The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
There are two major sports mostly missing from the allegations in the nation’s largest admissions scandal: football and basketball.
While no coaches from those sports were indicted last week, the two most profitable college sports still played a major role as federal authorities charged nearly 50 people in a scheme where wealthy parents gamed the system with bribes and falsified test scores to get their children into elite colleges. Revenues from football and basketball – sports composed largely of non-white athletes – fund the athletic teams with much lower racial minority participation rates that parents leaned on to secure their children spots on campus.
Colleges and universities always have had backdoors for the rich, such as legacy admissions. However, non-revenue sports have helped create another avenue to exploit a system in which amateurism rules prevent players in revenue sports from profiting for their services, experts told USA TODAY Sports.
“I am not blaming women’s sports, but an unintended consequence of Title IX has been its manipulation to justify a broad, expansive program fielding many non-revenue sport teams, made up by mostly white athletes,” Victoria L. Jackson, a sports historian, Arizona State University lecturer and former track and field athlete at the University of North Carolina, told USA TODAY Sports.
“Look at what we are doing to advance women’s and men’s minor sports and that’s happening because we are exploiting the hell out of black men. These are gender and racial justice issues.”
Also, coaches from those non-revenue sports are paid considerably less than their colleagues who oversee major sports teams, making them more susceptible to taking the kind of bribes as were alleged in last week’s indictments. Nine coaches of non-revenue sports such as women’s soccer, sailing, women’s volleyball and men’s tennis were charged in the scheme that existed inside Power Five schools such as Southern California, UCLA, Texas and Stanford.
Southern Cal had four people with links to the school indicted as part of the federal investigation into the scam led by William “Rick” Singer, who made millions to get the children of his affluent clients into schools through bribes paid to coaches, Southern Cal athletics department official Donna Heinel and ACT/SAT administrators.
Among them was water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who was fired along with Heinel hours after the indictments were made public Tuesday.
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“Black and Samoan athletes have to be gifted, whereas white kids who benefited from this scam aren’t even athletes,” said Southern Cal Race and Equity Center executive director Shaun R. Harper, a leading researcher on the topic of race in college sports. “This is a form of white privilege. If you are black, and especially poor and black, you can’t get in this way.”
‘That’s a lot of money to those people’
In the charging documents, Vavic allegedly accepted $250,000 in bribes to help one student – the daughter of San Francisco vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr. – gain admission to the school.
As a private school, Southern Cal doesn’t disclose information about employees’ compensation beyond what is required on the federal tax return it must file annually. That document covers high-ranking officials and other top earners, including football coach Clay Helton, who was credited with just over $2.6 million in pay, benefits and bonuses for the 2016 calendar year – the most recent period covered by the returns.
Public schools must disclose pay records, and a University of California system website shows that UCLA’s water polo coach – who was not linked to this scandal – had $233,159 in total compensation for the 2017 calendar year.
Two coaches at public schools were charged: UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo earned a total of $227,419 in 2017, according to the site. As of July 2017, University of Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center was making $232,338, according to data obtained from the university by The Texas Tribune.Salcedo and Center each allegedly received about $100,000 in bribes.
Richard G. Johnson, an attorney who has extensively studied and written about issues of equality in college sports, told USA TODAY Sports football and basketball coaches “have the same ability” to sway admissions decisions, but are less likely to do so.
“You look at the assistant football coaches in Power Five conferences and many are making $1 million or more,” Johnson said. “This behavior is more likely in non-revenue sports. If you’re earning $250,000 and can earn another quarter million by pulling some strings, that’s a lot of money to those people.”
The interactions – and others listed in the federal charging documents – show how Singer used loopholes.
“I think you’ve said this, but I just want to confirm,” Huneeus, the vintner, said in a wiretap conversation with Singer, per court documents. “She actually won’t really be part of the water polo team, right?”
There was no chance that would happen. None of the children whose parents got nabbed in the investigation – including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin – were on any of the teams. U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling told reporters that none of the students received athletic scholarships.
“The charges brought forth are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education,” the NCAA said in a statement last week. “We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated.”
Many of the profiles Singer allegedly created were faked, including photos that were staged or altered via Photoshop.
In the case of Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, all Singer needed were photos of their two daughters on a rowing machine. Neither competed in crew, but the $400,000 allegedly paid to Singer ensured they got into Southern Cal.
Heinel even told Singer to “use the same format” on future falsified admissions attempts, according to court documents.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said former Oklahoma running back J.D. Runnels, who has worked as a teacher and personal trainer after playing in the NFL. “The majority of football players don’t come from money. As athletes, we are let in with lower ACT scores and get stereotyped for that, like we are all dummies who need financial aid.
“Aunt Becky (Loughlin’s character on Full House) doesn’t know what it’s like (to) live on the east side of Oklahoma where government cheese is one of the few things we had to eat.”
The non-revenue sports also don’t have near the scrutiny as football and basketball, Johnson said.
“If you have a non-academic track and people are trying to avoid testing standards, country club sports are perfect,” Johnson said. “Do the athletic directors at Power Five schools like USC give two (expletives) about these sports compared to football and men’s basketball? No. These coaches are given quite a bit of flexibility to game the system. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
Harper said he believed such a scam had “long occurred.”
“I also expect some version of this will continue to occur,” Harper said. “It may not be this same version that has been exposed. White privilege and wealth will always find a way.”
At Southern Cal, 38.1 percent of football and basketball teams are comprised of black athletes, according to a 2018 study authored by Harper. Black students make up 2 percent of the student population, according to the study.
For all of Division I football minus historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), black football players represent 45 percent with another 15 percent falling under the “other” category that includes Hispanics, Asians, American Indians/Native Alaskans and people of two or more races, according to the latest statistics gathered by the NCAA.
In Division I men’s basketball, 54 percent of players are black and another 21 percent are in the “other” category.
Contrast those minority-majority sports participation numbers with the sports linked to the admissions scandal.
White athletes comprise 69 percent of men’s water polo players, 74 percent of women’s rowers, 70 percent of women’s soccer players, 69 percent of women’s volleyball players and 63 percent of women’s water polo players. Men’s tennis and women’s tennis (57 percent other) are the only NCAA sports used by those indicted that didn’t have white majorities. Men’s soccer is 50 percent white.
“If you’re a black male athlete who doesn’t have the academic credentials to get into an elite university, you are let in because you have proved your athletic ability,” Harper said.
“You have to be very, very talented. That’s why these special admission processes were created. … We know that those teams are disproportionately comprised of black players (who have) financed this scam where mostly white people benefited.”
Contributing: Steve Berkowitz
Follow A.J. Perez on Twitter @byajperez