LOS ANGELES — The LA84 Foundation is turning 35 years old. If you don’t live in Southern California or don’t work in the sports nonprofit industrial complex, you probably haven’t heard of it. But the foundation commands a reverence from a certain set of LA normie (read: suburban homeowners), and has come to embody the 1984 Olympic “legacy,” a fantasy of LA exceptionalism in its bleakest decade.
To celebrate, I opted for a reprise of what I did last year: crashing their annual party, the LA84 Youth Summit, an expensive-but-inelegant day dedicated to panels centered on corporate partnerships, brand service, and road testing agency-crafted hashtags that no human being would ever say aloud. Tickets ran as high as $395, but I and a few fellow members of NOlympics LA—a grassroots organization that was founded to try and prevent the Olympics from returning to LA—got in without paying.
This year’s summit was focused on the idea of “Play Equity,” a marketer’s twist on the phrase “pay equity.” The LA84 Foundation has identified the play equity gap—the difference between investments in youth sports for rich communities versus poor communities—as its battleground in the non-profit sphere. The thinking is that if poor kids get the same sports infrastructure as the privileged kids, then social equity will be achieved, at least according to the rich kids who run the LA84 Foundation.
The foundation’s ostensible mission fits in nicely with the current atmosphere of sports boosterism that has settled over Los Angeles. The city is bracing not only for an Olympics in 2028; there’s a World Cup in 2026, a Super Bowl in 2022, an MLB All-Star Game in 2020, and a College Football Semifinals in 2021 and Finals in 2023. With these impending events comes a whole wave of real estate speculation spanning downtown, South Central, Inglewood, Long Beach, and beyond. There’s a lot of money to be made in LA right now, and the best way to make it is to attach yourself to the Olympic project.
While sports business is booming in the Southland, the last vestiges of LA’s social floor are rapidly disintegrating, and these two things are connected. Over 600,000 Angelenos spent 90 percent of their income on rent in 2018, and roughly 60,000 people in the city are homeless (of which at least 5,000 are children in LA County, many of whom are in mixed or undocumented families). These Angelenos have been failed by the politicians who are more interested in sending in cops to sweep and dismantle homeless encampments than they are in helping the people who live in them. And if Donald Trump has his way, those sweeps are only going to become more frequent and punitive.
For all the good it claims to do, the LA84 Foundation has done more to help create these problems than one might expect. That’s why I and other protestors decided to crash this year’s party; we wanted to tell people what kind of work LA84 actually does, and who it does it for.
It’s fitting that the LA84 Foundation emerged out of the Reagan Republican–fueled “Capitalist Games” of the 1984 Olympics, where corporate Olympic partnerships were pioneered and a new era of Olympic greed was ushered in.
Many Angelenos speak about LA ‘84 as a success because the games “made money” for the city. The problem with this narrative is that LA, as in The City of Los Angeles, didn’t really get to keep any of it. By the time the LA ‘84 Games concluded with a surplus of $225 million, and after the IOC and other Olympic shell companies took their standard hefty cut, there was $93 million left for Southern California. But where exactly did this money go?
Not back to Los Angeles. Instead, the Amateur Athletic Foundation, a non-profit that would later rebrand as the LA84 Foundation, was established as a joint venture between former 1984 Olympic Organizing Committee members and other various local power brokers and sports celebrities. In effect, this was a way for the ‘84 Olympic organizers to pay themselves out forever.
The AAF was structured as a non-profit, private and entirely separate from the municipal apparatus of the city. Its main activity is awarding grants in small chunks (usually in the tens of thousands) to other sports nonprofits and charities in the region, many of them connected to police and fire department philanthropy nonprofits, and most of them serving the general purpose of fulfilling some youth sports-related service that doesn’t exist via public resources, or has been stripped away from communities.
Former Olympic rower Anita L. DeFrantz ran the Olympic Village at USC in ‘84. She took the helm at AAF in 1987 and was in charge for almost three decades. She also joined the IOC’s ranks and is still a member today. An early project completed during DeFrantz’s tenure was the creation of the Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center, AAF’s “world-class” sports and Olympic library, which, hey that sounds great, right? Too bad it’s private, part of roughly $7 million in real estate assets the foundation owns and manages, and available only by special permission.
DeFrantz and the AAF weathered some rocky moments early on. In 1990, the foundation was scrutinized by the LA Times for giving a half a million dollars to Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel schools, so that they could purchase a diving board and some boats. Those schools are in some of the wealthiest zip codes in America. The grants were awarded to Dick Wilson, an announcer and competition director for the 1984 Games.
The following year, the LA Times wrote an unflattering portrait of the revolving door and boardroom tumult at AAF. The problem, much like the diving board scandal, was that core members felt the AAF wasn’t actually following through on its mission. As the Times reported, “The long-brewing conflict surfaced publicly last week when it was revealed that three of its most prominent directors had resigned—Mayor Tom Bradley, U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt and Los Angeles County labor leader William Robertson. They said they quit because the 17-member board, dominated by wealthy executives, refused to open its ranks to young activists with close community ties.”
This battle between community and capital was eventually won by capital. Since the early ‘90s, there has been no evidence of community outreach to grassroots groups by AAF. It rebranded as the LA84 Foundation in 2007, likely as a way to exploit the growing cloud of nostalgia around the ‘84 Games, and DeFrantz stepped down in 2016, only to see her seat filled by someone with even greater corporate ambitions. Through a PR firm, LA84 declined to comment on whether it’s done any outreach to grassroots organizations, nor answer any of our other clarifying questions.
DeFrantz was replaced by Renata Simril, who was seemingly engineered in a lab to make a 40 under 40 list. In 2010, the LA Times ran a fawning profile of her as an up-and-coming real estate tycoon. “Ruins such as the Colosseum in Rome set her to thinking about what makes communities work,” read one line. “‘I was enamored at a very young age at the fall and rise of European cities,’” she told the Times, perhaps a subconscious foreshadowing of LA a decade later. She got her master’s from USC in real estate and spent “over a decade in real estate development with Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., Forest City Development, and LCOR Inc.” Later, she spent time in branding with the Dodgers and was SVP and assistant to the publisher at the LA Times. She boasts significant ties to the city’s real estate, media, and PR industries: one of the unholiest of trinities.
So far, Simril’s connections seem to have proven rather valuable for LA84. The LA Times has been an annual “gold sponsor” of the LA84 summit since 2016, the same year that Simril moved from the office of the paper’s publisher to the foundation. (The LA Times even sent a reporter to this year’s summit to report it out but failed to disclose his paper was underwriting the event. They corrected it when I pointed out the blatant oversight.)
LA84 will tell you they’re in the business of “Social Justice” (the theme of last year’s summit), “Play Equity,” and youth sports. But those noble aims have always been set dressing for something much less feel-good.
Over its lifespan, LA84 claims to have given out over $200 million in grants, affecting the lives of over three million children (including the Williams sisters, whom they will jump at any chance to invoke). They’re also, like many private foundations, spending as little as possible on their stated mission. In order to be a 501(c)(3), a private foundation is supposed to spend five percent of its assets every year. In theory, this is supposed to stop private foundations from just becoming parking lots for wealthy people to grow investments in a near tax-free haven. Turns out you can distribute five percent of your assets every year and still park plenty of wealth.
According to LA84’s 2017 tax return, the most recent that has been made public, five percent of the foundation’s overall assets (~$160 million) is around $8 million, and the forms do indeed show that the foundation had $8,422,087 worth of disbursements in 2017. Nearly $5 million of those disbursements were directed towards operating and administrative expenses, which left only about $3.5 million to be spent on “contributions, gifts, and grants.”
If you dig down a bit on what exactly constitutes “contributions, gifts, and grants,” though, the amount of money the LA84 foundation actually returns to the community becomes even more disappointing. The section that details their direct charitable activities reveals that LA84 spent nearly as much on this year’s annual summit as it did on funding youth sports programs:
The foundation did give out $2 million in grants that year, a relatively high number for them, but that’s still only 1-2 percent of their overall assets. A foundation of this size spending whatever the legal minimum is, whether it’s a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars a year in a region as large and underserved as Los Angeles, feels like a cheat.
Play equity assumes that sports infrastructure, and not infrastructure and services at large (schools, hospitals, medicine, food, public transit, libraries, law enforcement that doesn’t kill and detain people of color at whim), is more than just a piece of a much larger, more uncomfortable conversation around poverty that the LA84 Foundation isn’t trying to have. It turns out it matters far less whether or not you have a tennis court in your neighborhood than what neighborhood you were born in. If you live in one of LA’s classically underfunded communities, but you now have access to affordable swimming lessons, is your life meaningfully better as a result? Or is building swimming pools just a way for participants in this charity to feel like they matter?
On the subject of white liberals offering black communities swimming pools as consolation prizes, James Baldwin had this to say to Esquire in 1968:
You’re talking about the people who have the power, who intend to keep the power. And all they can think of are things like swimming pools, you know, in the summertime, and sort of made up jobs to simply protect peace and the public property. But they show no sign whatsoever of understanding what the root of the problem really is, what the dangers really are. They have made no attempt, whatever, any of them, as far as I know, really to explain to the American people that the black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something.
Last year, I started digging into LA84’s recent tax filings, and found that they had an alarming amount of money invested in equity firms like Blackstone Group, Merit Energy, Oaktree Capital, and Goldman Sachs. You probably know Goldman Sachs as a co-architect of the last great financial meltdown in the country’s history. LA84’s 2016 tax return shows that the foundation has over a million invested in Goldman ($1,339,178). Same with distressed securities purveyors Oaktree Capital ($2,067,580) and oil and gas company Merit Energy ($3,067,425). LA84 has over $40 million in stock at Northern Trust, in addition to the over $60 million in investments in other companies listed here:
The most galling of all these investments is Blackstone. In 2016, the LA84 Foundation had $22 million invested in Blackstone, the largest residential landlord in the U.S. Blackstone specializes in extracting profit from the poorest communities around the world. Last year, they spent $5.6 million, the most of any corporate interest, to defeat a California rent control bill that was sorely needed to keep millions of people in their homes. Earlier this summer, the Intercept revealed Blackstone to be a key player in the intentional burning of the Amazon to displace entire swaths of indigenous populations. The firm is also one of Trump’s largest fundraisers. More recently, Blackstone’s CEO, Steve Schwarzman, said that maybe Bernie Sanders “shouldn’t exist.”
Through a PR firm, the LA84 Foundation declined to disclose what the purpose behind these investments is, or to answer questions about how it can be so heavily invested in Blackstone and still claim that its mission is to serve the Los Angeles community.
It might not feel so off-putting if Los Angeles wasn’t the least affordable city in America, with interests like Blackstone being a major reason for the current uninhabitable reality. Juxtapose LA84’s relatively paltry investments in youth sports with the money it’s placed in the hands of firms like Blackstone, who have used that money to make life demonstrably worse for LA’s citizens, and the foundation’s purpose suddenly doesn’t seem so charitable.
Back at this year’s LA84 annual summit, I walked around the event before it began with fellow members of NOlympics LA. We handed out a pop quiz about LA84’s financial alliances to attendees whose reactions ranged from amused to politely indifferent.
I walked right by Renata Simril, whom I had seen at a public forum a few months prior. She’s one of several members of the Measure H Community Oversight Board, which is another group that oversees grants connected to Measure H, a tax-generated fund of an estimated $355 million annually, for 10 years, that will run out before 2028. Simril and her colleagues on the board are tasked with allocating these resources for homeless services and creating a forum where folks ostensibly fight over the scraps offered by various small grants. Meanwhile, the LA 2028 budget was recently revealed to be $6.9 billion—about twice as much as Measure H is expected to generate over the 10 years it’s in effect.
Earlier this June, when it was announced homelessness went up (again) by thousands of people (16 percent across the county), some of us went to tell the Measure H Oversight Board about Simril and LA84’s entanglement with Blackstone, whose aims are completely antithetical to the ostensible mission of the board. She didn’t have much to say then, and she didn’t seem to recognize me at the summit.
Our crew didn’t make it more than 45 minutes before security realized we hadn’t shelled out for the pricey tickets and physically removed us from the venue. As we were being escorted out, one of the security guards asked, “Who is Blackstone?” After we explained, he conceded, “I get it.”
Jonny Coleman is a writer and organizer with NOlympics LA.