If the parents involved had been ordinary rich people, then the “Varsity Blues” scandal would be positioned where it belongs: on the sports pages, near the very top of the list of the worst episodes in the history of college sports.
Some of those rich people, though, also were famous: movie-star famous, TV-star famous, fashion-world famous, all of the varieties of fame that functioned to push this toward the lead of the network news and the cover of People magazine.
This was doubly a shame. Because at the core of everything that happened, beyond the scheming admissions counselor and the megalomaniacal parents, there are the coaches who agreed to sell out their sports for money.
Unless you’re talking about Dave Bliss, there never has been a worse scandal in college sports. Because the sports involved are not football or men’s basketball, however, the coaches at the heart of this outrage are not receiving the contempt they’ve earned.
(A mighty huge asterisk is warranted here: *Because Jerry Sandusky no longer was a Penn State coach when he was arrested and convicted, we’re not considering that horror for the purpose of this discussion.)
The young men who denigrated the sport of college basketball in the 1950s point-shaving scandal at least had the excuse they weren’t paid for their athletic endeavors and perhaps had legitimate financial needs. The four college basketball coaches caught up in the 2017 FBI sting could rationalize they were taking money from a clueless mark who thought he’d invented a new way to build a sports agency. (The guy was an undercover FBI agent, and all four wound up with felony convictions).
Jorge Salcedo, who pleaded guilty Monday to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering, had the best job in men’s college soccer. When the scandal broke in March 2019, he was in his 15th season as head coach at UCLA, the four-time national champions, the school that produced Brad Friedel, Carlos Bocanegra, Benny Feilhaber, Paul Caliguiri and Joe-Max Moore, the campus so beautiful it might have borrowed the blueprints from Eden.
Salcedo was being paid a base salary of $227,000, and yet still he admitted to accepting $200,000 to facilitate the admission of two students to UCLA as soccer recruits. One was a young woman for whom an artificial soccer bio was created; another was a young man who did not play the sport.
One of the underrated advantages of being a highly competitive athlete is the opportunity to receive preferred admissions from colleges that want to field winning teams in the sports they sponsor. Rick Singer, who operated a college counseling business, was aware of this. At some point, he decided to exploit this circumstance by bribing coaches to use their influence to secure special admissions on young people who either weren’t legitimate prospects as college athletes or weren’t athletes at all.
The key to this scheme: coaches who were willing to take money to violate the most sacred tenets of their sports. One would hope such miscreants would be in short supply, particularly in an era of college athletics when money was not. At the high-major level, head coaches now are well-compensated, and not just those earning multimillion-dollar salaries in football and basketball.
Alas, Singer found willing participants at many elite universities.
The former tennis coach at Georgetown, Gordon Ernst, was charged with accepting $2.7 million from Singer over a period of years. Ernst pleaded not guilty. Rudy Meredith was women’s soccer coach at Yale and allegedly received nearly $1 million in exchange for recommending admission for students with fabricated athletic credentials; he pleaded guilty in March 2019. There was a women’s soccer coach at Southern California, Ali Khosroshahin, and a tennis coach at Texas, Michael Center. They took plea deals.
The public, largely, did not know any of these names before. And they’re still not known, because Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are. They were two of the many parents charged with involvement in the scheme. Huffman, one of the most honored television actors of the past two decades, was sentenced to 14 days in jail and served 11. Loughlin, a sitcom star married to fashion designer Mossimo Gianulli, agreed in May to serve a two-month sentence. Gianulli agreed to a five-month term.
Those who follow college sports likely have heard of at least one of the Division I assistant coaches who pleaded guilty after the FBI investigation into the basketball talent game: Chuck Person or Book Richardson or Tony Bland or Lamont Evans. In general, they took less money than the “Varsity Blues” coaches in exchange for dubious promises to guide athletes to agent or money managers that mostly were unfulfilled.
Plenty of incidents described in the Varsity Blues charges actually happened: Students were granted admission to many prestigious schools ahead of more deserving students — and certainly more deserving athletes.
The victims included the schools themselves, those young people denied admission to their preferred universities and, more than anything, the institution of intercollegiate athletics. So many millions of young people have benefited from participating in soccer, tennis or swimming at the Division I level. The coaches willing to sell the integrity of that experience deserve far more scorn than they have received as a result of this scandal.
They were able to execute these schemes because their sports did not enjoy high profiles, and that has helped them to remain obscure.
In the colloquial sense of the word, that is a crime.