It’s been close to two years since Taylor Williams rolled her ankle during a preseason Oregon volleyball practice in August 2021, and 17 months since she had surgery to repair multiple torn ligaments.
Her ankle still isn’t entirely pain free. She no longer has a full range of motion. Her balance remains untrustworthy at times, and she certainly isn’t running or jumping.
Williams was a top-25 national recruit and a popular local all-state standout from Churchill High School who chose to stay home and play for the Ducks’ highly regarded volleyball program. The senior’s time at Oregon ended this month when she finished her undergraduate degree.
Her time as a student-athlete, however, ended long ago.
Williams made allegations in spring 2022 that she was played when she wasn’t healthy, misled by Oregon on the severity of her injury, then was pressured by coach Matt Ulmer to either transfer or medically retire using tactics that made her feel harassed, mentally abused and ostracized by her Oregon teammates.
Her injury and Ulmer’s alleged pressure to medically retire or leave the program spotlight the tension between athletes’ rights while injured and coaches’ need to field a competitive team.
Oregon launches independent investigation after allegations
Williams’ allegations led to an independent investigation that was finalized in July 2022. The report did not make recommendations or determine whether the underlying facts violated UO policies, expectations or contract terms.
Williams and her parents said the results left them unsatisfied.
They said those feelings intensified in December when Ulmer was given a contract extension through 2027. His annual pay also increased from $175,000 in 2022 to $250,000 in 2023 after the Ducks went 26-6 last fall and came within one point of advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
The Williams family wants someone to be held accountable for the alleged mistreatment of Taylor Williams.
Instead, Oregon has moved on.
Requests to speak with members of the volleyball program, including Ulmer and his assistants, medical staff and athletic administration, were all denied.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes is our highest priority at the University of Oregon,” Jimmy Stanton, the senior associate athletic director in charge of communications, wrote in an email. “Our medical team provides first-class care and works in close consultation with the student-athlete on any decision involving returning to activity. Student-athletes are never cleared if they are physically unable to participate.”
Williams said that statement doesn’t sync up with the final months of her volleyball career.
Findings of the investigation into Taylor Williams’ allegations
Oregon hired Eugene law firm Watkinson Laird Rubenstein in the spring of 2022 to perform an independent review of Williams’ allegations, with its final report limited to findings of fact related to those complaints. Using those parameters, the investigation was conducted by Missy Matella, then a lawyer at WLR and a former lawyer in the UO general counsel’s office who now works for the University of California-Berkeley.
Matella interviewed Williams, Ulmer, assistant coach Erika Dillard, several members of the Oregon medical staff, athletic department officials and faculty athletics representative Josh Gordon. She did not talk with any of Williams’ former teammates.
Matella determined it was “more likely than not” that Ulmer exerted pressure on Williams to medically retire after she repeatedly said she didn’t want to so he could regain her scholarship, and made statements implying Williams’ teammates would like her more if she medically retired.
The investigation also concluded the facts didn’t support Williams’ allegation that her injury was mishandled by the coaching or medical staff.
The 6-foot-3 outside hitter contends her volleyball career likely ended prematurely because of the alleged mishandling and resulted in a surgically reconstructed ankle that’s held together by five pins.
“I would love to play again. I would love to,” said Williams, who has two years’ eligibility remaining. “I don’t know if my ankle can handle that. I don’t know if anywhere would even take me.”
Williams says Oregon coaches said she was ‘playing really well’
Williams’ ankle was injured when she landed on a teammate’s foot during a blocking drill. She said the pain was excruciating. She collapsed to the floor, clutched her ankle and began to sob.
She said she instantly knew the start to her junior season was going to be delayed but had no clue the injury also was the beginning of the end of an Oregon career.
Ranked 23rd overall by PrepVolleyball.com, Williams was the Ducks’ top recruit in the class of 2019.
Williams also was a legacy recruit for Oregon, eager to carry on her family’s history of athletic success as a Duck. Her father, Larry Williams, and uncle, Spencer Williams, were track standouts at Oregon beginning in the late 1980s.
After playing in a reserve role her first two seasons, Williams said her abilities had improved heading into the 2021 fall season and she was receiving positive feedback from the coaching staff.
“They were telling me I was playing really well and they were happy with my performance,” she said. “They were telling me that I was going to get the opportunity to really play for a starting position.”
Oregon volleyball’s medical staff diagnosed injury as a sprain
The team’s medical staff diagnosed the injury as a sprain and told Williams to regularly ice her ankle and elevate her leg. She was given crutches and a walking boot.
Williams was still in her boot and had practiced a couple of times in a limited capacity when she said she was asked to play Sept. 16 against Howard during a road trip to Washington, D.C.
“I was limping everywhere,” she said. “They didn’t even look at it. I took my boot off for the game and then put it back on after the game.”
Williams also played the following day against Harvard, but said she was pulled from the match when it was obvious she was struggling to move around the court.
“Gotta keep working to get healthy,” Ulmer told Williams in a series of text messages included in Matella’s report detailing a back-and-forth about why she didn’t finish the match against Harvard. “If you’re not moving well then I’m not risking u get more hurt.”
Williams is told to get an MRI
Williams continued to rehab and didn’t play in Oregon’s next eight matches. She said she asked Ulmer in mid-October about the possibility of taking a medical redshirt season to get healthy without the pressure of trying to get back on the court.
Williams said she was told to get an MRI and was sent to see Dr. Lyle Jackson, an orthopedic surgeon at Slocum Center for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Eugene.
When the MRI results came in Williams said Dr. Jackson told her she wouldn’t do any more damage by playing through the injury. With that diagnosis, Williams was immediately cleared by the Oregon training staff and she played in a match against Washington State two days later.
“I was excited because I felt like I was getting a chance to go out there and play volleyball,” Williams said. “But it was also pretty weird because based on the pain in my ankle, it was invalidating.”
She said despite the reassurance she was good to play, her ankle deteriorated and the pain got worse as she participated in nine of the Ducks’ next 11 matches.
By the time she played for the last time — a one-set performance against Washington in Seattle on Nov. 21, 2021 — Williams said she could barely jump, her foot dragged when she walked, the arch in her foot had fallen and she was taking up to 15 ibuprofen pills a day to deal with the pain.
“It just got to the point I wasn’t having any fun with it,” she said. “I’m hurting, I can’t seem to get anybody to pay attention to the fact that I’m hurting, and that last warm-up at Washington was probably worse than when I first started playing after it was injured.”
‘Why is this kid on the floor?’
After the match against the Huskies, Williams and her parents requested to see the MRI report.
They said they were shocked to read Williams had a complete tear of the anterior talofibular ligament, a complete tear of the deltoid ligament, a partial tear of the calcaneofibular ligament and a high-grade partial tear of the flexor retinaculum. All are indicators of a Grade 3 ankle sprain, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. It was an injury that could take as long as 12 weeks to heal.
“I’m just a mom, but I’m reading severed ligament, partially torn ligament, completely severed ligament and I’m like, ‘Why is this kid on the floor?’” Michelle Williams said. “The whole time we’re trusting their judgment from this MRI from a month and a half ago and we’re telling our kid, ‘You’re just going to have to suck it up, it’s just a sprained ankle.’ Never in my wildest dreams …”
Potential for surgery is suggested
On Dec. 10, Williams and her parents met with Jackson and Erica Bellamy, the team’s trainer, and it was then that the potential for surgery was first suggested, Taylor Williams said.
The Williams said it seemed odd that two months earlier, Williams’ injury wasn’t severe enough to keep her from playing, but now it was being suggested she get surgery.
Requests by The Register-Guard to speak with Jackson were not returned.
Dr. Craig Davidson, Oregon’s director of athletic medicine, told Matella during her investigation it’s not uncommon for athletes to play through injuries like ankle sprains and shoulder tears and then have surgery when the season ends. The injury may remain painful and symptomatic, but it won’t get worse. Trainers depend heavily on athletes’ reporting how they’re feeling when they are injured.
Bellamy told Matella she thought she had been getting good information from Williams throughout the season and that Williams told her she was able to play and wanted to play.
Bellamy said if she had known Williams was taking so much ibuprofen each day, she would’ve altered her course of action.
Bellamy also defended Ulmer’s decision to play Williams. The coach doesn’t decide who is medically cleared to play, she said. That’s the role of the medical staff, which is independent of the team and files weekly reports on player availability.
Williams’ parents said that account does not match what they could see watching their daughter from the stands or on TV. She was struggling during matches and they said they wondered why no one was stepping in to keep her off the court, despite her desire to play.
“She was digressing,” Larry Williams said. “Even watching her play we could see she was dipping her toe, skipping it off the floor and kind of stumbling just running across the floor. It wasn’t like she was doing something tricky, but just a forward run.”
‘I didn’t have a decision to make’
Williams said she was frustrated when the season ended, but was stunned when she met with Ulmer and assistant coach Dillard on Dec. 17, 2021, for her annual end-of-season review and told she should transfer out of the program.
“They said my stats from the season weren’t good enough,” said Williams, who averaged 1.23 kills, .52 digs and .32 blocks per set in 11 matches.
Williams said the request shook her so much she skipped the team holiday party that evening and was absent when Ulmer announced to the players there that Williams “had a decision to make,” according to the investigative report.
Williams said she thought that was a power play by Ulmer to force her hand to either accept his transfer request or return to a group of teammates that now wasn’t sure if she was committed.
“I was very upset when I heard that because, one, I didn’t have a decision to make. I was waiting to hear back if I needed surgery. Was I going to put my name in the transfer portal while waiting to get surgery and don’t know how long I’m going to be out for? Who would take me?” Williams said. “So him saying to the girls that I had a decision to make made it look like I wasn’t fully invested in the team after I had given so much. It was really upsetting for me.”
She said she called Ulmer and asked him why he said that.
Ulmer told Matella he asked Williams to transfer because he wanted to give her a clear picture of her standing on the team and her options going forward. If Williams wanted more playing time, she would have a better chance of finding it elsewhere, he said.
Williams does not enter transfer portal
Williams didn’t enter the transfer portal — which was her right as a scholarship player — and in late January, a doctor independent of the athletic department performed surgery on her ankle.
Williams said she was told her recovery could take nearly a year and sideline her for the 2022 season.
In the weeks before surgery, Williams said she started to feel like an outcast on the team, with few teammates talking to her during offseason workouts. When she returned to offseason practices, her left leg immobilized and using a scooter to wheel around, she said she was met with cold indifference.
“I learned that those girls were teammates and not friends, and that was a really harsh reality,” Williams said. “Matt wants to preach this, ‘We are family’ and I felt I had made really solid friendships with these girls. Although I wasn’t as close as I am with some of my other friends, I still felt they would want to see the best for me. So that was a really hard thing to realize.”
Williams accused Ulmer of orchestrating that unwelcoming environment in an effort to get her to transfer. Matella concluded there was not sufficient evidence to support that allegation.
Alleged pressure to medically retire or transfer
During a series of closed-door meetings that began in late February with Ulmer and Dillard, Williams said she was pressured to transfer or medically retire or she would be removed from the team.
Oregon would’ve gotten Williams’ scholarship back under the first two options, and allowed the program to recruit another player for the upcoming season. NCAA women’s volleyball teams are limited to 12 scholarship players each season.
Williams said she didn’t feel she was in a position to transfer because she was recovering from surgery and didn’t know if she would be able to play again, which made the permanence of medical retirement seem unnecessary.
When a player medically retires, they surrender their ability to play in the NCAA. They remain financially on scholarship but no longer count against the team’s scholarship limit.
“Every day that I drove her (to practice after surgery), it was like I was taking my daughter to her abuse appointment,” Michelle Williams said. “Every time I picked her up afterwards, she was distraught, she was in tears and she would say, ‘Just drive, go.’ She was there for three weeks and he had pulled her into three closed-door meetings.”
The last of those meetings was on March 3, 2022, and included Larry Williams.
“I told (Ulmer) he’s acting like a spoiled kid that has broken his toy and now he wants to go get a new one,” Larry Williams said. “Tay played injured for a whole year and had to have surgery. If she had been allowed to heal, she would be healthy come next season.”
Williams said he “made it very clear these conversations needed to stop.”
A final phone call with Oregon coach Matt Ulmer
The next day, March 4, Taylor Williams and Ulmer had a phone conversation that Williams recorded and provided to Matella. During the call, Ulmer again told Williams she should medically retire or she would be removed from the team.
“So I’m being kicked off the team because I won’t medical, which would benefit the team?” Williams asked.
“No, I think it’s lot deeper than that,” Ulmer was recorded saying. “I think it’s I’m trying to figure out where you are trying to benefit the group. I’m trying to figure out where you are putting your team first. I’m trying to figure out where I trust you. Quite honestly, I don’t, you know? I don’t trust you. I feel like I gave you an out. I feel like it was generous.”
‘The medical (retirement) is the way for us to get the money back’
Matella said it was also during this conversation, at times heated and emotional, that Ulmer implied Williams’ teammates would like her again if she gave up her scholarship.
“The medical (retirement) is the way for us to get the money back,” Ulmer said. “… and what I truly believe is that your teammates would appreciate you making that sacrifice for them so that they can have a better shot. … I think when you’re kind of holding that position hostage, that’s hard for them.”
After that conversation, Williams said she stopped participating in all team activities and took her complaints first to Gordon, the faculty athletic rep, and then to a university ombudsman, ultimately leading to the Matella investigation.
Williams was officially listed on the roster for the 2022 season but never attended a match.
“All along the way it was their needs, their needs, their needs and the student athlete gets what they get, and when they’re broken, they just go get another one,” Larry Williams said.
‘Hard to find a doctor to say you’re OK’
Ulmer’s frustrations appear to stem from the idea Williams was planning to leave Oregon after her senior season in 2022 and upon graduation to get a master’s degree elsewhere — which Williams has said was true.
Ulmer didn’t understand why she wouldn’t take the medical retirement option if she wasn’t able to play in 2022. Williams would’ve maintained the financial benefits of the scholarship and still had access to treatment facilities as she rehabbed.
Medical retirements also are reversible if the player can get cleared by a doctor.
“I’m trying to figure out why you wouldn’t want to go this route,” Ulmer asked Williams. “I understand that word retirement is scary, but the coach at the next school trying to recruit you, they can understand that you would finish your undergrad here, right, you worked to get healthy, you worked to come back, and now you have two years to go play for them free and clear and you did what was best for the team. I think any coach can absolutely understand that and appreciate that.
“If you’re not gonna play in your last year, why wouldn’t you want somebody else to help?”
Williams said it wasn’t that simple to her, and she was told by Davidson, Oregon’s director of athletic medicine, that her injury was worthy of a medical redshirt but not career-ending. She said Gordon also told her that her injury didn’t qualify for medical retirement.
“Once you sign that document, it’s hard to find a doctor to say you’re OK,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to risk my eligibility if I ended up being OK to play again.”
Will Williams play volleyball again?
Williams said she isn’t ready to play again, and there’s a chance she never will be.
She continues working with a physical therapist and works out at a gym. Her plan after graduation is to take a year off from school and work before deciding what’s next.
“I’d love for this not to be the end of the road for me, but I have a feeling that it probably is,” she said.
“I got my time to play at a Pac-12 school and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had, so if it is the end of the road for me, I’m really sad that it had to come about this way and in a way I never could’ve imagined it,” she said.
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