The college admissions bribery scandal has captivated the country — Hollywood stars from Desperate Housewives and Full House are involved! — and leaves ample room for outrage. Spots at elite selective institutions that could have gone to hardworking students and athletes who deserved them instead went to kids whose parents paid for fraudulent tests or bogus athletic profiles. Payments for cheating went to a sham charity, making the fraud tax-deductible for the alleged perpetrators.
But let’s not ignore the scandal’s connection to another noxious stink polluting college sports.
By selling out enormous stadiums, selling apparel and through corporate sponsorships and media rights deals — among other revenue sources — big-time football and basketball teams bring in millions for their schools. Often, these revenues support a school’s entire sports enterprise. Despite that cash spigot, NCAA rules mean these football and basketball players can’t earn compensation beyond the value of a scholarship and a cost of attendance stipend. Meanwhile, 55% of men’s basketball players at the so-called “Power 5” major conference schools (the Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Pac-12) are black, according to NCAA data, while nearly half of the Power 5 football players are black. The performances of these unpaid players, many of whom come from low-income families, are often subsidizing sports like tennis, where 48% of the men’s players in the power conferences are white and just 12% are black, and other sports that are even more exclusively white, like men’s water polo (82%), women’s rowing (75%). Just 2% of men’s water polo players and women’s rowers at big conference schools are black.
The dynamic of unpaid, often low-income black athletes in high-revenue sports generating revenues that finance opportunities for, generally speaking, white athletes with wealthier backgrounds in low-revenue sports like water polo is troubling enough. Add this scandal, in which wealthy and often white families were allegedly scamming athletic opportunities that may not exist without the labor of unpaid black athletes, and the case to rethink the system grows even stronger.
“This scandal is an example of corrupt, rich, mostly white parents benefitting off the work of, in many cases, poor black unpaid football and basketball players whose athletic talents actually qualified them for admission,” says Shaun R. Harper, a management professor and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center. “This is an example of systemic racism.”
At Harper’s school, for example, USC associate athletics director Donna Heinel received more than $1.3 million in bribes to falsify the athletic backgrounds of more than two dozen students seeking admission to the school, according to a complaint filed in a federal court in Boston and unsealed March 12. Many of the students didn’t even play the sport for which they were “recruited.” According to the complaint, Heinel presented the daughter of one parent — Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus, who was also charged in the scheme — as a competitive water polo player; her athletic profile contained a picture of someone else playing the sport. USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic allegedly received $250,000 in payments for his team to designate two students as recruits. USC has fired Heinel and Vavic. The indictment says that former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroahin and assistant women’s soccer coach Laura Janke received about $350,000 for their private soccer club to designate the children of four Singer clients as USC soccer recruits, even though none of them played competitive soccer.
The controversy goes beyond any one school.
At the University of Texas, football and men’s basketball accounted for 90% of UT athletic revenues attributable to a team in 2017-18, according to federal data. Football alone produced $143,064,180, or 79%, of the $180,259,057 in revenue generated by UT’s teams, booking a $101.8 million profit. UT’s non-revenue sports — all of them besides football and basketball, and many of which field teams with a disproportionate number of white athletes — generated $15,928,952 in revenues and $33,412,294 in total expenses. That’s a $17.5 million shortfall.
Turns out that some of the athletic activity on the low-revenue side of Texas’ ledger may have been downright criminal. Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center allegedly took more than $90,000 in bribes in exchange for designating a Silicon Valley high school student as a recruited student-athlete, even though the student did not play competitive tennis. The student’s application, according to the document, listed him as the manager of his high school basketball and football teams. In reality, he played a year of tennis as a freshman.
According to the complaint, Center met in June 2015 with William “Rick” Singer, a southern California college admissions counselor who has pled guilty to masterminding a sweeping scandal resulting in criminal charges against 50 people, including wealthy parents who paid off Singer to cheat on tests or pose their kids as college athletes, and college athletics coaches who took payments to facilitate the admission of these students to their schools. In essence, authorities say parents would direct payments to Singer through his sham charity, and Singer would take a cut to bribe crooked coaches. Students designated as athletic recruits often receive a leg-up over others in the college admissions process, even if their academic credentials trail that of other applicants. No students have been charged.
Singer, according to the document, handed Center $60,000 in cash in an Austin hotel parking lot. The supposed tennis player got a scholarship to UT that paid for his books. Once he got on campus, he ditched the tennis team and renounced his scholarship. But he still had his spot at UT. The university fired Center on Wednesday; he’s due in a Boston court on March 25.
Authorities intercepted Singer describing the bogus recruiting scam for high school students as a “side door” into the universities, with legit admission as the “front door,” and the “back door” being eight-figure plus donations to fund on-campus buildings and such.
“There’s no side door, give me a break,” says Harry Edwards, the famed sports sociologist and activist who helped organize the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. “You provided a sewer line to the basement stairs. You have a situation where these coaches, on the backs of unpaid black labor, are bringing in rich white kids who have less legitimacy on campus than the black kids who are so often complained about because they’re quote ‘not interested in academics.’ That’s a travesty.”
Luckily, the sewer can be fixed. Administrators can start by making sure recruited athletes actually play the sport they’re purporting to be good at. “There’s no way any athletic compliance staff should have missed all of this,” says sports attorney Donald Jackson, an adjunct professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law who has represented athletes in NCAA eligibility cases.
The next step: investing athletic funds responsibly. “This is an opportunity for colleges and universities to look themselves in the mirror,” says Angela Reddock-Wright, an employment lawyer in Southern California who represents higher education clients. “Make sure the athletes making lots of money for the schools are taken care of” — rather than paying for phony water polo. Money that could be going to unpaid black players seems to have financed corrupt opportunities for rich white families. So now, more than ever, isn’t it time to just pay the players?