The blockbuster college admissions bribery scandal that landed on Tuesday came embroidered with some unusually delicious details, including Aunt Becky’s Instagram-famous daughters and a scheme to photoshop rich-kid heads onto the bodies of actual athletes. The scheme seemed to many like evidence that the wealthy will stop at nothing to give their children unfair advantages in life. But the wacky particulars of this case conceal a much larger scandal playing out in plain sight: the entire ecosystem of elite college sports recruiting.
What the FBI calls “Operation Varsity Blues” centers on a college-prep guru named William Singer, who is accused, among other things, of helping parents craft fraudulent athletic records for their children. Singer is also said to have paid college administrators and coaches to classify the applicants as recruited athletes, effectively reserving spots for them at their desired schools. In some cases, the applicants did not play these sports at all, let alone excel at them. Singer described the scheme to parents as a “side door” to admission. (Separately, prosecutors say he helped parents acquire fraudulent standardized test scores for their children.) The defendants in the case include nine college coaches who are said to have received bribes, including Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, former Yale University women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, and the water polo coach at the University of Southern California, Jovan Vavic.
Current scandal aside, most of the hand-wringing around college sports recruiting in recent years has revolved around football and basketball teams at Division I schools. Are athletes getting paid illegally? Should they be getting paid? Are the students getting a real education? Do college football programs even benefit colleges? The athletes at the center of these debates are not the mediocre scions of white celebrities; they are hotly recruited and sometimes nationally famous, and they also tend to be black.
But the vast majority of athletes at elite colleges are not superstars with a chance of going pro. They are instead the kinds of athletes that actress Lori Loughlin allegedly pretended her daughters were: decent high-school athletes in less-prominent sports like rowing, soccer, and water polo. (Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to have their daughters designated as rowing recruits at USC.) Most elite schools recruit athletes in these sports, typically setting aside copious slots in each freshman class for students with athletic talent.
“I am stunned,” said Mimi Doe, a college admissions consultant and co-author of Don’t Worry, You’ll Get In. “You can see the dark underbelly [of college admissions], and it’s so beyond belief.” She compared getting into an elite college to procuring a ticket to a movie theater: It might seem like there are 500 available seats, but in fact many are roped off and reserved for special categories of people, among them “legacy” applicants and athletes.
In many cases, admission criteria for grades and test scores are relaxed for such recruits. Slate wrote in 2017 that college sports at many elite schools are “essentially an affirmative action program for athletes.” And the group most likely to benefit from that program is not black superstars but “white men with mediocre academic records,” as one former Wesleyan University administrator put it:
Two former Wesleyan admissions officers told me they believe the “tips” system—which allows the school to admit 60 to 70 undergrads per class who don’t fit the university’s typical academic profile—disproportionately benefits white men. Minority athletes, they said, can gain a leg up in admissions independent of their on-field ability because their presence helps increase racial diversity on campus. When athletes of color get admitted to Wesleyan without using athletic tips, those slots are often used by white athletes. “Not only do you have white men who wouldn’t otherwise be at Wesleyan,” says the former administrator who held various posts at Wesleyan. “But then the school doesn’t work as hard to recruit minorities who aren’t athletes.”
Many less-prestigious sports are expensive to participate in, let alone excel at. They require investments like elaborate equipment, pool time, and private coaching. They overwhelmingly attract white players and even more disproportionately exclude black students. Just 160 of 7,277 women’s crew team members last year were black, according to NCAA data. Among water polo players, black athletes made up 31 of 2,263 team members.
When special slots are set aside for these athletes at elite schools, they’re essentially designated for wealthy applicants who otherwise might not be accepted. According to a Harvard Crimson survey last fall, more than one-quarter of recruited athletes in the current freshman class come from families with incomes above $500,000. Just 12 percent of recruited athletes at Harvard come from families with incomes below $80,000. Yes, it’s a scandal that a few dozen rich and famous parents essentially bought college acceptance letters for their kids through a “side door.” But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking the front door is so much more noble.