Sex abuse in college sports: The best way to help victims of serious trauma is to believe them and support them

LANSING, MI - JANUARY 24: Women from the Michigan based victim advocacy groups End Violent Encounters and Firecracker Foundation cheer for women as they leave the courthouse after the sentencing of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar in Ingham County Circuit Court on January 24, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. The former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault after more than 150 women and girls confronted him in court and spoke of their abuse. (Photo by Anthony Lanzilote/Getty Images)

This is the first of a two-part series about equality in college athletics, sexual abuse in sports, campus sexual assaults and the efforts of Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a role model for many women athletes and a civil rights lawyer.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar earned fame as an Olympic swimmer after collecting three gold medals and a silver one in the 1994 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Today she is a mother of three children, a role model for many women athletes and a civil rights lawyer and consultant on many of the issues that confront female athletes in college and Olympic competition. She is also married to Scott Makar, a judge on the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

But all of these things came to her after one of the worst experiences of her life:

While a 19-year-old student at Duke University in 1981, she was jogging across the Duke campus late one afternoon when she was grabbed by a strange man and dragged off the road and repeatedly raped for more than two hours.

“I thought I was going to die,’’ she cried after arriving at the campus police station with swollen, bloody lips and leaves in her hair. Despite the publication of a composite sketch made from her description, the man was never caught.  Police said there had been eight other rapes on the campus over a two month period.

Traumatized by the experience, she asked to transfer to another dormitory and began parking her car as close as she could get to classrooms. After racking up more than $500 in unpaid parking tickets, she decided to go in and pay up.

When Duke officials asked how she had gathered so many tickets, she explained that she was afraid to park too far away from her dormitory or classes on the wooded campus after being raped. Duke quickly destroyed all the tickets and gave her a parking permit that would allow her to park anywhere.

Duke University; Academic library system of Duke University, North Carolina. Credit: Wikipedia.

It was but one of many things Duke did to help her recover.  She was allowed to quit swimming for awhile, miss some classes and retain her full scholarship despite going home after she had two car wrecks. Back then people didn’t call it PTSD – today’s abbreviation for post traumatic stress disorder.  But they knew she needed time to heal.

“They realized how freaked out I was,” Hogshead-Makar recalled recently as she discussed her continuing work with the victims of rape and women athletes who rarely get the same scholarships and benefits that men receive despite the fact that Title IX, the federal law that requires equal treatment of male and female athletes was approved by Congress 48 years ago.

She credits officials at Duke with helping her recover and return to school and swimming and says the best way to help victims of serious trauma is to believe them and support them during recovery.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar

“I think my recovering had everything to do with having loving people around me, and a fireworks display of privilege,’’ said Hogshead-Makar, now 58. Being white, from a solid, healthy family and having people “cut her some slack’’ made all the difference in her recovery, she said.

She quit swimming briefly, but one of her coaches urged her to return to the pool. She threw herself into it, leaving school for Olympic training in 1982.

After becoming an Olympic Champion and returning to finish her undergraduate work, Hogshead-Makar earned a degree in political science and went on to get a law degree at Georgetown University.

After graduation she went to work for the Women’s Sports Foundation, which pushes better access for women in sports, becoming a senior adviser and later president of the organization.

In 2014 she started an organization called Champion Women which leads efforts to stop sex abuse in all sports and promote access and equality.  She hires law school students as research assistants who assist the organization.

Her legal career has frequently focused on helping female athletes and pushing colleges and universities to offer more scholarships and opportunities for women.

“I wish more women got the help I got’’ she noted as she talked about the victims of Olympic gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, who is serving a prison sentence for sexually assaulting young women he was supposed to be helping.

More than 400 victims came forward in the case against Nassar. After hearing testimony from 150 young women, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 150 years in federal prison and is now serving his time at Coleman US Penitentiary in Sumter County Florida.

He was transferred to Coleman after inmates at an Arizona prison assaulted him right after he was released into the prison’s general population.

Hogshead-Makar has helped many young women face down their attackers and bring them to justice. Last year when the former Olympic gymnasts lined up to discuss sexual abuse they had experienced at the hands of coaches, Hogshead-Makar was there with them to mark the passage of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act.

She calls the Act just a beginning, but it took years of tireless work by Hogshead-Makar and others to get it passed.

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Today she is pushing Congress to complete action on a new bill that would establish a 16-member commission to oversee U.S. Olympic sports.

Much of her work has focused on the Olympics, but she has also turned up as an expert witness in the middle of some widely known collegiate cases like the one involving former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston. That case led to the payment of a $900,000 settlement to a young Tampa woman who accused Winston of raping her on the FSU campus.

Hogshead-Makar was also hired by the University of Colorado after members of their football team were accused of sexually assaulting a young woman and has been hired by other universities where sexual abuse was occurring.

She also pressured the U.S. Olympics officials to ban romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and athletes and is working constantly to force colleges and universities to comply with Title IX and offer equal scholarships and sports opportunities to women.

She is one of the leaders of a continuing fight to force colleges and universities to reshape the governance of the Olympic movement so there is enhanced oversight and accountability and athletes have more rights.

The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 unanimously passed the U.S. Senate and is awaiting action from the House. The bill was developed in response to the charges against Nassar, the gymnastics team doctor who is now in prison.

Hogshead-Makar recently received The Drake Group’s 2020 Drake Hero Award for her work on equality in athletics and her leadership in addressing sexual abuse in sports. The Drake Group is in residence at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and focuses on academic integrity in collegiate sport, according to its website.