One coach gone, one wrestler done -- and neither happy with Oregon State
There wouldn't be a lot of common ground in a cross-table discussion between Kevin Roberts and Ali Alshujery these days. But they would share an opinion on one subject: Neither believes Oregon State gave him a fair shake.
Roberts was fired last August from the assistant wrestling coach position he had held for 11 years. In late February, a lawsuit filed by Roberts against the university was settled out of court.
Alshujery, an Iraqi-American who graduated from Franklin High and wrestled at Oregon State for four years, brought the racism charges against Roberts that were ultimately responsible for the coach's dismissal. But Alshujery says OSU officials tried to sweep Roberts' firing under the rug, and feels betrayed by his former school. He is unhappy that his request for a sit-down with athletic director Scott Barnes was denied.
"I'm really bitter about my whole experience," says Alshujery, who is living in Portland.
Roberts didn't get an audience with Barnes, either, before his termination. Like Alshujery, he would have appreciated the opportunity.
• • •
Alshujery, 24, is the third of seven children — six boys, one girl — born to a Muslim family in Iraq. His father, Khalid, is now a welder in Portland. His mother, Heiam, is a homemaker. In 2006, three years after the start of the Iraq War, the family fled for Syria. The United Nations brought them to the United State as refugees in 2008.
Ali enrolled at Marshall High as a freshman in 2008.
"I didn't know any English, didn't know anything about sports," says Ali, who now speaks English so fluently, he barely has a trace of an accent. "I was really depressed when I first came (to the U.S.). I'd go to class and lay down and just cry. I got bullied a lot. Got called a terrorist and a bomber. I didn't enjoy going to school. I did not even want to be here. I'd go tell my family, 'We should go back.' They'd say, 'Do you want to die?' I'd say, 'I'd rather die than be treated like this.'"
As a sophomore, Alshujery tried a sport he knew nothing about. He considers it a godsend.
"What really helped me was wrestling," he says. "That's why I stuck with it. I started lifting weights, started getting strong. Bullies stopped saying anything to me."
Alshujery says he was a three-time Portland Interscholastic League champion, finishing up as a senior at Franklin after Marshall closed its doors. He had aspirations to place at state as a junior.
"I got disqualified in the district tournament for being a hothead," he says. "(An opponent) poked me in the eye, and I got out of control and punched him. So I didn't qualify for state."
As a senior, Alshujery competed at state, ending the season with a 35-3 record, he says, and 101-19 overall. He also won the state prep Greco-Roman Tournament. It led Ali — who says he compiled a cumulative 3.75 grade-point average in high school — to want to give college wrestling a try.
"One of my coaches at Franklin told me I couldn't make it, that maybe I could try community college wrestling," Alshujery says. "That lit a fire in me. I wanted to make it at the top level."
Alshujery enrolled at Oregon State in fall 2012. That summer, he contacted OSU wrestling coach Jim Zalesky, who invited him to take part in an open tryout.
"They put you against their top guys, and you pretty much become a punching bag," Alshujery says. "They say, 'If you're tough enough, you'll stick around.' Out of 10 guys, only two of us were still there after two weeks."
Alshujery wrestled with the OSU team for two months, he says, before being alerted by compliance he had not been cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center.
"You have to have four years of English in high school, and I had ESL as a freshman," he says.
Alshujery wrestled unattached that season and redshirted the next season. Between his first year at Oregon State and his redshirt freshman year, the 5-10 Alshujery says he gained 45 pounds, from 160 to 205.
"I took nutrition classes," he says. "I'd eat six meals a day. I'd lift weights every day. I told myself, 'I'm going to be strong and make my presence felt.' I still didn't get respected, but I wasn't getting beat around. I got in the best shape of my life that year."
Over the next two seasons, he remained with the OSU program but saw only sporadic action, compiling a 17-23 record, primarily in tournaments. Alshujery says he tore his ACL three times. The first time, he says, was during his redshirt freshman year. He had surgery on the knee, but the ligament ruptured again midway through the following season. He says Zalesky pushed him to keep wrestling.
Says Alshujery: "Jim told me, 'I've had a lot of guys who wrestled on messed-up ACLs. You need to wrestle.' We wrapped it, put a brace on it, and I wrestled for about two months."
Alshujery says he was beginning to become disillusioned with the program at that point.
"I started becoming a little bitter about how things were run and started voicing it when things happened," he says.
Alshujery injured the same knee again the next season (2015-16) and sat out the 2016-17 season following surgery. He was intending to apply for a medical redshirt senior season when an incident changed both his life and that of Roberts.
• • •
A week before the NCAA tournament in March 2017, Oregon State's wrestlers were required by the athletic department to attend an alcohol awareness workshop at the Beth Ray Center for Academic Support. Twenty-six wrestlers attended, says Roberts, who monitored the meeting as a representative of the coaching staff.
Roberts, 45, is a Spokane, Washington, native who was a two-time All-America wrestler at Oregon in the mid-90's. Married and with four children ages 7 to 15, Roberts had been a member of Zalesky's staff since he took over the program in 2006.
The presenters for the workshop didn't show. In the interim, the wrestlers were exchanging banter in the room, waiting to be excused. Alshujery was sitting in the front row.
According to Roberts, Alshujery asked him, 'Hey coach, did you hear that Nike is going to start making athletic hijabs?"
A hijab is a traditional scarf worn by Muslim women for modesty reasons, to cover their hair, neck and sometimes their face.
"I said, 'Yeah, I saw that,'" Roberts says. "He asked me what I thought of it. I said, 'There's probably an underlying reason.' He said, 'You mean making money?' I said, 'Yeah, that's capitalism.'"
Roberts says a wrestler asked what a hijab is. After it was explained, Roberts says another wrestler said, 'It's like the helmet thingee they wrap around their head.' I said, 'Did you say the helmet thingee?' And Ali blew up. He said, 'That's disrespectful.' But I wasn't the one who said it."
Alshujery offers a different version.
"I'd let my beard grow an inch, maybe two inches," he says. "While we're sitting there waiting, Kevin looked at me and said, 'We can talk about beards and being on the non-flight list.'" I started laughing. I said, 'Kevin, you can't stay stuff like that. You're a coach.' I'm used to his jokes and comments, so it didn't bother me too much. I have thick skin.
"We kept on talking and he said, 'Nike has launched a campaign for sportswear for Muslim girls to wear. What do you think of it?' I said, 'It's really good. It's inclusive. It's what we (Muslims) strive for.' He said, 'You really think they're trying to be inclusive? Let's be real.' I started getting a little upset. My blood started boiling. He said, 'You want me to be honest? Nike saw a great opportunity with everything going politically.' I said, 'It's for the money.' He said, 'I agree. It's all for the money.' Then he looks at another wrestler and asks, 'Are you going to buy your girlfriend one of those Muslim helmets?'"
Alshujery says he asked Roberts to repeat what he'd said.
"One of my teammates (confirmed that) he called it a 'Muslim helmet,'" Alshujery says. "I told Kevin, 'You're going too far. I'm sick of you. You're making fun of me.' He called me a troublemaker. 'You don't let anything roll off your back,' he said."
Alshujery says he offered Roberts a chance to apologize.
"He said, 'This is America. I can say what I want to say. I'm an American citizen,'" Alshujery says. "I said, 'It doesn't mean you can say anything you want to say, being a coach. You're held to a higher ground.' He got really upset and started shaking. I said, 'I'm going to go to your superiors and see what they think of it.' "
Roberts says it was Alshujery, not him, who brought up the hijab topic. Roberts says he "unequivocally never" made a comment about Ali's beard. Roberts insists another wrestler was the one who made the initial "helmet thingee" comment. "I looked at him and said, 'helmet thingee?'" Roberts says. "There was no malicious intent."
Former OSU wrestler Hans Rockwell was among those in attendance that day.
"I remember the incident pretty clearly," says Rockwell, now at Eastern Oregon University. "I was having a conversation with somebody else at the time. One of the guys had asked what the hijab was. Kevin was trying to explain to him what it was. I believe he said it was like a 'cloth helmet.' It wasn't the best description, and Ali must have thought it was racist.
"That's when Ali started blowing up at him. There was nothing physical — it was Ali just yelling at him. Kevin was trying to calm him down, but he was getting a little irritated, too. I'm sure it was embarrassing. Ali just stormed out."
Rockwell, who is part Mexican, says the incident got "blown out of proportion."
"I don't think racism was involved at all, to be honest," he says. "(Roberts and Alshujery) had confrontations like that many times before. There was already bad blood between them. We didn't think it was going to be an issue. It ended up being one."
Another OSU wrestler there that day, Josh Parazoo, says he didn't hear how the confrontation started.
"By the time I noticed, Ali was yelling to Kevin about being disrespected," says Parazoo, who has completed his wrestling eligibility at OSU. "Kevin said he didn't mean it that way. Ali got up and walked off."
Parazoo says he had cordial relations with both Alshujery and Roberts.
"I knew Ali fairly well and got along fine with him," Parazoo says. "I saw his temper come out a few times, but we had no issues. I got along great with Kevin. He pushed us, but he was always respectful to us."
Parazoo says he noticed no racial or cultural prejudice in the OSU program.
"Ali might have felt that way," he says, "but we have another Muslim kid (Adam Rateb), and he doesn't seem to feel mistreated."
When Oregon State officials learned the Portland Tribune was working on this story, all current members of the wrestling team received text messages telling them not to answer questions if a reporter called. The Tribune reached five of the wrestlers; four politely declined to talk, and the fifth hung up.
• • •
After the incident at the Beth Ray Center, Alshujery first approached Diana Ulrey, assistant AD for compliance at OSU. He spoke of what he felt was a history of prejudice against him in the wrestling program, culminating with the incident involving Roberts. "I cried my heart out for an hour," Alshujery says.
He also met with Marianne Vydra, deputy AD for administration at OSU, detailing the incident and a pattern of abuse from the coaches.
Vydra and Mark Massari, then an Oregon State deputy AD, met with Roberts and Zalesky over the issue.
Says Roberts: "They said, 'We're all on the same team here. You've been here 11 years. We know who you are. But if a complaint goes to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, they might call you over there.' I said, 'I have nothing to hide.'"
Roberts says he would have welcomed a chance to bring in Alshujery and have a discussion about it with Vydra and Massari.
"They told me to not talk to him at all," says Roberts, who has not spoken to Alshujery since the March 2017 incident. "It would be deemed as intimidation, or tampering."
Alshujery's complaint stemmed from what he called years of abuse by wrestlers and coaches, the incident with Roberts at the Beth Ray Center being the tipping point.
Roberts twice met with Andrea Bibee, an equity associate with OSU's Office of Equal Opportunity and Access. "Ali was painting a picture of long-term mistreatment," Roberts says. "It was like the burden of proof was on me."
In April, Roberts says, he and Zalesky got emails from the athletic administration saying the investigation would be completed by the end of the month. April turned to May and then to June, and Roberts says he heard nothing.
Roberts' contract expired on June 30. On July 7, he was presented a new, one-year contract for $108,000 signed by Barnes, who had taken over as OSU's athletic director the previous December. On July 13, Roberts signed the contract.
Meanwhile, Roberts was fulfilling his duties an assistant coach, flying on university funds for recruiting purposes and even, he says, serving on a hiring committee for a new employee with the school.
On Aug. 7, Roberts was contacted by Dan Bartholomae, who had replaced Massari as deputy AD, asking that he meet with him the next day. In the meeting were Bartholomae, Vydra and Erin Frost, labor relations officer for the school's Office of Human Resources.
"They handed me a copy of Ali's complaint," Roberts says. "I went through it and said, 'I've already explained it to you. This is BS.' Then they handed me a letter of termination."
Roberts asked whose call the decision was, and says he was told it was that of Barnes. Roberts asked for an opportunity to speak to the AD, but says he was told the decision already had been made. The two haven't spoken since.
"I met the guy at his introductory meeting with the entire athletic department," Roberts says, "and that was extent of my relationship with him."
Roberts was fired "without cause," under the premise that he didn't have a valid new contract.
"They said it hadn't been signed by (school president) Ed Ray," Roberts says. "They said Barnes hadn't been designated yet as an official signee, and without Ed Ray's signature, I didn't have a contract. It had been sitting in Ray's office and hadn't been verified yet by him."
If an employee is fired without cause, the employer must fulfill terms of the contract. Roberts believed he had a valid contract. He went to a Portland attorney, Micah Fargey, who filed a lawsuit on Roberts' behalf.
Due to a nondisclosure agreement, Roberts is prohibited from talking about the terms of the out-of-court settlement that was reached. One source, though, says Roberts received close to the full amount of his one-year contract, minus a substantial attorney's fee.
Vydra did not respond to an email requesting comment on the case.
Barnes is unwilling to discuss the situation.
"I can't tell you anything about it," he says. "I've been advised not to. I'm not going to respond to any issues such as this."
• • •
Much more goes into the relationship between Alshujery and Roberts than a single incident.
Roberts says he and his wife, Cami, extended many kindnesses to Alshujery during his four years with the program.
"He spent two or three Thanksgivings at my house," Roberts says. "To help with spending money, he worked in my backyard and for my neighbors 15 to 20 times. I got him a job on a fishing boat in Alaska one summer. I have pictures doing community service with him, of a dessert we had for him when he became an American citizen during his sophomore year."
In summer 2016, Dick Wooding hired Alshujery — on Roberts' recommendation — to work with him in his salmon fishing business in Alaska. Wooding and Roberts have been friends for years. Wooding says he let Alshujery go before the summer was over.
"It didn't work out very well," Wooding says. "He couldn't get along with people. He was prone to seasickness and could not handle the environment. That might have made him so angry. We had to replace him."
Alshujery says the biggest problem was that the money earned was far less than what Roberts and Wooding had promised.
Alshujery has nothing negative to say about Cami Roberts — "she was really nice," he says — and says he got to know Kevin "really well." He says he went to the Roberts' house once for Thanksgiving, "along with a lot of my teammates."
He says the Roberts didn't "host a dessert" for him after he gained U.S. citizenship. "Never even got a phone call," he says.
"I had some volunteering opportunities with them," Alshujery says. "At the school where (Cami) teaches, they needed community service. I worked with her to clean up and make the front of the school look good, trimming trees and that sort of thing."
Roberts says he and Alshujery had long talks about his religion, about his struggles with his father and the difference between Muslim customs and Western culture.
"Most of the time, our relationship was good," Roberts says. "Then there were times when his temper got the best of him."
Cami Roberts got to know Alshujery, too.
"Like some boys, he struggled," says Cami, a teacher at Crescent Valley High who also teaches physical activity and health and sciences part-time at Oregon State. "He talked about life before he moved here, about his parents adjusting to the U.S., about his brother having a wife and a kid to adjust to. He definitely has had some issues when he talked about things he had gone through."
Kevin Roberts says he witnessed Alshujery display his temper several times.
Once was at the Clackamas Community College Open wrestling tournament. Roberts says he saw Alshujery punch his opponent. When the mat official disqualified him from the match, he threw his headgear into the stands.
"A lady had to return the headgear from halfway across the gym," says Roberts, who was working the tournament that weekend with fellow OSU assistant coach Troy Steiner. "She said she was glad it hit her in the leg and not somewhere else. I pulled Ali from the tournament. I told Troy, 'He's done for the day.'"
"Ali threw his headgear and made a scene," confirmed Steiner, now head coach at Fresno State. "We told him we didn't want that as part of our program. It was important to teach him a lesson."
The mat official, Tommy Kennedy, recalls the incident.
"The kid was cussing and a punch was thrown," says Kennedy, who says he has disqualified only five wrestlers from a match in more than 20 years as a referee. "I kicked him out for unsportsmanlike conduct."
Clackamas CC coach Josh Rhoden — the tournament director — didn't see the incident, but heard the commotion and consulted with Kennedy.
"To get physical enough to the point where you're ejected, it takes an awful lot," Rhoden says. "They take points away from a wrestler first. Rarely do they disqualify. Usually, it's for throwing a punch or doing something egregious like trying to hurt your opponent. In this case, it escalated to that point."
Alshujery denies he threw a punch, but is otherwise contrite about his behavior that day.
"I lost a really close match and let my temper get the best of me," he says. "I threw my headgear. Coach Steiner pulled me out of the tournament. He said, 'We hold ourselves to higher standards.' I respected his decision. I agree, I should have never done that."
One time before a practice, Roberts says, Alshujery showed up sick. Zalesky asked Roberts to tell Alshujery to go home, because he was contagious.
"I passed along the message, and Ali went berserk at me, screaming obscenities," Roberts says. "He stormed off, slammed the door, hit the glass."
Rockwell was there that day.
"Ali had been telling us how the night before, he was so sick he was having hallucinations," Rockwell says. "I was thinking, 'OK, what are you doing here that sick?' He had a hospital mask on his face.
"Roberts said very nicely, 'Don't you think you should not be here? You'll get others sick.' And Ali freaked out. I remember him leaving and calling Roberts a lot of names. They've never really gotten along."
• • •
Alshujery says that he often did not get along well with either Zalesky or Roberts.
"I used to get talked down to a lot and called a terrorist," Alshujery says. "Jim always called me 'Allah.' I say, 'Hey, I'm not God. I don't want you to say that." He said, 'It's just a joke.' I said, 'It's not a joke to me. I'm a Muslim.' I think it's really disrespectful.
"Another time, I was running late to class, which was the same time as practice, I stopped by to tell Jim I had class and I'd be at practice later. In front of the whole team, he started jogging away and saying, 'Don't bomb us.' Everyone laughed at it, but it wasn't funny to me. It hurt. I was kind of the joke."
Alshujery also had issues with Roberts.
"He wasn't very nice from the get-go," Alshujery says.
As a walk-on, Alshujery was on work-study and had a part-time job. He says he would often study for his classes until the wee hours after he got off his job, which sometimes left him only two or three hours of sleep before early-morning practices.
"One time, I was five minutes late for a weight lifting session," Alshujery says. "Kevin went off on me, yelling, 'Get your (expletive) ass out of here.' I said, 'I'm sorry, I was up late studying.' He said, 'Come back with the second group in two hours.' He was intimidating."
Zalesky, who recently completed his 12th season as Oregon State's head coach, calls Roberts "a good guy. He did his work. He was very reliable."
Alshujery "had some issues," Zalesky says. "He's a guy you tried to help out as much as you could, make him part of the team. When he lost, he would not take it the right way. A lot of times, he didn't take things like you wanted."
When asked why Roberts was fired, Zalesky says, "I don't really know everything. It went above my head. I wasn't aware of why they terminated him for sure. It wasn't the best situation."
Zalesky says he never spoke to Alshujery about the incident that led to Roberts' dismissal.
"I wasn't there when it happened," Zalesky says. "I didn't know what transpired until later on. I didn't think that it was as big a deal. I didn't make the decision."
Did Zalesky agree with it?
"It wasn't something I wasn't anticipating or wanted," he says. "But I've been fired before, too. I've been through it as a coach. A lot of things aren't in your control."
Did he agree with Alshujery's complaint that he was mistreated by coaches and teammates because of his race and religion?
"I wasn't around him 24/7," Zalesky says, "but whatever he felt it was, I never saw it."
Neither did Steiner, who worked with Zalesky and Roberts at Oregon State from 2007-2016.
"I don't think that was ever the case," Steiner says. "I have a hard time believing that. I know Jim and Kevin very well. They would never do something like that.
"Kevin is a great guy. He has been in the sport for a long time. I was shocked with what happened. Kevin was always about the athlete. It's hard to say he would do anything to hurt an athlete. The funny thing about it, Kevin helped Ali quite a bit. Kevin did a lot for him when he was getting his (U.S.) citizenship."
Steiner says he is troubled by Roberts' firing.
"It's not right, especially with a guy who has put in that much time there, and been in the sport that long," Steiner says. "When the athletic director has not given him a chance to at least tell his side of the story, it's very surprising."
• • •
Former Oregon State wrestler Devin Reynolds says Alshujery is off base with his charges of racial discrimination, either from Roberts or within the OSU program.
"There were times Ali felt he didn't get fair treatment, but it was mainly because he wasn't in the (starting) lineup," says Reynolds, now wrestling at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. "When you're not a starter, you don't get as much attention from the coaches. That's just the way it is. It wasn't a racial thing. He wasn't the only minority on the team."
There were also Rockwell and Rateb, whose parents are from Palestine. And Amar Dhesi, who is East Indian, and Ronnie Bresser, who is Latino, and Devan Turner, who is black.
"There were some jokes that could have been taken that way, I suppose, but I never felt like there was racism," Rockwell says. "I never felt Ali was singled out by the coaches."
Rockwell says had a good relationship with both Roberts and Alshujery.
"I liked Kevin a lot," Rockwell says. "He was a great coach. He's a different kind of guy. You have to get to know him to know what he's all about, but I never experienced racism with him. I didn't know Ali super well, but we always got along. He's definitely a hot head, but he was nice to me.
"It was a pretty bad situation. Roberts is a good guy. Ali is a good guy. But for some reason, they just didn't get along. What happened to Kevin was just crazy. I never thought anything like that would happen."
• • •
For about a year while at Oregon State, Reynolds lived with Alshujery. For about another six months after that, the two lived at the north Corvallis house owned by Jess Lewis, the former Oregon State NCAA heavyweight champion and All-America football player.
Alshujery had worked part-time for Lewis, who at the time supervised maintenance for all the athletic fields at OSU. Lewis, who was recovering from a heart attack, asked Alshujery and Reynolds to live with him.
"Ali was very helpful to me during that time," Lewis says. "He was very thoughtful. I thought everything was going to work out great."
Reynolds says he was "really close" with Alshujery at first.
"He seemed liked a straightforward guy, serious about wrestling, real respectable," says Reynolds, who finished third at 149 pounds in helping Grand View win the NAIA national championship this season. "As I got to know him better, everything changed. I can only use the word 'fake.' He did some messed up stuff to me while he was my roommate. He puts on a front like he's this really good guy, but he's not what he says he is. We didn't have a good relationship toward the end."
Reynolds' girlfriend during most of that time was Sophie MacEwan, a swimmer at Oregon State. She had problems with Alshujery, too. "At one point, she had to get a restraining order against him," Reynolds says.
Did MacEwan see behavioral issues with Alshujery?
"Yeah, definitely," says MacEwan, now graduated, living in California and no longer dating Reynolds. "Ali was really aggressive and angry. He triggered real easily. He did a lot to us and tried to make us, and Jess, look bad. Devin and I are really close to Jess, and it was difficult."
Lewis eventually asked Alshujery to move out of his house.
"I couldn't tolerate his behavior over little things," he says. "His temper got in the way of our living. He and Devin didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things."
Reynolds and Alshujery had a confrontation that nearly led to blows in Lewis' living room, Lewis says.
"Devin had his legs in the aisle while we were watching TV, and Ali couldn't make it by him," Lewis recalls. "Ali tried to push him into a fistfight. He was the aggressor."
"Jess had to get between us," Reynolds says.
"I grabbed him by the throat area and scooted him back out of the way," says Lewis, 70. "I told him to get out of the house and cool down. He glared at us, stepped outside, got into a squatting position in the front yard and stayed there for about a half-hour. I came out and tried to help him, and he mumbled something about it not being his fault. It was always somebody else's fault."
"He blew up at Devin about nothing," says MacEwan, who was also there. "It calmed down after Jess intervened."
Alshujery says the confrontation led to the end of his friendship with Reynolds.
"We had a falling out, but that wasn't the first time we had problems," Alshujery says. "During my time there, there were some racial slurs made that I didn't appreciate. Jess apologized a couple of times. No hard feelings there. I love Jess."
After Alshujery gained 45 pounds between his first and second years at Oregon State, many involved with the wrestling program suspected he was on steroids, including the head coach. They came to believe some of Alshujery's behavior was a result of "roid rage."
"When I came back really developed the second year, people were saying, 'You're juicing. You're using steroids,'" Alshujery says. "Zalesky asked me, 'How did you get so big? Did you use steroids?'"
Reynolds says Alshujery did use during the 2015-16 school year, when they were both living with Lewis.
"I saw him using steroids with needles," Reynolds says. "He did one cycle, maybe 12 times. He injected himself in the house, right in front of me."
Alshujery denies it.
"He did not see me use steroids," Ali says. "I have never used steroids. I tested three times at Oregon State — twice in my second year and once in my third year. Peed in a cup. I passed every time."
Reynolds says he never saw any mistreatment by Roberts toward Alshujery.
"Kevin liked to mess around, but he was always good to Ali when I was around," Reynolds says. "I've always liked Kevin. From the time I got there, he was good to me. He always gave us wrestlers side work to help give us spending money. He was super motivational, a good guy deep down. I didn't think he deserve to lose his job."
• • •
Alshujery had his share of successes at Oregon State. He wrestled for four years and was honored by the OSU athletic department as its male student of the month in February 2017. In June 2017, he participated in a "Beavers Without Borders" trip to Costa Rica, where students and faculty members performed service projects to benefit the communities there. Also that month, he flew to Orlando as one of five students nationally to be presented a Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award from the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. The honor is given to college students "who overcome great personal, academic and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success."
Alshujery says he has completed class requirement necessary to get his degree with honors in kinesiology from Oregon State. He says he will walk during the June commencement ceremony in Corvallis.
Several people who worked with Alshujery vouch for him, including wrestling mentor Roy Pittman, who taught Ali for a couple of his high school years in Portland's Peninsula Wrestling Club.
"Ali was awesome," Pittman says. "He was new to this country learning how to speak English. He wanted to wrestle Division I (in college). He turned into a workaholic. He was hungry. He wanted to learn. He learned wrestling, but he also learned values. I thought he was a stand-up guy."
Alshujery worked as a front-desk receptionist at the Beth Ray Center, where Kate Halischak, OSU's director of academics for student-athletes, has an office.
"I like him immensely," Halischak says. "His personal story is amazing. He seems to have a good heart. He was a very good student worker. We had no problems. He was very personable to people."
Ardell Bailey, who was Alshujery's academic counselor at OSU and also worked out of the Beth Ray Center, nominated him for the Wilma Rudolph Award.
"It was huge for Ali, and I believe it was huge for the university," says Bailey, now a youth services coordinator for the Department of Inclusion and Cultural Relations with the state of Oregon. "He's a good kid. I like his hard work and his determination to overcome his life experiences, how humble he is, his willingness and openness to learn and find new things."
• • •
Alshujery feels disillusioned about his experience at Oregon State on several notes.
He feels the wrestling program abandoned him as he was still considering application for an additional medical redshirt season.
"After the incident and (Roberts' firing), they denied me everything," he says. "Cut off all communication. Took me off the team texting and workout list. Closed out my locker. No one has the guts to say a word to me. Same with my teammates, even some of the guys I considered friends."
Alshujery says during his meeting with Vydra in March 2017, she expressed sympathy and offered financial help.
"She said, 'This is not what Oregon State is all about,'" Ali says. "She said, 'You've earned a scholarship. We should pay for your schooling as a way for a university to make this whole.' I said, 'That would be a dream come true.'"
Alshujery says he met with Vydra four times. The last two times, he asked for a meeting with Barnes. "She said she would make it happen," Alshujery says.
After the March 2017 incident, Alshujery dropped out of school and returned to Portland. He says two months later, Vydra emailed a request for a meeting in Corvallis. At the meeting, he says she told him, 'I'm really sorry with everything that happened, but I can't do anything in terms of financial help. I was hoping we could, but it's against school policy.' "
When Alshujery asked for the chance to talk to Barnes, he says he was told the athletic director "won't be available."
Alshujery remains bitter at Oregon State with the way it dismissed Roberts without public notice.
"I don't think what the school did was enough," he says. "They kept it hush-hush. They didn't even give a reason. They fired him 'without cause.' There was a big cause. I think that cause should be known to all people. He can share his side of the story; fine. I'll say mine, and let the people decide what to think."
Of Oregon State's wrestling staff, Alshujery offers this: "They're great instructors. They know their craft, the stuff they're teaching. But they're not good coaches. They're not good people."
• • •
Alshujery drove for Uber upon his return to Portland, but says he was fired after "a cultural conversation with a passenger." Now he is delivering for Amazon.
What does he intend to do next?
"I don't know, to be honest," Alshujery says. "I have no idea. I never thought I'd be where I'm at right now. I worked so hard. I wrestled varsity. I wanted to make the lineup and go to the NCAA tournament and place and get All-American. I was hoping by accomplishing that, I would get a good position in the workplace. I didn't get that opportunity. I didn't plan for this."
Alshujery is living in the basement of his parents' Portland home.
"I'm hoping I can do something with my degree where I can start earning some money so I can help them out," he says.
Ali says he has fought depression over what has happened at Oregon State.
"I wanted to write about it," he says, "to put it on social media and go to the newspapers. There were nights when I was driving alone and I started yelling in my car. There was something trapped in my chest. I wanted to be heard.
"I trained my ass off last summer until I found out Jim wasn't going to let me on the (OSU wrestling team) anymore. That was the final push that divorced me from Oregon State."
• • •
Kevin Roberts feels equally chagrined at his treatment by OSU officials. He is unsure of his future. He and his family have remained in Corvallis, where he coached this past season at Crescent Valley High. One of his wrestlers is his son, Drew, who as a freshman won the Class 5A 113-pound championship. Kevin also is working at wrestling clinics and isn't sure if he wants to return to coaching college wrestling.
"I'm looking mostly outside of wrestling right now," Roberts says. "I'm coaching younger kids and looking in the private sector. I just don't know what the opportunity is going to be for me in college wrestling. Oregon State has tarnished my reputation a little bit. We'll see."
That would be too bad, says Len Kauffman, a former national champion wrestler at Oregon State and ex- head coach at Portland State who remains close to the OSU program.
"Kevin was the light of that team," says Kauffman, who lives in Portland. "He had a good relationship with the wrestlers."
Kauffman says he called Barnes' office, leaving a message asking for a conversation with the athletic director over Roberts' firing. He got no return call.
"I think they were quick to jump on and fire Kevin," Kauffman says. "He hadn't done anything wrong in the past that I know of, so I was surprised to see him unloaded so quickly. It would certainly appear this was the result of what they considered politically incorrect news."
Cami Roberts was appalled that Barnes fired her husband without meeting with him.
"That says a lot about him," she says of the AD. "We had three athletic directors (during Kevin's time at OSU). Within four to six weeks of being hired, the first two (Bob De Carolis and Todd Stansbury) met with every single coach in the department. (Barnes) has never been in the practice room, never been to a wrestling match, never had a conversation with Kevin. (Barnes) is lacking leadership skills. He should want to get to know who's working for him."
Cami says she would have appreciated some clarity, and some transparency, in the decision by OSU officials to let her husband go.
"I'm discouraged in the lack of professionalism of OSU," she says. "They preach that they have this integrity, but the way they handled the situation was done very poorly. It seems like they don't have a protocol or system in place. Their lack of communication between departments was weak.
"It would have been a lot easier to swallow if they said, 'You're out because you didn't win the Pac-12 championship this year.' We were blindsided. Give us a reason. That's easier for closure."
Ali Alshujery, 24, is a Franklin High graduate and refugee from Iraq. He competed two seasons for Oregon State, after a redshirt year and one previous season wrestling unattached. The athletic department honored him as its male student of the month for February 2017. He was one of five student-athletes in the nation chosen to receive a Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award from the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.
THE ASSISTANT COACH
Kevin Roberts served Oregon State as an assistant wrestling coach for 11 years. A two-time All-American wrestler for the University of Oregon, he helped the Beavers win five consecutive Pac-12 championships.
In March 2017, Alshujery says Roberts made inappropriate comments about hijabs while the team was at an alcohol awareness workshop. Roberts denies saying anything disrespectful.
Alshujery also says he dealt with years of prejudice from fellow wrestlers and Oregon State coaches.
Roberts was dismissed as assistant coach in August. In February, a lawsuit he had filed against Oregon State was settled out of court.
Alshujery was considering an application for a medical redshirt year that would allow him to compete one more season for the Beavers, but he says he was cut off from the team after Roberts' departure.
THE HEAD COACH
Jim Zalesky, who recently completed his 12th season as head wrestling coach at Oregon State, says he "didn't think (the March 2017 incident between Alshujery and Roberts) was as big a deal" and "I didn't make the decision" to terminate Roberts, "a good guy … very reliable." Zalesky says Alshujery "had some issues," but "never saw" mistreatment by coaches or teammates and never spoke to the wrestler about the incident that led to Roberts' departure.
THE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR
Alshujery and Roberts say OSU athletic director Scott Barnes never made himself available to talk to them about the incident or any other concerns.
Barnes says he has "been advised not to" discuss the situation. "I'm not going to respond to any issues such as this," he says.
THE OTHER OSU ADMINISTRATORS INVOLVED
Alshujery says he first approach Diana Ulrey, assistant athletic director for compliance at Oregon State, and met with Marianne Vydra, deputy AD for administration.
Roberts says he met with Vydra and then-OSU deputy AD Mark Massari, and Andrea Bibee, an equity associate with OSU's Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, and later was handed a letter of termination in a meeting with deputy AD Dan Bartholomae, Vydra and Erin Frost, labor relations officer for the OSU Office of Human Resources.
Alshujery plans to graduate with honors in kinesiology in June. He is living in Portland. "I'm really bitter about my whole experience" at Oregon State, he says.
Roberts and his family have remained in Corvallis, and he coached last season at Crescent Valley High. He isn't sure if he wants to return to college wrestling. "Oregon State has tarnished my reputation a little bit," he says.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)