Admissions Scandal Taints Major Athletic Programs

Tuesday was a bad day for college sports.

And an even worse day for college admissions.

A number of high-profile athletic programs, including Stanford, USC and UCLA, were implicated in a massive multi-million dollar college admissions scam uncovered by the FBI and federal prosecutors. Some 50 people were arrested for their part in a national conspiracy to get students into prestigious colleges, including parents, college coaches, administrators, and testing officials. Not to mention a few well-known actresses.

The scheme involved paying college prep counselors to take tests for students, paying SAT and ACT officials to change answers to improve test scores, and bribing college coaches to help get students admitted as recruited athletes.

The case speaks volumes about the current national obsession with admission to elite colleges and the culture that has been built up around the high-stakes admissions process—including counselors, test prep companies and essay consultants—all driven by "tiger moms" and proud dads looking for bragging rights and willing to do whatever it takes to get little Jared into Harvard.

Whatever it takes. As in, funding a new building, hiring someone to pose as your son and take his SAT test, or dropping off a $50,000 check for the wrestling coach.

A number of coaches from different sports were involved in the conspiracy, which the FBI dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”

Among those arrested were USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who has coached the Trojans to 13 national championships; Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, UCLA men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, Texas men's tennis coach Michael Center, Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach Bill Ferguson, former Yale women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith, ex-Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst, and two former USC women’s soccer coaches.

All were apparently on the take to help athletes get into school on the basis of phony athletic credentials. Bogus athletic profiles were created for the students—some of whom never even participated in sports—aided by photo-shopped pictures purportedly showing them in game action.

Why would a coach give up a spot on his team for a non-athlete who would presumably either be a no show, drop off the team after a couple of days, suffer a phantom injury, or become the team manager?

The answer? Money, lots of it.

Money that could narrow the income inequality between highly-successful “minor sports” coaches making 150 grand and assistant football coaches making a cool $1 million. Or money to finance facilities and team travel, which often are not fully funded by the athletic department.

After all, $500,000 can buy a lot of chlorine.

This shocking scandal also begs the question, how much does athletic participation and achievement help in getting a student admitted to a college?

Well, it depends on the school. In most Power Five Conference schools, if you’re being recruited and offered an athletic scholarship, admission is virtually guaranteed. In many cases, you don’t even have to fill out an application. Basically, if they want you, you’re in.

At several schools—UCLA, Cal, Notre Dame, Michigan, Vanderbilt, and Rice, among others—a recruited athlete must still meet some academic standards, albeit lower than the rest of the student body.

Stanford is unique in that recruited athletes must fill out the same application, write the same essays, and meet the same academic requirements in terms of curriculum, grades and test scores as any non-athlete applying for admission. Athletic participation is also considered a special interest or talent that helps the chances of a “well-rounded” applicant.

Sailing coach Vandemoer was fired on Tuesday and pleaded guilty to accepting gifts to the sailing program, reportedly totaling several hundred thousand dollars, to falsify athletic credentials for two students in an attempt to help get them admitted to Stanford. Ironically, neither ended up enrolling on the Farm.

USC’s Vavic was arrested in Hawaii, where his No. 1 ranked women’s water polo team was preparing to play the University of Hawaii on Saturday. (And yes, it’s quite unusual for a non-revenue sport to fly 3000 miles to the site of an away game at least five days in advance).

Perhaps the most disgraced athletic figure involved was USC Sr. Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel, who apparently received more than $1.3 million in bribes to fabricate athletic credentials for prospective students.

Heinel is just one of the many bad hires that USC has made over the past ten years, starting with two unqualified athletic directors (Pat Haden and Lynn Swann) and three football coaches (Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton) that have left the once proud program in tatters.

And let’s not forget the Trojans were also involved in the other recent FBI sports bribery investigation, one that focused on college basketball recruiting.

Predictably, USC’s interim president Dr. Wanda Austin immediately sent out a letter to alums yesterday, casting her school as “a victim in a scheme perpetrated against the University.”

Never mind that the scheme was perpetrated by her own coaches and her own Sr. Woman’s Athletic Administrator.

No, Wanda, the universities are not the victims here.

The real victims in this sorry tale are the students, those who will be forever tainted by fraudulent admission to an elite college, and those who deserved admission but lost their spots to children of privilege whose morally-bankrupt parents gamed the system.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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