Playing for Keeps

Ben Elder discovered his volleyball club was missing money. So why was he fired?

As is the case with so many sports stories, the end of this one is the least interesting part. Two months ago, Susan Yemm, who had managed the books for the Boulder Volleyball Club for the past couple of years, was arrested by Lafayette police and charged with embezzling from the club. She is alleged to have extended cash advances to the BVC from her personal credit card, and then overpaid herself by $70,000 from club funds.

The case is pending; a court date has been set for next month. Yemm has pleaded not guilty, contending that the missing cash can be explained by simple accounting mistakes. Her husband, who was also interviewed by police, has said that the couple would like the opportunity to pay the club back any money they may have taken in error.

As far as the club itself is concerned, the issue is closed. "We've done all we can do," says Janice Charles, the club's director. She adds that BVC is now focused on the future. After all, there's a club to run, girls to teach, volleyball to play.

Ben Elder wants to know who's playing games with 
volleyball finances.
John Johnston
Ben Elder wants to know who's playing games with volleyball finances.

Ben Elder, the club's former director, isn't quite ready to let go, however. "I'm not done with this club at all," he says. "I have a reputation in volleyball in this area, and somebody's got to step up. It's like being the narc in junior high school. Everyone says, 'I don't like drugs -- but I don't want to get involved.'"

You might say Elder has become a bit obsessed over this, and if you did, you wouldn't be alone. But to the fast-talking chiropractor, what he sees -- or thinks he sees -- is worth a bit of fanaticism: Yet another case of adults taking advantage of kids and their games, of one more children's playground getting overrun by the corrupting influence of big money. In fact, while he was the club's director, it was Elder who first started asking hard questions about Yemm and her bookkeeping.

For his troubles, Elder was summarily fired. "Instead of finding out what the problem was, he created more of a problem," complains Charles. Like so many situations in which parents have an intense interest in their children's activities, facts can easily get trampled in a riot of emotion and perception. So, as Yemm awaits her trial, everyone else is still trying to figure out: Was Ben Elder protecting their kids, or was he just another parental pain in the ass?

In the past couple of decades, club volleyball has skyrocketed. As the local teams have grown, so, too, has their seriousness of purpose. Like club soccer before it, at the uppermost levels, club volleyball has all but eclipsed the school-based sports programs that once provided the forum for competitive children's games.

"If you don't play club volleyball, you can pretty much guarantee that you won't play in college," says Elder, who has two daughters in the system. "Many college coaches don't even want to see tapes of school volleyball."

Some of that can be for the good. Club teams often provide better coaching than their high school counterparts. For talented kids, especially, the clubs are the only place they can develop and play against peak players. And Colorado boasts some of the nation's best clubs. Last year, one Denver-area team, the top eighteen-year-old-girls' squad from Front Range Volleyball Club, won a national title.

Private sports clubs can also have a downside. Unchecked by school rules and oversight, they can be hyper-competitive, driven more by parents who wish to see their children excel than the kids themselves. The clubs are enormously expensive, too, particularly at the top levels. It's not unusual for a family to be asked to cough up as much as $5,000 per six-month season in club fees, equipment and travel costs.

The pressures feed on themselves, and recruiting and retaining players is a real issue. The need to raise more and more money to keep up with other clubs is a constant concern. Traditional fundraisers -- pizza sales, car washes, grocery certificates -- are always good for several hundred bucks. Unfortunately, that buys only a few balls.

So, like a growing number of municipalities, as well as the State of Colorado itself, many teams turn to gambling to make ends meet. A quick scan of bingo licenses at the secretary of state's office shows dozens and dozens of sports clubs that rely on bingo and so-called pull tabs -- lottery-like scratch tickets -- to raise money for their teams.

Hosting bingo games can be incredibly lucrative. It's not unusual for teams to earn tens of thousands of dollars per year through their participation in gambling. Yet there are subtleties to the process that many clubs can't -- or won't -- grasp. State laws, for example, prohibit clubs from paying parents and others who volunteer to work at bingo halls; the enterprise must be entirely voluntary.

But "ninety percent of them are paying parents in one form or another," guesses one state worker very familiar with the games. Some clubs simply reduce a family's club fees. Others have gone so far as to set up separate accounts for parents who help out; several have been found "earning" $10,000 or more per year. All of it is illegal, although the odds of getting caught by a state office with five inspectors, charged with overseeing thousands and thousands of games per year, is slight.

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