When Victoria Allred was awarded a full golf scholarship to East Carolina in 2014, the Winston-Salem native was elated, having achieved a personal goal.
When it all turned nightmarish for her, when a back injury affected her ability to play and a disbelieving coach — in her opinion — wanted her gone from the program and her scholarship back, Allred believed she had nowhere to turn, no way to fully air her grievances, no process for resolving what became a messy, at times contentious situation.
Allred, 22, would stay at ECU, although not on the women's golf team. She would use the scholarship to finish degree work in three majors, graduating in May with a 3.78 grade-point average.
But Allred and her family also became strong advocates in pushing for the recent passage of a bill in the North Carolina legislature that includes a Fair Treatment of College Athletes provision and could lead to broader protections for athletes. It creates a commission to study and assess the concerns of college student-athletes in the state such as Allred, who personally lobbied legislators along with her father, Jay Allred.
The Allreds hope it will lead to a bill of rights for athletes and a code of conduct for college coaches. It may result in compensation for athletes, could involve a discussion of long-term treatment for injured athletes and address such issues as allowing athletes to have legal representation and financial advisers.
"It’s incredible, the steps North Carolina is taking to protect its student-athletes," Victoria Allred said in an interview. "I’m really hoping this can push other state legislatures to push for this as well, so that will push the NCAA to pass proper legislation to protect their student-athletes, which they are failing to right now."
State Sen. Jeffrey Tarte, a Mecklenburg Republican, was one of the bill's sponsors and is eager to be a member of the study commission. In a recent meeting with Allred in his legislative office, Tarte told her, "You're kind of going to be our poster child for everything that's wrong ... and you're not an anomaly. That's the sad part."
Tarte said the commission would need to "get all the stakeholders around the table" to discuss the issues and possible reforms — presidents and chancellors, athletes, athletic directors, conference and NCAA representatives.
"But that's a part of the reason for the bill," Tarte said. "If you have no voice and you're a captive ... It comes as close to modern-day slavery as it can be, right?" ... This needs to be far-reaching, far-sweeping, getting at facts and background. ...
"The problem with the NCAA, at least the outside perception, is that they've created this monopoly of a business enterprise and they've quit running it in the interest of student-athletes but instead in the interest of protecting this business enterprise. .... If this (commission) functions well, this will shed light on the ugly part of sports, in a sense, controlled by this. ... It's to identify what the issues are and then ... where are the reforms that have to take place to correct those?"
Tarte said any recommendations needed to be fair solutions for both the athletes and the universities. "But the abuses need to come to a screeching halt," he said.
Tarte said North Carolina could be trendsetter, that other states could follow with similar legislation and laws. Senate Bill 335, which included Fair Treatment of College Athletes, became state law Tuesday. The legislative committee is to complete its study by March 2019.
“If I was a student-athlete going through the recruiting process and I saw the state of North Carolina was trying to protect their student-athletes, I would be more encouraged to go to a North Carolina school instead of a state without this legislation," Victoria Allred said.
Allred played golf for her father at Reagan High School outside Winston-Salem and was the 2011 North Carolina 4A state champion. Awarded a four-year scholarship at East Carolina, she entered ECU in the fall of 2014 and competed as a freshman for ECU coach Kevin Williams.
After her freshman year, Allred injured her lower back while playing in the N.C. Women’s Amateur. She said she was diagnosed at Novant Medical Forsyth Medical Center with a sacroiliac joint (SI) injury of the lower back that would require six months of rest and recovery.
“I bring it to ECU in August (2015) and they say,‘This means nothing to us, we’re going to do our own evaluation and take conservative measures,’ “she said.
Allred said she underwent an MRI in November 2015 in Greenville.. "They said. 'We can't find anything wrong with you,' " she said.
She continued to practice and play in pain in the spring as a sophomore, saying, “My whole sophomore year Advil was another food group for me, just to try and get through it.. The frustrating thing was they weren’t listening to me. I’d say it hurts and they told me I was faking an injury because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”
Allred said she then was cut from the team by Williams after her sophomore year with the explanation she was not "good enough.”
“But he couldn’t take away my scholarship,” she said.
Allred said she considered transferring but couldn’t find a school that could offer the same kind of financial scholarship support. And she was doing well in school at ECU and enrolled in the school’s honors college.
“My coach (Williams) said I was spending too much time on my homework,” Allred said. “He said, ’I hate to say it but D-1 (Division I) means your sport comes first.’ ”
Allred decided to stay her last two years at ECU on the scholarship despite being cut from the team, saying Williams “put all his chips in and I called his bluff.” She was not allowed to use the golf facilities available to the golf team or the athletic academic facility, and was shunned by most of her former teammates.
“It was very frustrating,” she said. “My whole life I prepared to be a D-1 golfer. I played golf since I was 2. All of a sudden it was taken away from me.”
Asked to respond to the claims of Allred and her father, ECU issued a statement that said, in part:
"East Carolina University has completed a thorough review of the allegations made by Victoria Allred, former women’s golf student-athlete who graduated from ECU in Spring 2018, against the university and its staff.
"Over several months earlier this year, the Office of Internal Audit conducted a confidential investigation of the allegations made by Ms. Allred and found no evidence that Ms. Allred was mistreated or that any applicable University policies, rules or regulations were violated."
Williams, the golf coach, declined to comment.
After being cut from the team, Allred went her own way, concentrating on her studies, majoring in mathematics, economics and political science. She said she “maxed out” on academic hours after leaving the golf team. She also underwent counseling on campus, she said.
Allred said she filed a complaint with the school in May 2016. She said she contacted the NCAA and the American Athletic Conference, saying, "They didn't do anything. ... There's no place for an athlete to go and have their voice heard. Mine was not heard."
Allred had surgery this January — radiofrequency ablation (RFA), often known as “burning the nerves” — that eased the pain, and she has been able to play golf again. She will attend Clemson in the fall to begin doctorate work in economics.
“It’s hard not to feel hurt,” she said. “My goal was to win a team NCAA championship. My whole life revolved around golf and I was known as ‘the golfer’ and then all of a sudden that part of my identity was stripped away over something I had no control over.”
Jay Allred, publisher of Triad Golf Today and Triangle Golf Today, said he would like to see independent investigations held when there are serious complaints made by athletes.
“It’s very negative toward the university for this stuff to come out,” he said. “There’s an incentive for them to protect the university. We have to have someone out here protecting the students. … You can’t say they are ‘students first’ and then not put them first.
“Where do you go to get somebody to enforce the university and athletic department policies? The protections are not there.”
The athlete protections provision of Senate Bill 335 was endorsed by the ECU Student Government Association, which stressed “the need for an established, UNC systemwide support structure for our hard-working and self-sacrificing student-athletes.”
The Allreds weren’t the only ones contacting legislators to support the bill. Nicole and Arthur Yarbrough of Willow Spring urged passage because of the experience of their son, Nick, as a member of the Campbell University baseball team.
In a letter to Sen. Chad Barefoot, Nicole Yarbrough said Nick suffered a knee injury Oct. 1, 2016 and “had to beg for medical care.” She wrote: “After being told for approximately 3 weeks they did not have time to schedule an appointment for an MRI he finally got an appointment 23 days later. It took 30 days to see a doctor.”
Yarbrough also wrote that three Campbell coaches “were berating, threatening and were the cause of a lot of these injuries.”
Yarbrough said the family was told the school attorney was investigating her son’s matter. She said she sent a followup email to the Campbell president and athletic director but it was not answered.
Nick Yarbrough, 22, left the baseball team because of knee pain. Nicole Yarbrough wrote.
“These young athletes really need an advocate,” she wrote. “Fortunately for our family, we were financially able to pay for our son to attend school without debt. That is not the case for a lot of these families therefore their parents are afraid to advocate for them.”
Campbell official Haven Hottel said the university could not comment on Nick Yarbrough, citing federal student privacy laws. She said university policy was that any complaint received by a faculty or staff member be directed to the university Title IX coordinator.
"These matters are investigated in a timely manner. All parties have a right to appeal," Hottel said by email.
Hottel, assistant vice president for communications and marketing, also said: "Campbell University places the highest value on the safety of our students and student athletes. We have a qualified team of certified athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, and team doctors employed through our Campbell University School of Medicine, which supervises the training and development of our student athletes. We are fully compliant with NCAA guidelines. "
Nicole Yarbrough found fault with the Campbell response.
"When they said he had a right to an appeal, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way," she said in an interview. "Nick is very mature but he was also 20 years old at the time, and I do not know how a 20-year-old had the experience to advocate for himself against a coach who was a bully and an institution that's only out to protect their own interests."
Nick Yarbrough remained at Campbell after leaving the baseball team. He graduated this year with honors, Nicole Yarbrough said.