The Dark Joy of “Operation Varsity Blues”

Why a scandal so powerfully representative of our national dysfunction has also been so much fun.

Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin.
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, grand dames of Operation Varsity Blues. Lisa O’Connor/Getty Images

At around 10 a.m. Tuesday, the FBI charged 50 people in a college admissions scam that involved $25 million, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California, and scores of parents, including financiers, a vintner, and actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The FBI outlined a scheme in which parents would pay large sums either to have their children cheat on the SATs or get them admitted to elite colleges as recruited athletes in sports they did not actually play, including sailing and soccer. This large-scale grift is a window into the ethical and moral rot of our supposedly meritocratic college-admissions system and a class-riven America where even extremely rich and privileged parents are in a panic for their children’s future—but it is also, and I hope you will excuse me for saying, like, so much stupid fun.

I know that the people involved in this debacle are real people, with real emotions, caught up in a mortifying scandal that has also humiliated their children. But have you scoped the details on this thing??? The FBI called this Operation Varsity Blues because they, too, are apparently ’90s nostalgists. The scheme involved, at some point, photoshopping the prospective students’ heads onto the bodies of other student athletes. Huffman used the phrase “ruh roh” in this context: “Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter’s high school] wants to provide own proctor.” At least one of the admitted students is already a paid Instagram influencer.

This is a genuine scandal—a big, messy to-do and a disgrace—but it also, thankfully, euphorically, does not involve the grifts of our commander in chief, nuclear realpolitik, or our dying planet. It is powerfully representative of so much of our national dysfunction, but will not immediately result in the death of democracy or any other human beings. In contemporary America, I believe this is what passes for a lark.

One of the more un-satirizable details from Operation Varsity Blues has to do with the amounts of money being spent. Someone allegedly paid $6 million to arrange admission for their child, and Laughlin’s family paid $500,000. As has been noted widely on Twitter, you’d think that would be enough to ensure your kids admission to top colleges the old-fashioned way: with a sinecure. It is, of course, perfectly legal to donate large sums of money directly to a college, perhaps even getting your name on a building in the process, and this exact method has worked for many children of the super rich before (as have admissions for competency in relatively esoteric sports). As with the Fyre Festival, what you see with Operation Varsity Blues is the way that illegal schemes and grifts are not categorically different from perfectly legal business transactions: the larceny, instead, is in the details.

That these extraordinarily rich people spending lots of money to ensure their children’s admission don’t even know how to do it right suggests that they are perhaps not as wealthy or cultured as they seem to be (and definitely not legacy). Being a member of the 1 percent does not make you a member of the 0.01 percent. And this is where Operation Varsity Blues begins to take on the pathos that might lend itself to adaptation. This whole story is incredibly easy to imagine as a made-for-TV movie—or this being the year of our lord 2019, a podcast series, dueling Netflix and Hulu documentaries, or the third season of Big Little Lies—because you can actually see in this behavior a disfigured and twisted version of parental love and fear and ambition for one’s clueless offspring. It’s a tragic comedy. Reese Witherspoon could definitely get nominated for an Emmy playing with all of these conflicting emotions.

Also as with the Fyre Festival, this scandal taps into spouts of schadenfreude because it involves the bad behavior of the very rich: We don’t have a lot of empathy for people who would spend a half-million on college admissions instead of, gasp, just sending them to a … not-as-prestigious school. But the really dark joke of all of this is that these parents, in their grasping, illegal way, understood that elite universities are an enormous structural advantage for any young person, whether they actually had the grades to get in or not. Though we might be laughing, the joke is probably on us.

Read more about the college admissions scandal in Slate.