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This former Duke Olympian was raped – and became an advocate for women's rights

Fellow witnesses applaud Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, center, as she is introduced at a hearing on Title IX, the women's educational equity law on April 7, 2003 in Washington, D.C. Left to right are Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimmer and professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law; Marnie Shaul, a Government Accounting Office official; Dawes, and World Cup soccer champion Mia Hamm. Title IX governs equity in women's sports. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Fellow witnesses applaud Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, center, as she is introduced at a hearing on Title IX, the women's educational equity law on April 7, 2003 in Washington, D.C. Left to right are Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimmer and professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law; Marnie Shaul, a Government Accounting Office official; Dawes, and World Cup soccer champion Mia Hamm. Title IX governs equity in women's sports. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) GERALD HERBERT

Because she’s a trouper with an Olympic athlete’s discipline, Nancy Hogshead-Makar gave no hint of her disappointment and dismay at the day’s news from Washington, D.C.

The Florida resident was in Cary to salute an event 30 years past, the Triangle’s Olympic Sports Festival, in which she did not even participate. She also came to sing the praises of sports safely pursued “as a social good” in any form and at any level. And that’s what she did, comfortably filling the role of the evening’s keynote speaker and most famous personage. Hogshead-Makar gracefully accommodated requests for photos, autographs and conversation, then helped dispense awards, playing the smiling, blonde Vanna White to Hill Carrow, the Triangle Sports Commission CEO’s voluble version of Pat Sajak.

Hogshead-Makar told tales of training to win three gold and one silver swimming medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics. She recalled the 800 laps, approximately 14 miles, she swam daily for years; of missing the 1980 Olympiad at Moscow because the U.S. boycotted over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan; of 5:30 a.m. high school practices, including weight training, that were repeated after classes ended; of five-hour swims every Wednesday for two years, up and down a vegetation-clogged Florida river.

That said, she portrayed her regimen and the restrictions it imposed as far more meaningful than the transitory pleasures of the teenage socializing she missed. “When I look back, they sacrificed, not me,” she said of high school peers who hung out at a local fast-food joint.

There were a smattering of Olympians in the Cary hotel room, from N.C. State senior Ryan Held, the 22-year-old swimmer best known for his victory-stand tears after winning a gold in the 4x100 relay at the 2016 Games at Rio de Janeiro, to Liberty N.C., resident Guy Troy, 94, a U.S. pentathlete in the 1952 Olympics. Hogshead-Makar spoke to and for them when she extolled “the Olympic movement” as “the highest and best expression of us,” and declared that among life’s greatest satisfactions was that “I was committed to something that was bigger than myself.”

So she remains, though now Hogshead-Makar’s commitment is to equal rights for women, which the mother of twin daughters and a son considers one of the great issues of our time. Virtually her entire professional life as a civil rights attorney, law school professor and advocate has revolved around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a transformative federal law that prohibits discrimination in any educational activity or program on the basis of sex.

Hogshead-Makar became involved in Title IX issues while an undergraduate, serving as an intern at the Women’s Sports Foundation. But after 30 years with the national organization she found it too “corporate” and cautious, and recently started her own nonprofit, Champion Women. Following an independent path was the best way Hogshead-Makar, 55, reckoned she could “move the needle” to advance “critical gender equity issues” involving athletic scholarships, hiring and retaining female coaches, addressing campus sexual assaults, and the like.

Back when she was Nancy Hogshead, attending Duke on a swimming scholarship, she also experienced what she describes 36 years later as “a violent, awful sexual assault” while on a training run between campuses. She grappled at length with her far-larger assailant, a non-student. Once subdued, she endured a prolonged rape she says would have sent her “off the rails” had Duke not been so supportive, including allowing her to red-shirt for a year. “My rapist had no power,” observes Hogshead-Makar, referring to the weight of celebrity, wealth or athletic stature. “When it’s peer violence, (schools) are not very kind.”

Hogshead-Makar is called periodically as an expert witness in cases of campus sexual assault, notably in a civil suit settled by Florida State last year in favor of a woman who accused star quarterback Jameis Winston of rape. Media investigation demonstrated FSU and the Tallahassee police were largely indifferent or, worse, antagonistic to the woman’s plight. “Most victims of elite athletes have an almost insurmountable problem that fans are going to take the side of the athlete and then it’s hard to stay in school and get your education,” says Hogshead-Makar, noting a documented pattern that extends from Florida State to Baylor to the University of Montana.

Which brings us back to Title IX, a law most often associated with requirements to provide substantially equivalent athletic opportunities for women and men, a sharp and expensive departure from the male-centric premises upon which the NCAA was founded.

Title IX enforcement sparked intensified controversy when the Obama administration sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to campus administrators in 2011 on how to handle allegations of sexual assault. The new interpretation suggested only “a preponderance of evidence” was necessary to prove fault rather than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, a path akin to campus administrative hearings on serious matters such as selling drugs or cheating. The aim was to support assault victims in coming forward and to perhaps shift the stigma from the accuser to the accused, according to Hogshead-Makar.

But the move to what’s called a “50 percent plus a feather” standard generated numerous, well-publicized instances that seemed patently unfair to those accused. Critics like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens lauded the aims of the guidelines, but denounced the specifics as “an overreach of an administrative state pursuing a narrow ideological goal through methods both lawless and aggressive.”

The day Hogshead-Makar came to Cary, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took a similar stance. "Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on,” she declared in setting aside the Obama standard, a favorite activity in the Trump administration. “But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes."

Hogshead-Makar and other victims’ rights advocates saw sugar-coated equivalency as a major retreat from supporting women in situations frequently fraught with maddening he-said, she-said ambiguity. “Why don’t we get just as upset and sad and angry when it’s the other way around, when somebody’s viciously raped by a group of people and virtually nothing, nothing is done?” demands Hogshead-Makar.

Fighters for social change fondly cite the notion, appropriated from a 19th-century abolitionist by Dr. Martin Luther King, that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Up close, however, the arc is longer and bends more slowly than most reformers might wish.

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