Playing for Keeps
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, 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.
A bigger potential problem, however, is that bingo is a cash enterprise. On a busy night, it's not unusual for volunteers from a nonprofit organization to handle thousands of dollars. While detailed accounting of proceeds is required, manipulation of the money trail is not difficult, and the greenbacks can offer a temptation that is difficult to resist.
To some, relying on gambling to raise money for sports also poses a very real ethical dilemma. "My daughter's softball team hosts a bingo game in Commerce City," says Barry Janzen, who is also a volleyball coach. "You see what people go through in pull-tabs alone -- oh, my God! We use the money for van rentals, hotels -- all our travel costs. Our team went to the nationals in Virginia, and the week was paid for entirely by bingo.
"Still," he adds. "I'm not sure I like it. Smoke-filled rooms and gambling and children's sports teams: It's a strange marriage."
Elder says it was exactly such ambivalence that he ran into at the Boulder Volleyball Club. The atmosphere inside club sports, he says, is ripe for exploitation precisely because the world of kids' athletics has become so competitive. In addition to being organizational transients -- most families join the clubs only as long as it takes for their kids to pass through -- parents whose kids take the sport seriously are not thrilled about the idea of rocking the boat, for fear of compromising their child's experience.
"Your kid wants to play volleyball, and there are a limited number of clubs and only a limited number of kids who are allowed to play, particularly on the top teams," Elder explains. "But if you're a troublemaker, your kids aren't going to play." The upshot, he says, is that given the choice of pressing for needed changes or looking the other way, most parents choose simply to ignore problems, hoping the difficulties cause minimal disruption until their family passes through the club.
"The complacency of many parents is incredible," agrees Susan Cancilla, director of the competing Flatirons Volleyball Club and a former assistant business manager for the Boulder Volleyball Club. "They're willing to sit back and let things happen."
Elder was asked about managing the Boulder club in late winter 2001. Although his girls were by then heavily involved in the sport, it wasn't the only reason he was approached. Elder had his own close ties to the game. A former serious player and coach, he'd co-authored a book on "jump-training" for volleyball with an Olympic gold medalist. He had also served as medical director for the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach tournaments when they were played in Boulder.
Elder was hired as the BVC's director that May. He says one of his primary directives was to pull the club back to a more solid financial footing. Elder was told that the Boulder club was more than $18,000 in debt when he accepted the job. As a result, he agreed to defer his $15,000 annual salary until the BVC climbed back into the black.
He explains how all of that changed when a number of parents began complaining to him about what appeared to be financial disconnects. At one match in early 2002, he was confronted by about twenty parents angry over what they thought was a suspicious lack of money in the club's coffers.
Janzen, who at the time was an active coach, was also puzzled. "Our teams played in T-shirts," he says. "I had thought, with the fees we're paying, we should've had nicer uniforms and equipment."
The critics seemed especially curious about bingo proceeds. While bingo nights seemed to be very busy, club officials were reporting that the game earned a mere $5,000 a year for the volleyball club. And none of the bingo money, Elder says, was being used to defray the costs to BVC families, which are among the highest in the area.
Yemm was a natural target for parents' suspicions. After all, she kept the books. But it was particularly true because she'd been hired by the BVC under a cloud. LaRae Musselman, the former business manager for the club, recalls that she'd heard rumors about Yemm and missing money from a previous job as the keeper of the books at Norco, the Northern Colorado Volleyball Club. However, Musselman says she was assured by BVC boardmembers that the tales were lies and personal sour grapes.
Still, hindsight is always filled with impossible clarity, and, says Elder, "I never thought for one second that there was anything improper going on." Rather, he began focusing his attention on pressuring parents to pay their outstanding bills, which represented thousands of dollars in uncollected income for the club.
By last summer, though, Elder had heard enough rumblings of dissatisfaction from parents that he decided to see for himself what was happening. One Friday night in late August, he paid a visit to a club bingo game, at the Bingo Mine in Lafayette. There, he says, the owner of the hall showed him documents suggesting that instead of earning $5,000 a year, the Boulder organization was actually showing a profit of closer to $66,000 in 2001 and about $32,000 up to that point in 2002. And that didn't include pull-tabs.
Intrigued, he stopped by the secretary of state's office a few days later. "Both my wife, Julie, and I have consulted for the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, so we know the investigative process," he says. Looking through the club's financial bingo records, he couldn't help noticing that the proceeds were being used to pay salaries for Yemm and others.
At first, he was personally insulted. "When I found they were taking this money and not paying me my salary, that's when I started getting mad," he says. But the records also fired wider suspicions: Weren't the steep club dues the parents paid -- about $273,000 in all for the 2001/2002 season -- supposed to cover administrative costs such as salaries?
The secretary of state's office employs five bingo inspectors who look for suspicious activity among its 1,200-odd bingo and raffle licensees. Elder asked to speak to one of them. He was introduced to Mary Beth Chandler. According to Elder, she was not surprised to hear the subject of his inquiry. "She told me she'd been watching the BVC for a while," he recalls. (Chandler, who last week quit the secretary of state's office to take another job, declined to talk to Westword.)
In the first week of September, Elder called a board meeting to reveal the results of his digging. He also brought Chandler along with him to bolster his case. But instead of thanking him, Elder says, "they were actually pissed at me for uncovering this stuff. The club really turned on me."
"As normal people, we thought that if you find somebody stealing money, you fire her," adds Julie. "We didn't expect opposition from the board and a cover-up."
But, say the Elders, that's what they got. On September 17 of last year, they took their suspicions to the Lafayette Police Department, where they spent two hours explaining their concerns to a detective. He told them to collect the documents and bring them in.
That soon became impossible: Elder says boardmembers cut him off from looking at financial statements. The dispute split the club. Some felt Elder was being too abrasive, chasing ghosts. Others thought the club's administration was behaving suspiciously. Acting secretively and deflecting hard questions "is normal operating procedure there," says Susan Cancilla, the former business-office assistant. "I wasn't comfortable with the way they did things. And it got progressively worse."
Adds Janzen, the former coach: "There are some people who just tend to circle the wagons -- or, like a turtle, pull inside their shell and see who's for us and who's against us."
Whispers that Elder was intentionally trying to bring down the BVC and start his own volleyball club began circulating. He was fired as director of the club on October 3, 2002.
"He was let go due to performance; he was not doing what he was supposed to do," explains BVC director Charles. "He said there was a problem, but instead of going to find out what the problem was, he caused more of a problem."
Yemm was fired about the same time as Elder. Charles insists that Elder had little, if anything, to do with her termination and subsequent arrest. "It all would have come out," she says. "The board knew there was a problem; we suspected problems."
"That's a bunch of crap," Elder responds. "These people would have shoved it under the carpet in a second. As soon as I started looking into this, they fired me." In mid-October, Elder's lawyer fired off a letter threatening to sue the club for wrongful termination.
A cursory comparison of chronologies appears to favor Elder's version of events. Charles recalls that the club started looking into allegations of Yemm's questionable books "in September or October" -- well after Elder brought the issue to the BVC's attention. She says the club went to the secretary of state's office "in October of last year to ask for help." That's two months after the Elders contacted Chandler. Finally, the club officially filed charges against Yemm on December 20 -- a full three months after Elder stopped by the police department.
A check of bingo records at the secretary of state's office indicates that instead of a $5,000 annual profit, the Boulder Volleyball Club in fact had net earnings from bingo of about $68,000 in 2001 and more than $50,000 in 2002. Much of it seems to have been used to pay salaries to club administrators or to pay costs such as travel expenses. Which, says Elder, is the whole point.
"They say that they pay legitimate club-related expenses out of the bingo account, but they are collecting money from parents to pay these same expenses," he says. "This is their big scam. If they pay for a travel trip out of bingo but still charge parents to send their kids on the same trip and collect it, where does the extra money go?"
Charles dismisses Elder's claims, contending that her club is completely clean: "We have nothing to hide." Elder, however, says he is not quite done with the Boulder Volleyball Club. Although he has already incurred several thousand dollars' worth of legal expenses, he's prepared to rack up more -- both in a forthcoming wrongful-termination suit and as a promise to get to the bottom of the volleyball club's finances.
"It's hard to do this," Elder says, "but what am I going to tell my own girls? That people are stealing from me and I'm just going to sit back and take it? Where are the ethics here? They just want this to go away. But, no -- it's not going to go away."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.