A string of academic scandals over the years has delivered the lesson that big-money athletics have a profoundly corruptive effect on colleges and universities.
This point may be missed because the new scandal turns the usual arguments against big-money varsity sports on their head. Traditionally, the corruption created by NCAA athletics arises from universities undermining their academic standards to favor kids with notable athletic abilities, especially in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball.
Syracuse University, for instance, engaged in academic fraud and other unethical conduct to keep its academically underperforming basketball stars in the game, according to a disciplinary report the NCAA released in 2015. The NCAA pointed to the lax oversight exercised by its head coach, the sainted Jim Boeheim, who the NCAA said should have known what was going on. It suspended Boeheim for nine conference games, took away 12 scholarships, and ordered that 108 wins be vacated.
In the new scandal, parents are accused of bribing athletic officials at the University of Southern California and elsewhere to get their academically unqualified kids admitted as athletes even though they didn’t play the sports or didn’t have the rankings claimed.
As Charles Pierce of Esquire aptly wrote, “I never thought I'd live long enough to see a college recruiting scandal that involved athletes who couldn't play.”
It’s also true that, for the most part, the bogus athletic records were for sports other than football and basketball, such as crew, pole vaulting, water polo and tennis.
But that doesn’t contradict the point that the core of this outrage is the lenient treatment afforded academically unqualified athletes. William “Rick” Singer, the ringleader of the plot, understood full well that claims of athletic prowess were the key to sneaking his clients’ kids past admissions officials. (He also arranged for some of them to cheat on SAT and ACT tests.)
Singer wasn’t presenting the kids as, say, physics or math whizzes. That wouldn’t work because academic achievement is central to college admissions, and the students’ bogus qualifications would be quickly uncovered.
But the whole point of athletic recruitment is to bend the rules to admit students who can’t meet academic standards. Sports recruitment depends on lax treatment of academic records.
That’s why Singer described his method as the “side door” into USC, UCLA, Yale and Stanford. The front door, he explained, is for students who can get admitted on their own. The back door is “institutional advancement,” in which parents lean on friends with an “in” at a desirable university or make donations of as much as 10 times the five- or six-figure bribes he was brokering. The side door was exploiting the loopholes in athletic recruitment.
Singer was a little shy about offering his clients’ offspring as football or basketball stars, since the universities tended to take those sports seriously. But on at least one occasion his client’s kid got accepted by USC as a basketball player and on three occasions, according to the federal indictment issued Tuesday, he foisted kids on USC as purported football recruits.
In one case, the student’s high school didn’t even have a football team. Singer offered him to USC as a kicker/punter, claiming he had honed his skills at a football camp.
In another case, he assured Marci Palatella, the owner of a Northern California liquor distribution company and wife of a former National Football League player, that a football claim was appropriate for her son, even though he had dropped out of high school football. The reason was that “that is the sport with the lowest grades” — in other words, USC bent the rules for football recruits more than for other sports.
One inescapable conclusion arising from the indictment is that Singer found USC in particular to be so sports-addled that its admissions process was eminently corruptible. He distinguished USC from Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, which also field high-profile football teams, because at those schools even football recruits had to meet academic thresholds and have authentic athletic records. “Cannot hide him here,” he told Palatella about her son.
At USC, however, all athletic recruiting apparently went through senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, who allegedly received more than $1.3 million in bribes. She was fired by USC on Tuesday.
According to the government, Heinel regularly presented the bogus sports recruits to an admissions committee, which allegedly took her word as gospel. There were no signs in the government documents that USC tried to validate the athletic claims she presented, which were sometimes accompanied by digitally altered photographs of the students in athletic garb.
Although some students gained admission to USC and other universities based on their purported participation in nonrevenue sports, that’s just another aspect of the corruption inherent in academic athletics.
Some universities offer recruitment slots in sports such as rowing, water polo, volleyball, tennis or field hockey to maintain the image of a full athletic program extending beyond football and basketball, or to meet federal guidelines requiring them to field women’s teams.
But as Daniel Golden documented in his 2006 book “The Price of Admission,” many of those recruitment slots provide white students from wealthy families a back door — or a side door — for admission to elite schools despite falling short on academic accomplishment.
Rowing, water polo, tennis and squash, for which many Ivies and near-Ivies recruit players, are simply not open to most minority or inner-city students. They’re offered chiefly by private schools or those in affluent neighborhoods, and often require financial outlays for training and gear beyond the reach of the average family.
Singer seemed to know, almost instinctively, that admissions officials would scarcely blink at a claim that a child of an affluent family had compiled a record in crew, water polo or tennis.
With every new academic scandal linked to university sports programs, the necessity of divorcing even nonrevenue athletics from academia becomes more urgent. The scholar-athlete — that creature who combines brainpower with physical ability — looks like more of a myth every day. The evidence is inescapable that universities intent on maintaining bragging rights for their sports teams, from football down to water polo, can do so only by undermining their academic standards and even condoning academic fraud.
Golden in his book advocated abolishing athletic preferences and scholarships except for sports that “most American children have an opportunity to try.” That would encompass football, basketball, soccer and perhaps tennis, and rule out such sports as crew, water polo and horseback riding. Those participants would have to gain admission on their academic records, a system that would put scamsters like Singer out of business.
That wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem presented by big-money football and basketball programs, which consistently overwhelm their institutions’ ability to police their academic standards. As we’ve argued before, those programs should be completely divorced from their universities.
Limiting preferences and scholarships as Golden proposes wouldn’t eliminate the ability of wealthy families to get their kids into universities for which they’re not academically qualified, but at least they’d have to spend the money to go through the back door. The impulse by universities to turn a blind eye to the inadequacy of their children, suborning their own academic standards, would not be eliminated, but it would be reduced. It wouldn’t make higher education entirely egalitarian or honest, but it would be a good first step.