players was left wondering about the differences between the hiring process that resulted in the appointment of Schumacher-Cawley and the one that brought in Braddak. When Penn Athletics’ initial search to replace Kerry Carr did not yield a satisfactory crop of candidates, the committee opened the search back up for a second round, in which they came across Schumacher-Cawley, according to multiple players.
There was only one round of the search process to replace Schumacher-Cawley in 2018.
Penn Athletics did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the differences between the hirings of Schumacher-Cawley and Braddak.
“I felt like the decision was rushed the second time around,” junior ex-captain Caroline Furrer, who quit the team on April 1, noted of last year’s search process. She also expressed frustration at the committee’s lack of transparency after the hiring.
Despite its concern for the level of care that the administration had taken in deciding to hire Braddak, the team moved toward the season with an optimism that another winning year was in the cards.
They were sorely mistaken. During Braddak’s first season in charge, Penn volleyball lost more games than it had in any season in its 45-year existence, amassing a 6-19 record that left many labelling 2018 the worst season in program history. By November, many players expressed that they were experiencing dread over the thought of playing the sport they loved.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re playing for this ominous cloud that hangs over us rather than [coaches] that really know us individually,” Furrer said before her resignation.
Aside from the alleged incidents that occurred off the court, several players also noted how their initial reservations about his seemingly low “volleyball IQ” were validated over the course of the season. And by the end of the year, some said they felt they became worse despite the numerous hours spent practicing and playing over the previous five months.
“I did a private training session with my previous club coach over [winter] break and he had to tell me that the skills I mastered in my 10 years of club volleyball significantly and visibly deteriorated,” freshman Carmina Raquel wrote in a journal entry shared with the DP in February.
At the season’s conclusion, the team was dealt another blow when its beloved assistant coach Josh Wielebnicki, the players’ top pick for the head coaching job a year ago, left the program. Wielebnicki did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Eight members of the volleyball team — over a third of the players — filed formal grievances with Penn Athletics at the end of the semester. And at least three of the players who filed grievances expressed frustration at Penn Athletics’ lack of action resulting from their complaints.
The complainants said they held off filing their grievances until the conclusion of the season because they did not want to disrupt the team any further in the middle of a tumultuous time. Instead, they handled their complaints in-season by reporting to their sport administrator, Associate Athletic Director Matt Valenti, who serves as the liaison between the team and the athletic administration.
Valenti listened to their complaints at the time, thanking the players for handling things delicately and reassuring them that the administration was addressing their concerns. When the time came to deliver an official response to their formal grievances, however, Valenti told the players that their grievances were “valid, but not actionable,” according to multiple sources.
While the exact protocol followed by the administration to address the grievances is not public — by design, they’ve declared it a “confidential” process — the most concrete result to come of the administration’s response was a team-wide mediation session called restorative justice. During restorative justice, a third-party firm administered a three-hour meeting attended by all 20 players on the team, Braddak, and Valenti.
At this session, which took place in February, the student-athletes finally aired all their grievances with Braddak in front of the entire team, including the coaching staff. Multiple players said they felt double-crossed by Valenti when he criticized how they handled their issues with Braddak in-season. Penn Athletics declined to make Valenti available for comment.
Multiple sources said the team was neither informed of what would occur at restorative justice before the session, nor were they debriefed afterwards to be given an indication of possible next steps.
Various players have had multiple private meetings with Senior Associate Athletic Director Rudy Fuller and Valenti since the end of the season. Despite those meetings, multiple sources feel that Penn Athletics has not given clear or transparent reasons for its support of Braddak.
Caroline Raquel had a meeting with Fuller after being funneled to him in response to her request to meet with Dr. Calhoun. In the meeting, Raquel questioned Penn Athletics’ handling of the players’ grievances as well as its support of Braddak. She recalled that “[Rudy] was like, ‘I hope you understand, when you have your first job, and it’s your first year, and it’s not going well, that your bosses and the people working around you will give you the benefit of the doubt, and give you a chance.’”
“We pride ourselves on the resilience that we’ve had in having three coaches in three years and doing our best to make that work, and [Penn Athletics was] basically like, ‘It’s your fault that it didn’t work,’” Raquel continued.
Instead of finding a satisfying resolution, a large number of women on the team say they’ve found themselves frustrated with the lack of transparency of Penn Athletics and a broader lack of action.
“I would like to see a response from the athletic administration about our situation,” Raquel said, “And I feel, as a senior, who will have dedicated four years to my Penn experience, that I would like a response and would like some action.”
It appears that Penn Athletics' inaction is showing support for Braddak, who seems unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon. While some players have accepted this reality and said they would like to move on from the whole ordeal, others still have found themselves unable to do so. Furrer, one of the team’s stars and captains, was just the highest profile example when she announced her resignation on April 1.
“I feel like I had to take a stand for what I believe in,” Furrer said. “So I didn't quit the team; I quit Penn Athletics and the coaching staff because of a lack of action and support. When eight out of 20 young women file grievances against a coach, there should be action and support — we got neither."