Did Women’s Sports Foundation try to silence leading advocate for athlete protections against sexual abuse?
Decades before the Larry Nassar case rocked the Olympic movement, before USA Swimming, USA Water Polo and USA Volleyball became mired in a series of systemic sex abuse scandals, former Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar pushed the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the nearly 50 national governing bodies under its umbrella to adopt and implement safeguards to protect athletes from sexual and physical abuse.
Hogshead-Makar’s persistent advocacy for athlete safety as well as gender equity issues in sports caught the attention of Capitol Hill, the media and academia.
It also made her unpopular with top executives and board members at the USOPC and Olympic sport NGBs and created discomfort with officials with the Women’s Sports Foundation, a non-profit founded by Billie Jean King that for five decades has been the self-proclaimed leading organization in advocating for girls and women in sports.
The Women’s Sports Foundation in August 2014 offered Hogshead-Makar a two-year contract extension that would pay her $10,000 a month to serve as the organization’s senior director of advocacy, a consulting position.
The offer, however, came with a stipulation: Hogshead-Makar could not publicly discuss or write about sexual abuse or harassment, according to a letter of agreement and other WSF documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.
The WSF was trying to buy her silence on sexual abuse, Hogshead-Makar said.
“The Women’s Sports Foundation positions themselves as THE voice for women in sports,” Hogshead-Makar said in an email to SCNG. “Yet they decided, ‘No, the WSF doesn’t want to protect girls and women from sexual abuse.’”
Instead, Hogshead-Makar said, the WSF gave in to pressure from the USOPC, formerly known as the USOC, according to Hogshead-Makar and Donna de Varona, WSF co-founder and current USOPC board member. Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, then a top USOPC executive and WSF board member, said she could not support Hogshead-Makar’s advocacy on sexual abuse and harassment because of her duties with the USOPC, Hogshead-Makar said.
“Nancy Hogshead’s departure from her roles as a legal advisor and senior director with the Women’s Sports Foundation signaled a fundamental shift in the direction of the organization,” said de Varona, a former WSF president and longtime board member. “Nancy’s absence from the WSF represents a drastic departure from the original intent of the foundation’s legacy to promote and protect girls and women in sport.”
The previously undisclosed, 11-point Aug. 27, 2014 letter of agreement was presented to Hogshead-Makar by then-WSF chief executive Deborah Larkin at a time when the relationship between the WSF and the USOPC was strained over Hogshead-Makar’s criticism of the USOPC, USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming’s handling of sexual abuse cases.
“As a condition of this Letter of Agreement extending the role of the AD on a month to month basis on terms similar to that of the Consultancy Agreement, AD shall not discuss, opine, or participate, either verbally or in writing, as an advocate, expert, or spokesperson regarding sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual allegations, or any other issue related to sexual conduct in any manner, shape or form, whether said participation is done as an individual, as a private citizen, as a spokesperson for any party, on behalf of WSF, or on behalf of any other party or organization,” the contract offer stipulated.
“If you don’t want me talking about sexual abuse just fire me,” said Hogshead-Makar, speaking publicly on the contract dispute for the first time. “Or (just say) your services are no longer needed. Why give me a contract that would pay 10 grand a month not to talk about sexual abuse?
“The truth was the WSF board had a conflict of interest on the issue of sexual abuse with one of its members – Benita Fitzgerald Mosley. Benita said in December 2013, that she can’t be supportive of WSF work on sexual abuse because she ‘owes a fiduciary duty to the USOC.’ But instead of recognizing the conflict, the board strategized to 1) muzzle me and then 2) discredit me, their advocate.”
In an email response to an SCNG request for an interview on WSF’s “reluctance to advocate on issues related to sexual abuse and Nancy Hogshead-Makar’s departure from the WSF,” Fitzgerald Mosley said, “I am so far removed from anything going on with WSF that I don’t think I’d be at all helpful.”
The letter of agreement also stipulated other restrictions on Hogshead-Makar, a Georgetown law school graduate who has written extensively about sexual abuse in sports:
“The parties acknowledge that prior to this Letter of Agreement, AD contributed to two magazine articles regarding the issue of sexual conduct including Ms. Magazine and Outdoor Sport. AD will use best efforts to obtain copies of those articles prior to publication for review and approval by the WSF CEO and the WSF PR firm,” the document said.
“In addition to the foregoing, the parties acknowledge that AD may be called as an expert witness in the Jameis Winston sexual assault case. AD agrees to use best efforts to not voluntarily appear in this matter, or any other legal proceeding regarding allegations of sexual conduct.
“All statements made publicly (i.e. speeches, interviews, articles, etc.) or to the media or through social media (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) will be reviewed by both the WSF CEO and the WSF PR firm for synchronization with other WSF programs.”
Hogshead-Makar, a law school professor, was a potential expert witness in a civil lawsuit on behalf of a woman who alleged she had been raped by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston in 2012 when they were students at Florida State. Winston and the woman settled the lawsuit in 2016.
Hogshead-Makar refused to sign the agreement and resigned from an organization she had been a part of since interning with the WSF in 1985.
But, Hogshead-Makar said in an email, “Their efforts to shut me up weren’t over!”
Under the heading of “Return of WSF Property; Use of WSF’s Physical Property,” the WSF in a separation agreement stipulated, “Prior to the Termination Date (or within one day after the Release is executed), Hogshead-Makar shall return (and shall not retain) to WSF all originals and copies of papers, notes and documents (in any medium, including computer disks), whether property of WSF or not, prepared, received or obtained by Hogshead-Makar during the course of, and in connection with, her services with the WSF, and all equipment and property of the WSF which may be in Hogshead-Makar’s possession or under her control, whether at the WSF’s offices, Hogshead-Makar’s home or elsewhere, including all such papers, work papers, notes, documents and equipment in the possession of Hogshead-Makar, which WSF property shall include but not be limited to the items set forth on Exhibit B (attached hereto). Hogshead-Makar agrees that she and her family shall not retain copies of any such papers, work papers, notes and documents.”
“The separation agreement for my severance would have required me to turn over all the documents I’d ever worked with the WSF – that’s 30 years’ worth – and agree never to use them again,” Hogshead-Makar said in an email.
“It was effort # 2 to shut me up.”
Again Hogshead-Makar refused to be silenced.
“I didn’t sign anything,” she said. “I walked away without a severance.”
Hogshead-Makar wrote to current WSF CEO Deborah Antoine in a Feb. 25, 2019 email seeking an apology for the way the organization handled her contract in 2014. Antoine agreed to speak Hogshead-Makar along with Ilana Kloss, a WSF executive committee member and former board chairman. Kloss has been King’s partner for more than 40 years. They were married in 2018.
“Hi Nancy,” Antoine wrote in an email to Hogshead-Makar on Feb. 26, 2019. “I talked with Ilana and she’s willing to join me on a call. Would you have some time on Thursday morning?
“Hope to get this all behind us…
Antoine and Kloss refused to offer an apology in a subsequent telephone call, Hogshead-Makar said.
“They said it was just like a divorce, everybody just needs to move on,” Hogshead-Makar recalled.
Antoine did not respond to multiple requests for comment neither did Kloss.
King did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Larkin did not respond to multiple emails and telephone messages requesting comment. She stepped down as WSF CEO in January 2017 to become the organization’s chief advocacy officer. She is no longer affiliated with the WSF, according to the organization’s website. Larkin was also named to USA Gymnastics interim board of directors in February 2018 after the USOPC forced the previous board to resign in the wake of the Nassar scandal.
Sandra Vivas, the WSF board chairman in 2014, also did not respond to multiple emails and telephone messages requesting comment.
“Nancy’s accomplishments as a three-time gold medalist, Olympian activist, lawyer, professor and author as well as a former president of the WSF added incredible credibility and intellectual acumen to the organization,” said de Varona, winner of two Olympic swimming medals at the 1964 Olympic Games.
“Unfortunately, when Nancy began advocating for congressional legislation and oversight regarding the failure of the gymnastics federation as well as the USOPC to act quickly, decisively and responsibly (on sexual abuse issues), the WSF leadership bowed to outside pressure. Nancy left a 30-year association with the foundation deciding to forgo severance so she could continue on her mission to protect all athletes especially girls and women from abuse and harassment.”
Hogshead-Makar eventually founded Champion Women, an advocacy group for girls and women in sports, and continued to speak out on the issue of sexual and physical abuse in sports.
She also helped craft the Safe Sport Act, passed by Congress in 2018, which makes members of Olympic and other amateur sports organizations legally responsible to report sexual abuse and requires all organizations to implement protections for all athletes. She was also involved in shaping a landmark reform package passed with bipartisan support in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2020 that places the U.S. Olympic Committee under congressional scrutiny and is designed to eradicate a culture within American Olympic sports that enabled and ignored decades of sexual abuse of young athletes. The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act places greater legal liability on the USOPC and the national governing bodies under its umbrella for sexual abuses by coaches, officials and employees and provides Congress with mechanisms to dissolve the USOPC’s board of directors and decertify NGBs.
Hogshead-Makar said she decided to go public with the Women’s Sports Foundation’s attempts to silence her on the topic of sexual abuse and harassment after watching four gymnasts testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
The women detailed how former U.S. Olympic and women’s national team physician Larry Nassar had repeatedly sexually abused them on their way to winning gold for Team USA at the Olympic Games and World Championships, and three organizations entrusted with their safety, the USOPC, USA Gymnastics and the FBI, had failed to protect them.
Top USA Gymnastics and USOPC executives and coaches, as well as the FBI, concealed Nassar’s criminal conduct from them, the public and other athletes for a year, the women told the committee, making it possible for him to sexually abuse dozens of new victims.
Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic and 19-time World champion, recounted how USA Gymnastics and USOPC officials and coaches did not inform her of Nassar’s misconduct in the weeks leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, reminded the senators that the initial efforts by USA Gymnastics and USOPC officials to conceal Nassar’s predatory behavior from the public and potential victims coincided with the launching of Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2028 Olympic Games.
Sitting in the kitchen of her Jacksonville, Florida home, former Hogshead-Makar watched intently.
She was already familiar with much of the gymnasts’ stories. Nevertheless, it touched her, especially the testimony of World champion Maggie Nichols, who in June 2015 became the first U.S. national team member to report Nassar to USA Gymnastics. A year later she was left off the 2016 Olympic team.
“From the day I reported my molestation by Nassar,” Nichols said, “I was treated differently by USAG.”
“Suddenly as soon as she makes a report she’s suddenly the bad guy, right?” Hogshead-Makar recalled thinking as she watched the hearing. “The Maggie thing how she was the bad person and how they didn’t tell Simone Biles, not because they were concerned about her performance, but because they wanted her on the inside of the circle. If they don’t tell her about what’s going on with Nassar and then they can make more money off her, then she’s their friend, she’s going to do what they want her to do.
“I heard very little new information. But still, it continued to rock me to the core because I knew how it felt, all the energy was coming out of my feet, like it was draining me, all pouring out of me because it did not have to be that way at all. It didn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t inevitable.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation, which describes itself as “champions of leadership and change,” was founded in 1974 by tennis icon King, and Olympic champions de Varona, Micki King (diving), and Wyomia Tyus (track and field). Billie Jean King donated $5,000 to the organization, her winnings for being named the Bob Hope Cavalcade of Champions outstanding female athlete of the year in 1972 and 1973.
Today the WSF, a tax-exempt 501 (c) (3) non-profit, has a midtown Manhattan office near Penn Station and $7.3 million in assets with $5.57 million in annual revenues, according to audits and Internal Revenue Service filings.
“We are the collective voice for all issues related to girls and women in sports,” WSF wrote in its most recent impact report. “We are the go-to source for activism. We use our platform to elevate the voices of elite athletes, community partners, and all girls and women in order to act as a catalyst for change. We educate the public, inform public policy and influence decision makers to ensure that we continue to make strides and achieve results.”
The WSF has funded in some years $1.6 million in annual grants impacting as many as 60,000 athletes in 50 sports, according to the impact report. Previous WSF grant recipients include five-time World champion figure skater Michelle Kwan and the U.S. national water polo team.
WSF funded $624,292 in grants to 49 teams in 2020, according to an IRS filing. That same year WSF spent $869,071 on compensation of executives and officers and another $1.25 million on other employee compensation and $164, 976 on other employee benefits and pensions.
Much of WSF’s revenue is generated by special events, in particular the organization’s annual awards dinner. Special events accounted for $1.52 million in revenue in 2010, $773,350 in 2016, according to WSF documents. The organization reported $1 million in special events revenue in 2020, according to IRS filings.
The USOPC contributes between $10,000 and $24,999 annually to the WSF, according to the organization’s documents, and is also instrumental in lining up Olympians to attend the awards dinner.
A number of other leading WSF corporate sponsors also have ties to the USOPC. Nike, Visa and Coca-Cola are all both corporate partners with the USOPC and prominent financial backers of the WSF. NBC Sports, the Olympic broadcast partner, is one of the WSF’s leading sponsors contributing more than $100,000 annually to the organization, according to WSF documents. The documents do not list the exact amount of contributions.
This year’s awards dinner is Wednesday in New York City. Among the invited athletes listed by the WSF are Olympic and Paralympic champions Allyson Felix (track), Sarah Hughes (figure skating), Tatyana McFadden (track) and Maggie Steffens (water polo).
Hogshead won three gold medals and a silver at the 1984 Olympic Games. Her Olympic triumphs came three years after she was raped as a Duke undergrad while jogging near the campus.
She was recruited to the Women’s Sports Foundation by de Varona after the 1984 Olympic Games. She interned at the organization. Hogshead-Makar joined the WSF board in 1986 and would go on to hold a number of positions including vice president and then president, serving as the organization’s legal advisor for seven years and senior director for advocacy from 2010 to 2014.
“There is hardly a policy on the WSF website that I didn’t have a hand in. A whole WSF-contingent celebrated with us at our wedding,” Hogshead-Makar wrote in the Feb. 25, 2019 email to Antoine. “I brought my then-new husband to the WSF dinner as part of our honeymoon.”
“The Women’s Sports Foundation was my home for 30 years,” she said.
As advocacy director, her only paid position with WSF, Hogshead-Makar registered a series of victories.
“Her influence reaches millions of women and has contributed to the USA’s successes in international competitions by giving girls opportunities that did not previously exist,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement in 2014 when it awarded Hogshead-Makar its Women In Sport award.
The USOPC nominated Hogshead-Makar for the IOC award in 2011. In a 2011 voicemail informing her of his organization’s plans, USOPC chief executive officer Scott Blackmun said to Hogshead-Makar with “your impact on women’s sport, you’re a fantastic candidate.”
Hogshead-Makar’s work was highlighted in a report trumpeting WSF’s accomplishments leading up to the organization’s 40th anniversary in 2012.
“Advocacy is at the core of the WSF’s work,” said the report that went on to list the organization’s achievements. “Sexual Harassment/Molestation: Changing coaching ethics policies to be consistent with other professional codes of ethics that prohibit sexual relations.”
“Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a heroine,” said Micki King, the Olympic diving champion and longtime WSF board member.
But officials at the USOPC didn’t share King’s view.
The USOPC board of directors in 2012 banned romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and the athletes they coach, a restriction long pushed by Hogshead-Makar. The USOPC approval came after Hogshead-Makar appealed directly to USOPC board members after Blackmun failed to advance Hogshead-Makar’s policy proposal to the full board, she said.
“Merry indeed!” WSF CEO Kathryn Olson said in an email to WSF board members shortly before Christmas 2012 regarding the USOPC ban. “Great progress Nancy and so encouraging to see the explicit ban defined for those in ‘direct supervisory’ or ‘positions of power or trust.’ I know this project has been a long road but you are tenacious. Well done and a huge thank you on behalf of all the athletes who will be protected.”
But the strained relationship between Hogshead-Makar and Blackmun and other top USOPC executives and officials was clear the previous March after Hogshead-Makar criticized the USOPC in an Orange County Register article for not taking the lead in banning romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and athletes.
“So rather than the USOC saying we control the purse strings and here’s the policy,” Hogshead-Makar told the Register, “they instead allow the coaching associations (to establish policies) and they want to preserve this option for being able to have romantic relationships and sexual relationships with athletes.”
In a March 20, 2012 email to Hogshead-Makar, Blackmun wrote, “I hope you don’t feel like you need to communicate with me through the newspaper.”
“I was not trying to communicate with you via the media,” Hogshead-Makar responded. “I don’t think you meant to, but I’m feeling a little defensive about these remarks.”
She then listed a number of attempts by her and others to push the USOPC and officials at national governing bodies to adopt the ban.
“Well, I could go on here about cajoling and communicating with the Olympic family, but you get the idea,” Hogshead-Makar wrote in the email.
“Scott Blackmun hated every attempt,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Hogshead-Makar said Olson told her that Blackmun “would call (Olson) and get her to try to silence me through a number of strategies.”
Shortly after a call to Olson from Blackmun, Hogshead-Makar said, “The WSF was poised to have a petition in support of what is now the US Center for SafeSport. (Olson) directed that we stop the effort minutes before we hit the ‘send’ button because Blackmun and Mosley asked her to. Another time, I was on ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’ and he called her to complain.”
Blackmun received a $2.4 million buyout from the USOPC after he was forced to resign in 2018 amid allegations he was involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse by Nassar, according to financial documents. Blackmun was referred to the Department of Justice and FBI in December 2018 for criminal investigation by two U.S. senators who accused him of making false statements and misleading Congress.
Olson and Blackmun did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2013, Hogshead-Makar wrote an outline for the framework of what would become the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
“Scott Blackmun agreed he would send it to the USOC Board,” Hogshead-Makar said in an email to SCNG. “He did not. A Board member called me in the meeting saying that Blackmun wasn’t giving it to them; I sent it to them and they forwarded it to the board. A WSF Board member and USOC employee, (Fitzgerald Mosley), who reported directly to Blackmun, started attending our Advocacy calls and meetings as this work heated up.
“In January, (Fitzgerald Mosley) pleaded with me not to address sexual abuse on a conference call with Kathryn (Olson),” Hogshead-Makar continued.
Fitzgerald Mosley said to Hogshead-Makar, “It’s my JOB,” Hogshead-Makar recalled.
“I told her she had a classic conflict of interest, and that she should recuse herself from the issue,” Hogshead-Makar. “She declined.”
At the time, Fitzgerald Mosley was the USOPC chairman of organization excellence with a salary of $307,527 and another $20,143 in additional compensation. Fitzgerald Mosely left the USOPC in January 2016 to become CEO of Laureus USA, a youth and sport development foundation. She is also a senior advisor to Proteus International, a consulting firm whose clients include Microsoft and Sony Entertainment.
Hogshead-Makar in May 2014 led a move to prevent USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus’ induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame because Wielgus and the NGB had mishandled of dozens of sex abuse cases. Wielgus, who died in 2017, was a close friend of Blackmun’s.
Wielgus withdrew his nomination from the Hall of Fame on June 2, 2014, five days after Hogshead-Makar and her group had presented documents to the hall.
Thirteen weeks later the WSF presented her with the letter of agreement containing the stipulations.
Hogshead-Makar’s rejection of the contract put WSF CEO Larkin on the defensive. Larkin had only been on the job a few weeks.
“Those of you who know me know my middle name is advocacy,” Larkin wrote in an email to several then-current and former board members. “I did not take this position to eliminate advocacy nor not work in the sexual harassment space.
“It is my understanding that the board had been talking for months about a strategic plan around advocacy. …
“I have been in this position for a little over 30 days. In that time we are trying to sell our dinner which funds advocacy, we’ve moved and I’m trying to hire people and work with our new media partners.”
Micki King was not swayed.
“I’m still disturbed by the discussion during our last call re the executive committee’s decision to stop our work on sexual harassment and abuse,” King wrote in a Sept. 14, 2014 email to Larkin. “We’ve accomplished so, so much as the voice for girls and women in the Olympic movement. We should/must be proud of it, fundraise around it, and do more for them. The USOC is in the formation stages of the new entity that will oversee abuse accusations. It seems that the Advocacy Committee is very supportive of our work. Have we considered a wall between the Trustees – who may be more ‘corporate’ oriented instead of ‘advocacy’ oriented – and our Advocacy department?”
Hogshead-Makar also rejected the terms of a separation agreement from WSF dated Oct. 9, 2014.
Three days later the IOC honored her in Monaco. It was a night that had been in the making for three years since Blackmun first contacted her about the award.
Now the rupture in the relationship was clear.
“At the awards dinner in Monaco,” she recalled, “Scott Blackmun would barely look at me.”