feature image pulled from a screenshot of a larger photograph from Trojan Candy, © 2008-2019 Candace C. Yee.
The college admissions cheating scandal that has captivated the nation this week — inspiring a plethora of opinions about the worth of college to begin with, the myriad ways incredibly wealthy families regularly get their children into elite colleges without committing actual crimes, the older daughter who had to read “my younger daughter isn’t like my older daughter, she’s not stupid” in a court transcript, and a lot of general scorn towards Aunt Becky — has befallen many esteemed members of various esteemed situations including but not limited to the out lesbian Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of Southern California. She is the only school administrator indicted in the nationwide probe.
Donna Heinel was fired from her position at USC after being indicted for receiving $1.3 million dollars in bribes to “help parents take advantage of the relaxed admissions standards for athletics at USC even though their children were not legitimately being recruited as athletes.” Heinel would receive payments ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 per student from parents for enabling this “back door” scheme, which led to the dishonest admission of over two dozen students. (It is unclear where this money was in 2015 when Heinel launched and contributed $50 to a GoFundMe for her Athletic Director Pat Haden’s son to get treatment for his autism — a fundraiser which did not reach its $2,000 goal.)
We are here today talking about this because Heinel was also a prominent member of the LGBT Collegiate Athletics community. Heinel, who is married to a woman and has two young children, was part of the effort that led USC to become one of only two schools to earn a perfect score from Athlete Ally for LGBTQ inclusive sport spaces in 2017. In the methodology portion of the Athlete Ally Index, its authors note the importance of having out LGBT administrators and coaches. Furthermore, women, in particular, are sorely underrepresented in University athletic department administrations, and Donna was one of only a few at USC, leading the “Women of Troy” as Senior Women’s Athletics Director. (Payments made to Heinel were often funneled through the USC bank account for the USC Women’s Athletic Board.)
In 2016, Heinel was credited as part of a group of leaders who “revitalized” the LGBT Athletic committee at USC. In an article in USC’s student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, Heinel talked about the “We are SC” rainbow t-shirts distributed for National Coming Out Day to USC athletes, telling the paper: “We were thinking about a lot of ways to celebrate. The [athletes] said they wanted something that subtly shows support for gay student athletes and something that allies can wear proudly. It’s going to get people talking, and that’s really what we want to do.” In a video produced for National Coming Out day, a student athlete commended Donna for making the t-shirts and for “doing a great job as a woman’s athletic director, making sure women feel included.”
In a panel conversation from 2013 on “Sports and The Collegiate LGBT Experience,” Heinel described herself as a former “loner” who, after being rejected by her parents for coming out, went her own way and decided to “do what I wanna do when I wanna do it.” She noted that the environment for LGBT athletes at USC improved significantly after the appointment of Pat Hayden three years prior. “We actually acknowledge the existence of gay and lesbian student athletes,” she explained, saying how “ridiculous” it was that she couldn’t get any movement on the gay and lesbian issues until Pat took over. Heinel herself went to Springfield College in Massachusetts (acceptance rate: 70%) where she was on the swim team.
This is apparently one of many scandals faced by USC in recent years, including another FBI investigation.
In order to ensure admission for various unqualified students, Donna worked with other current and former coaches to create fake “profiles” which would include imaginary honors like hotel and casino mogul Gamal Abdelaziz’s daughter being declared a member of the “Beijing Junior National Team” and winning honors including “Hong Kong Academy Team MVP” for her skills on the b-ball court. (You can read the entire court document here.) Heinel would then send a provisional acceptance letter for the student, declaring them full of “potential to make a significant contribution to the intercollegiate athletic program.” When the school year began, the student’s absence from their alleged team would be explained away by an injury.
Heinel was such a fan of the aforementioned basketball profile that she told “Cooperating Witness One,” “that profile that you did, I loved it. It was really well done and going forward, anybody who isn’t a real basketball player that’s a female, I want you to use that profile going forward.”
Actress Lori Laughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, got their youngest daughter, YouTuber and “influencer” Olivia Jade Giannulli, accepted to the USC Crew team with fake shit including a photograph of her on an ergometer. (Olivia has apparently not been a huge fan of going to class, but did “want the experience of like, game days, partying.”) The guidance counselor at their high school was a little confused about both sisters being recruited as athletes, which alarmed Heinel, who left this voicemail for CW-1:
“I just want to make sure that, you know, I don’t want the — the parents getting angry and creating any type of disturbance at the school. I just want to make sure that those students… if questioned at the school that they respond in an appropriate manner that they are walk-on candidates for their respective sports. They’re looking forward to trying out for the team and making the team when they get here. OK? that’s what I just want to make sure of.”
Anticipating an upcoming IRS audit, CW-1 called Giannulli to ensure they had their “stories straight” about the donations made to the foundation that was used to funnel money to those involved in the scam. “I just want to make sure our stories are the same,” he confirmed with Giannulli, “and that your $400k was paid to our foundation to help underserved kids.” He did not add “lol” to the end of that sentence but maybe should have.
Here’s hoping that support of LGBT and women athletes at USC will not be collateral damage of this whole damn thing.