On Dreaming and Practice: Donna Lopiano, Defender of Women's Rights for Four Decades

As I continue my “On Dreaming and Practice” series, I think about women who only had the option of dreaming in their early years. Dreaming was essential because they had yet to see another woman hold certain leadership positions at all. For these women, they needed to take the first step and go after these roles. Dr. Donna Lopiano, a mentor of mine at The Women’s Sports Foundation and a brilliant strategist, rose to the challenge. As a passionate activist, an expert witness, and visionary servant of gender equity, Donna’s story deserves to be told again and again. Telling her story is how I am choosing to celebrate National Girls and Women’s Sports Day, February 7th.

“Girls are not allowed.” Since being turned away from Little League as a 10 year-old superstar baseball pitcher, Donna Lopiano has fought tirelessly for justice. When Donna speaks publicly she often shares the story of these four words that changed her life.

Working alongside Donna for 15 years at The Women’s Sports Foundation, I heard this speech dozens of times, and each time it has been impactful. Not being able to compete in her beloved sport of baseball, Donna eventually translated her drop ball and curve to the underhand pitching motion of a softball pitcher. She went on to compete for multiple championships in four sports as an AAU athlete and became a hall of fame softball player.

Through ritual, attention to detail, and calm, determined focus, Donna honed the emotional intelligence of a fierce competitor. She would put all of this to good use.

I call Donna “the Mother Teresa of gender equity in sport” because she selflessly and tirelessly serves the invisible, the under-resourced, and/or embattled. A true change maker uses their talents for what is needed, and Donna has consistently shown us that this is who she is. Just how far we have to go to reach gender equity in sport is more alive a topic than ever since we heard the testimonies from the Olympic gymnastics team in January. Rachael Denhollander broke her silence about the abuse she suffered from US gymnastics team physician, Larry Nassar, in 2016. Following this, a handful of other gymnasts came forward, and then more, bringing the number to over 160 women who say they were abused by Nassar. This horror story, alongside the #MeToo movement, should bring out the “mother bear” or “father bear” instinct of any adult with a pulse. When I think about this case and its terrible repercussions to the well-being, self-esteem, and vision of these athletes, I think about how we need activists like Donna—with all of her brains and passion—to fight for women and girls with everything they’ve got.

In 1975, Donna became the first Director of Women's Athletics at the University of Texas. She went on to spend decades building the women’s sports movement for which she was honored by the International Olympic Committee among others. She’s written a handbook of policies for athletic directors, developed sports organizations, and worked to change the NCAA’s model and practice of the treatment of athletes. Donna first spoke truth to power in 1975 when she testified before Congress about Title IX. Since then, she has testified and/or written expert reports for more than 40 cases that involve the discrimination of women and girls in sports. While that number may seem high, we know it is just a sliver of the reality.  

With every call Donna receives, the themes are the same: discrimination based on sex and/or sexual orientation and retaliation for being outspoken about Title IX and gender equity issues. The storyline includes a strong woman who speaks up on behalf of her female players and is fired. Men in power, threatened by a woman demanding justice, find a way to present some fabricated story often inventing allegations of player harassment to fire the leader. (Arrogant white male athletic directors hate it when a powerful female coach stands up to them). And even when women coaches are the best in the world, they are still harassed and treated by double standards. Even with Title IX, women carry the burden of proof, while getting their entire existence scrutinized. (See the case of Shannon Miller at the University of Minnesota Duluth, the Canadian gold medal ice hockey coach who after five collegiate championships, was fired because she was paid too much).

Each case Donna works on requires her to assess and integrate data, stories, and equity breaches on the part of the school or organization. From this, she produces expert reports that are often more than 100 pages long. Donna wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in her 20s, and now she may write the equivalent of five per year! It is not unusual for her to sift through hundreds of documents and thousands of pages of depositions to identify relevant facts essential to constructing accurate expert reports.

In all of these ways, Donna has been a less visible, but tireless leader in the #MeToo movement in women’s sports.  

Why Non-Disclosure Agreements Perpetuate Abuses of Power

As we are beginning to learn with the Nassar case and others, what is particularly true in so many Title IX cases, the plaintiff often settles out of court receiving money in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement. Such settlements may be motivated by institutions wanting to protect the brand of the institution, but they are often agreed to by a plaintiff who is fearful of being blackballed in her future job market. For either reason, the coach is not publicly exonerated and the nefarious tactics of the institutions are not shared. Fortunately, this was not the situation with Jane Meyer, the Associate AD and second in command in the University of Iowa athletic department, when she won a jury trial. (Meyer was fired because Iowa was afraid that her highly successful partner, the Head Field Hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was going to sue following Griesbaum's contract being terminated based on false facts).

As Donna has witnessed, it takes incredible courage for women to bring their cases to court—risking the cost, acrimony, and potential of future blackballing involved—and win. Most women do either of two things: a) leave for another job because they fear the cost and retribution of bringing lawsuit or b) threaten a lawsuit and settle for good money and the confidentiality agreement so they can retire on the money or pursue another job, often for less status and pay. The press is often complicit in siding with the athletic department, failing to investigate and reveal the true outcome of these cases, keeping the details and institution’s guilt quiet.

With the Nassar case, we are beginning to see the toxicity of this practice. We have learned that some of these athletes signed non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with as much as $1.25 million tied to them. In her testimonies, Donna often explains the reasoning and emotion tied to decisions around NDAs, which are often coerced. For many athletes and coaches, this is the only life they know, and an athlete protecting the opportunity to compete in the short window of time in which they are physically capable of doing so is crucial. When your sport and livelihood—and the autonomy and dignity you’ve created around that— is threatened, you need someone like Donna fighting for you.

Now, just like the #TimesUp platform for women in Hollywood and beyond, people are starting to understand that we need to put an end to the increasingly high number of times women coaches, athletes, and administrators are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. All these NDAs do is protect institutions and their leadership teams from repeated abuses of power. As America’s athletes Simone Biles, Alyssa Rayman, and others courageously share their stories, I want to see #TimesUp move into the sports world. Just as a legal defense fund has been created for women who experience abuse in less privileged professions than entertainment and media, we need to do the same thing to protect women in sports. Through her life’s work, by helping to establish case precedents and prepare expert reports, Donna has truly helped to lay the foundation for this kind of long-awaited gender justice.

The Big Picture of Power

As Donna reminds me frequently, in the four major male-dominated American cultural institutions—the military, sport, religion, and politics—male control, arrogance, and overt sexism are alive and well. She’s right. Harassment, homophobia, pay inequity, sexual abuse, double standards have been rampant in sports for a century, and only recently is the public being made aware of the “working women” of sport and these double standards. The depth and level of abuse of athletes is slowly coming out in the open, but the covert abuses done to powerful women coaches is still rampant. Athletic directors, college presidents, and boards of sports organizations (all predominantly white men) have repeatedly covered up, ignored, or dismissed women who have spoken up about the need for gender equity in sport.

To change this, we need fierce, confident, and truth-telling women (and men who respect and support them) to have a zero tolerance policy of unjust and hostile practices. Title IX has offered protection with all cases that have gone to court being won by plaintiffs. Yet, as Donna knows from the calls she fields every month, there are hundreds of cases that never even make it to court. Thankfully, we have people like Donna and a cadre of smart lawyers who are battling power-abusing leaders in and outside of courtrooms.

Every movement has fighters. This generation includes fierce leaders such as Ai Jen Poo working to protect domestic workers, Sarita Gupta challenging economic paradigms, and Fatima Goss Graves leading gender justice in the legal system. As we lift up new fighters, we must also lift up and honor fighters from previous generations. This is why I share Donna’s story whenever I can. She’s an extraordinary activist, consultant, and colleague, and I’m proud to call her a friend. I have counted on her daily email messages since the 2016 election on who to contact in Congress for what issue. Donna does everything she can to stop the attempted dismantling of America’s civil rights protections, and we need more people to follow her example. I am enormously grateful to Donna and countless lawyers alongside her because I know Donna’s legacy in the world of public policy and defense of Title IX and Title VII has brought us to where we are…a year where we collectively say #TimesUp on the abuse of power and patriarchy in our major institutions.

Now it is up to us to support each other in speaking our own truth to power… and to make sure all girls are allowed to play, however and wherever they want to and without fear of abuse.    

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