College scams with a twist: Rich parents use sports ‘side door’

For most people, “college sports recruiting scandal” conjures up the image of an assistant coach or booster offering families wads of cash to land a top quarterback or point guard, all to serve the interests of a deep-pocketed school or shoe company.

But there's another type of recruiting fraud occurring at elite institutions, where the money flows the other way, from wealthy families to coaches. And it’s not to lure stars, but rather to sneak in a non-athlete by exploiting the lower academic standards that some schools allow for sports recruits.

Details of such a scandal were laid out Tuesday in sweeping criminal indictments filed by the Department of Justice. Among the 50 people charged are a handful of college coaches from schools such as Yale University, Stanford University and Wake Forest. Also indicted are dozens of affluent parents
—lawyers, financiers, Hollywood actresses.

Athletic departments can be a “side door” for students to gain access to a top school when their test scores aren’t good enough or the family can’t afford, say, a new library wing or a science lab, according to the man at the center of the scam.

“There is a front door which means you get in on your own,” William Rick Singer, owner of a college-admissions preparation business in California, according to a recording released by prosecutors. “The back door is through institutional advancement, which is 10 times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”

Deference to coaches

Part of the problem is that when schools give out preferred designations to applicants—whether that’s in athletics, extra curricular activities, legacies or for diversity—they tend to give great deference to administrators and coaches overseeing the process, according to Tyrone Thomas, a lawyer at Mintz Levin in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t know that schools have really thought about how that’s policed,” said Thomas, who consults for a handful of athletic departments, none of which were implicated Tuesday. “It’s time to have some uncomfortable conversations. Let’s go back and look at how we’re double-checking these relationships, and a prospective student’s participation in athletics.”

Among the examples alleged in the indictments:

Singer in late 2017 agreed to help a high school student in California gain admission into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million. The government alleges Singer had a false profile created to depict the student as a soccer player and sent it to Rudy Meredith, then the head coach of the Yale women’s soccer team. Despite knowing the student wasn’t a player, Meredith listed her as a recruit. When the student got in, Singer mailed the coach a check for $400,000.

Yale, in a statement, said it’s a victim of Meredith’s actions and is cooperating with prosecutors. Meredith didn’t immediately reply to a message sent through Facebook. A father bought water polo equipment on and with Singer’s guidance staged photos of his son in a pool to use in his athletic profile in a bid for admission. On one call, Singer talks about pretending a student, whose high school didn’t have a football team, was a kicker/punter during meetings with Stanford and the University of Southern California. “He really does have strong legs,” the father says, laughing.

Across the Ivy League, whose schools don’t give athletic scholarships, and other elite institutions, coaches can influence the selection process to admit students whose academic profiles are below a school’s general student body. In July, Bloomberg News reported on a similar bribery scheme involving former University of Pennsylvania basketball coach Jerome Allen, who last week admitted to accepting around $300,000 in bribes to help a Florida high school student gain access to the school through a basketball recruiting slot.

Sports slots

At USC and the University of California, Los Angeles—both elite schools with elite sports programs—athletic recruits are typically considered by designated admissions committees, which also admit students with lower academic profiles. An investigator’s explanatory affidavit similarly identified 128 slots at Wake Forest and about 158 at Georgetown University designated for athletes provided they meet some minimum academic standard.

The government alleges that Donna Heinel, USC’s senior associate athletic director, was aware of the fake athlete profiles Singer was submitting. Singer says at one point Heinel called him and said: “Going forward, anybody who isn’t a real basketball player that’s a female, I want you to use that profile.”

Heinel didn’t respond to an email sent to her USC account.

USC cooperating

USC, among the schools mentioned the most in Tuesday’s documents, said in a statement that it has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate with the investigation. The university said Heinel and a water polo coach have been fired.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing a wider probe into another type of recruiting fraud, where coaches and middlemen pay elite recruits to get them to attend a specific school. Last month, three men were sentenced to jail in connection with that, and more schools—and more basketball coaches—have been dragged into the investigation.

Though schools typically claim to be the victims in both instances, the benefits are very different. Recruiting violations in which money flows to athletes tend to come in football and men’s basketball. Those sports account for almost all the money made by athletic departments and are heavily policed by on-campus compliance staffs. The money generated by those athletes and those teams, helps funds non-revenue sports like soccer, tennis and rowing—all mentioned in Tuesday’s investigation.

Thomas said the football and basketball scandals, which often involve poorer families, will likely always garner more attention than Tuesday’s revelations, because those students are often famous, whereas the fake athletes are largely anonymous.

“They’re not playing in front of 15,000 people on Saturday,” Thomas said. “These are invisible beneficiaries.”

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