USC Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel Is Gay, Did College Admissions Crimes

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.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2698 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. I’m so sad, i just finished my application to transfer to USC this February and have gone to lambda events put on before. I also know some athletes at USC and the day the allegations came out i was walking around my CC wearing a rainbow USC shirt i got during pride month last year. USC is still my top choice but i am extremely dissapointed with Heinel. That being said, the overall LGBT community at USC is really great, and I hope that by the time I (hopefully!) get there the lgbt community isnt losing all the gains they have made because of one woman’s greed. Fight on… ✌

  2. Thanks for this great article; after seeing this scandal all over the news and social media from a million different angles, it was a nice change to read about it in an LGBT context.

    BUT I am a little concerned about the GoFundMe reference–if you click on the link, the description is pretty vague but says it’s asking for “donations to research towards a cure for autism.” Autistic activists for the most part see autism as an integral part of who they are and advocate for a focus on increasing acceptance, not searching for a “cure”, which has been described as a form of eugenics.

    I assume this isn’t the reason Heinel didn’t donate more (if she felt it was a problematic cause, why support it at all), but I’m still not comfortable with AS criticizing her for not giving more.

    • She created the fundraiser herself — like she started it — so yeah that definitely wasnt why she didn’t donate more.

      Thanks for the insight into it though seriously!

      honestly I didn’t look into the details of the cause at all — like nothing beyond the headline of the fundraisers — bc those specifics weren’t what interested me, it was more that an EXTREMELY wealthy person couldn’t even top off the modest birthday fundraiser they’d started for the boss they were actively committing crimes beneath the nose of. I would’ve made the same joke if the fundraiser she’d started was to buy him a pile of heroin or tickets to see Ann Coulter do performance art.

    • I feel like it’s the opposite – she apparently said that her youngest daughter isn’t stupid like her older daughter. I feel worse for the older daughter whose parents thought she wasn’t smart enough to succeed on her own 🙁

  3. I have been lurking on the College Confidential thread for this, and the vast majority of the shrieking rage is related to the SAT/ACT cheating portion of the scam. They used fraudulently obtained testing accommodations as part of the cheating process. Students were given extra time accommodations that required testing at a special location, where the dude doing this had paid off proctors to change tests answers. So the main collateral damage of this mess is likely to be students with legit need for accomodations being unable due to overly heightened scrutiny.

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