A Champion for Women's Sports
For Nancy Hogshead-Makar, sports has been an avenue for achievement and a source of healing. Florida schools' noncompliance with Title IX robs other women of those opportunities, she says.
Hogshead-Makar, 58, was born in Iowa City, the middle child of three. Her father was an orthopedic surgeon, her mother a homemaker. Her father’s career took the family to Gainesville and then to Jacksonville, where she attended Jacksonville Episcopal High School. (Her father was president of the Cathedral Rehabilitation Center, now Brooks Rehabilitation.)
Randy Reese, Episcopal’s swim coach at the time, saw potential in her right away. “She trained very hard, was very intelligent and had very good body build — lean and fairly tall,” says Reese, who later coached at the University of Florida, where he led the men’s and women’s swim teams to two national titles each from 1976 to 1990.
At 15, Hogshead-Makar was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200-meter butterfly. At 18, she made the U.S. Olympic team, but she figured her Olympic dreams were over when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow games in retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. She then enrolled at Duke on a full swim scholarship — the first time the school had given a scholarship to a female swimmer. As a freshman, she won four Atlantic Coast Conference titles and set school records in every event she swam.
In fall 1981, she was looking forward to another strong swim season. After dropping a friend off at the airport for Thanksgiving break, she returned to her dorm and went for an evening run along a wooded area between the school’s east and west campuses. A stranger approached her and asked for directions. Before she had a chance to react, he grabbed her and forced her into the woods.
The rape lasted for more than two hours. After her attacker fled, she flagged down a motorist and reported the assault to campus police. During the next few months, as police searched unsuccessfully for her rapist, she struggled with crippling anxiety.
“I got a terrible case of what we would now call PTSD. I had raging out-of-control thoughts,” she says. “I didn’t know who I was anymore. My grounding in life was gone. I thought I was going to be damaged for the rest of my life, that I would never be normal again.”
To help with her recovery, Duke moved her to a new dorm away from the woods, allowed her to redshirt so she could sit out the season without losing her scholarship and gave her deadline extensions in all her classes. Hogshead-Makar is and was “a very strong woman,” says longtime Duke administrator Sue Wasiolek, who helped her through the recovery process. “And yet, needless to say, when this happened to her, it impacted her in ways that neither she nor I could ever imagine. I just felt so focused on her and making certain this was not a turning point that took her down a road she did not want. I wanted her to continue on a road where she was going to be able to maximize her intellectual, social and athletic potential.”
Hogshead-Makar’s college coach, the late Bob Thompson, persuaded her to start swimming again by requiring only that she show up at competitions to keep her scholarship. It wasn’t long before her competitive spirit took over.
“In the water, I could yell, scream and fantasize about slicing my rapist’s head off with a machete,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. “When I tell that story to an audience, they often recoil because it isn’t socially acceptable. But in the water, I could re-enact it over and over again, and it would give me a sense of power back.”
In 1983, she left Duke to train full time for the Los Angeles Olympics, where she tied for gold with fellow American Carrie Steinseifer in the 100-meter freestyle, anchored two gold-winning relays and took silver in the 200-meter individual medley behind Tracy Caulkins.
Only a small circle of teammates and coaches knew about the rape. “I now feel zero shame about having been raped, but it wasn’t that way back then, and I still was not completely healed,” she says. “If you had started talking to me about it at that time, I probably would have just started to cry.”
She parlayed her Olympic success into a series of motivational speaking appearances and product endorsements — including a turn in 1991 as a model for Jockey underwear — and finished her undergraduate degree at Duke. She began opening up about the rape after meeting human rights activist Richard Lapchick at a fundraiser in Boston. Lapchick, a sports sociologist who runs the DeVos Sport Business Management program at the University of Central Florida, himself had been attacked after leading sports boycotts against South Africa during apartheid in the 1970s. He was working in his office at Virginia Wesleyan College when two men burst in and carved the n-word into his stomach with a pair of scissors.
Lapchick told her that he, too, had been reluctant to talk about being attacked but had found it both therapeutic and useful in engaging audiences. “Obviously, she wrestled with the idea of whether to do it or not, but she eventually started, and I think it helped her,” he says.
As a college intern, Hogshead-Makar had gotten involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation, a non-profit started by Billie Jean King in San Francisco. Hogshead- Makar says that though motivational speaking paid the bills, what she really loved was advocating for gender equality. She became the foundation’s president in 1992 and held that job until 1994, when she decided to go to law school.
After getting her law degree from Georgetown, she moved to Jacksonville and worked for Holland & Knight, where she met her future husband, Scott Makar, now a judge on Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal.
They have three children, including a son who attends Duke. Hogshead- Makar remains close with her parents, who live nearby in the same house where she grew up, and with her siblings: Her older brother, Andy, a Harvard-educated former investment banker and Collier Cos. executive, lives in Gainesville; her younger sister, Sally, a branding expert, public speaker and author, is in Orlando.
Critic and advocate
During the 2000s, Hogshead-Makar taught at Florida Coastal School of Law and advised the Women’s Sports Foundation on legal issues. In 2009, she sued the Florida High School Athletic Association over its attempt to cut between 20% and 40% of all competitive sports opportunities, except for football. Hogshead- Makar argued that the cuts violated Title IX, since 100% of girls faced cuts, while 30% of boys — the football players — did not. The FHSAA ended up restoring all athletic competitions for both boys and girls.
Meanwhile, Hogshead-Makar started representing women in cases of alleged sexual assaults on college campuses.
When Title IX was first put into place, rule-making under the law focused on ensuring equal access to athletic opportunities for women, but by the ’90s, Title IX also was seen as a way to prevent sexual violence against female students.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines calling for “prompt, thorough, impartial” investigations of all incidents known to school administrators. Then, in 2011, the department issued a directive stating that administrators “must promptly investigate” any sexual harassment or abuse case they know about, or should know about, and take “appropriate” action. Schools generally have 60 days to conclude an investigation.
Hogshead-Makar was a consultant to the legal team that represented Erica Kinsman in her lawsuit against Florida State University for an alleged sexual assault by Jameis Winston in 2012. “I was there to provide Florida context and help explain the case to the media,” she says. FSU ended up settling the suit for about $1 million. Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2013, ultimately settled a separate lawsuit with Kinsman for an undisclosed amount.
In 2014, Hogshead-Makar left the Women’s Sports Foundation to create her own non-profit, Champion Women, which provides legal advocacy for girls and women in sports. She says she fell out with the foundation over a contract it wanted her to sign agreeing to not publicly discuss the issue of sexual abuse in sports. “It’s a very uncomfortable subject for most people,” she says.
Hogshead-Makar has since become a critic of the U.S. Olympic committee and its handling of abuse allegations by athletes against their coaches or other staff. For years, she says, the Olympic committee and national sports governing bodies hid behind the tort “no duty rule,” a legal doctrine that says no person or group has an obligation to protect another from harm.
In 2018, she helped persuade Congress to pass legislation aimed at requiring the Olympic movement to protect athletes and to prevent cases like that of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics sports doctor who sexually assaulted hundreds of female athletes. The bill authorized the creation of the US. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization charged with preventing abuse and removing abusers from Olympic sports. Last year, she also got federal legislation passed to restructure the U.S. Olympic committee, giving athletes greater protection and more input into governance and decision-making.
Hogshead-Makar is a frequent target of attacks from critics: Some argue that Title IX gives opportunities to women at the expense of men. Others question the educational value of college athletics more broadly, arguing that they take admission spots and scholarship dollars away from students who are more deserving.
“There are lots of people who think it’s a cultural downfall that women now have some equality in the sports world,” Scott Makar says. “I’m a relatively conservative person, but I look at Title IX and think, hey, gender equality, what’s the big deal? Why is that such a politically divisive topic? Once you have a son and then a daughter, you realize, I want the same for both of them.”