Former Grays Harbor head volleyball coach Christine Nelson, middle, was found to be in violation of NWAC rules regarding benefits to players according to an internal investigation concluded on March 1. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Former Grays Harbor head volleyball coach Christine Nelson, middle, was found to be in violation of NWAC rules regarding benefits to players according to an internal investigation concluded on March 1. (Hasani Grayson | Grays Harbor News Group)

Grays Habor fined, on probation after probe uncovers benefits violations

Grays Harbor College volleyball coach Christine Nelson has resigned after an internal investigation found she provided extra benefits to members of the Chokers volleyball team.

Grays Harbor began looking into Northwest Athletic Conference rules violations on Jan. 25 and closed its internal investigation on March 1 after reporting its findings to the NWAC.

A letter dated March 1, 2019 from Grays Harbor College Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Jennifer Alt addressed to NWAC Executive Director Marco Azurdia, Nelson was found to be in violation of Article IV Athletic Grant-in-aid section 1.E of the NWAC Conference Code Book and Sports SOPS, which deals with providing extra benefits to student-athletes.

Nelson was found to have furnished at least one player’s apartment with pots and pans, a sofa, an entertainment center, a TV, bed and kitchen table.

Nelson also provided a $750 loan to a volleyball player to help her pay rent.

In addition to assisting with living expenses, Nelson also employed Grays Harbor volleyball players with a youth volleyball club Nelson owned as well as loaning her vehicle out to players on a regular basis.

Grays Harbor College’s human resources department conducted 11 interviews as part of its internal investigation, including Nelson, multiple current and former Grays Harbor coaches, an instructor and three student-athletes that played for Nelson.

According to Alt’s letter regarding the investigation’s conclusions, Nelson “substantiated the above findings during her interview.”

Nelson, Sutera resign following investigation

Nelson resigned her position as volleyball coach March 7 in order take a job as Rogue Community College’s head volleyball coach. The former Chokers coach will remain in her role as student support specialist at Grays Harbor College through May 3.

Grays Harbor Athletic Director Tom Sutera also handed in his resignation in late March. Sutera declined to comment on the investigation or the reasons for his resignation.

According to Article IV, Section E of the NWAC code book, the rule on improper benefits can apply to a school or someone representing the interests of the athletic program. It is a violation of that code to provide free or reduced housing, food, transportation, school supplies and other benefits to student-athletes that are not available to the general student body population.

Azurdia said the Chokers volleyball program will be put on probation for two years as part of the school’s punishment. Azurdia also said that representatives from the NWAC will visit the Grays Harbor campus twice a year during the probationary period.

The school was also fined $1,400 and will be subject to an auditing process where the college will have to regularly submit records to ensure students-athletes are not receiving improper benefits in terms of finances or academics.

Nelson will not be subject to fines, but Azurdia said the conference will be keeping a close eye on her to make sure she complies with NWAC rules after she takes over the head coaching position at Rogue Community College, which also competes in the NWAC.

“There have been some steps that are going to be in place that, if Christine is going to be working in the NWAC, we’ll have those things in place for her to follow,” he said. “Has she been fined? No. But there are steps in place and expectations that we have.”

Rogue CC administrators were aware of Grays Harbor College’s internal investigation into Nelson when they interviewed her for the head volleyball coach position before hiring her.

Rogue Athletic Director Darren Van Lehn said that Nelson informed Rogue’s athletic department of the investigation, which helped the school feel comfortable hiring her.

“We understand what happened with Grays Harbor and NWAC, but she was open and honest with us. She was forthcoming with it and we clearly understand that she violated boundaries that coaches and athletes are supposed to have,” he said. “NWAC has sanctioned her and we understand the sanctions. Other than that, we don’t have much we can say about the Grays Harbor stuff.”

Nelson could not be reached for comment but defended her actions when she was interviewed by Grays Harbor during its internal investigation.

Nelson said that coaches would often provide furniture to student-athletes in need, causing her to believe that the practice didn’t violate any NWAC rules.

“I wasn’t aware that it was illegal because it’s been something that has been known and out in the open, by other coaches and other administration,” she said during her interview with Grays Harbor investigators.

It is unclear if Nelson’s resignation was related to the sanctions faced by the school.

“The college made no decision relating to that,” Alt said. “If there is (a correlation between the investigation and her resignation), it would have been something that Christine decided on her own.”

Alt also mentioned that the college did not get a chance to consider its own disciplinary action against Nelson or Sutera since they resigned before those discussions could take place.

Additional information included in Alt’s letter described that Sutera “was aware of an old couch being passed around from year to year” and that at one point Sutera “helped deliver it.”

The letter also states that Sutera fixed an old TV and then gave it to a student and also “received reports that college volleyball players had been driving Ms. Nelson’s car.”

Though Grays Harbor will be dealing with punishment from the NWAC for the next two years, Grays Harbor College President Jim Minkler believes that Nelson ultimately had good intentions.

“Coaches want their student-athletes to do well. A lot of student-athletes come to us and there are things that happen. Their cars break down, they need help with housing and a number of other things,” he said. “I know there were some of those issues of basically being a good Samaritan. Sometimes it’s out of the kindness of their heart that they are trying to help students.”

According to Azurdia, The NWAC will typically give input as to who is investigating a rule violation, but doesn’t typically send its personnel to the campus if the conference feels the report it receives is comprehensive.

Grays Harbor conducted interviews with volleyball players and members of the athletic department staff as part of its investigation.

Azurdia felt confident that the findings in the report he received represented the full extent of the violations.

“We don’t have the wherewithal to hire third-party investigators, so in a lot of respects, depending on the specific violation we will rely on a self report. (Grays Harbor College administrators) chose to do the investigation. They didn’t have to come forward,” he said. “I think that’s another thing we take a look at. If people are willing to come forward, that’s one step in the right direction.”

Possible changes ahead in athletic department

In addition to the new guidelines, the NWAC has imposed on Grays Harbor College, the school’s athletic department is looking to make some permanent changes as well.

The school is currently without an assistant athletic director as Nelson’s role also included assisting student athletes with their class schedules and helping the athletic department with compliance.

Alt said the school is looking into rearranging the structure of the athletic department to improve communication within the department and prevent rules violations going forward.

“We’re looking at whether or not we have the right structure, whether we need to figure out different forms of positions,” she said. “(Nelson’s) position was a success coach position, but she was also doing a lot of eligibility and compliance. We’re looking at that to see if that’s more of an assistant athletic director role. We’re just trying to examine the structure of the whole department at this time.”

Azurdia isn’t too concerned regarding Grays Harbor College’s ability to comply with NWAC rules moving forward as he noted that the school hasn’t violated any conference rules in the past.

However, he did note that stiffer penalties will be levied against the college if it is not compliant with NWAC rules during its two-year probation.

“If something else was to happen in the meantime while they are on probation, then you can figure out that amps up some things here,” he said.