I think my daughter Olivia put it best. In our normal morning tradition, we were watching “the news” aka the Today Show. As Savannah Guthrie breathlessly reported on the execution of Operation “Varsity Blues” . We’ve also been watching “Fuller House” on Netflix, which is a terrible show but pretty harmless viewing for a five year old.
“I don’t believe that Aunt Becky could do a bad thing” Olivia exclaimed. I was instantly jealous of her innocence. Unfortunately, I definitely believe that Aunt Becky and many more like her could do precisely this type of bad thing.
Once the shock of this big bust wears off, I hope there is continued attention to how we got here. There are “side doors”, as one of the conspirators named this plot, opening all over the place as we speak. Some of them are probably illegal, others are just inhabiting a morally icky place that we haven’t explicitly forbidden.
The part of this scandal I have the most insight into is the role that college athletics played. Many people were surprised that college coaches and administrators at elite institutions were accepting bribes to pretend that the students involved were recruited athletes.
I began my coaching career at Penn, where we held essentially eight golden tickets (per gender) per year. For eight young people, we could essentially tip the scales and put them over the edge for admission. I often look back at my time at an Ivy League school and refer to recruiting as essentially “gravity free”.
When you’re holding the power to put kids that would otherwise have no chance at all of admission to an elite school over the top, you will get plenty of interest.
One of the questions I had immediately upon hearing about the scandal was around the mechanics. I find it hard to believe that at least some of these coaches used a limited resource (as described above, a fixed number of “spots”) for this purpose, but I guess if the bribe was big enough its possible.
When I coached at Georgia Tech, we once again had the power to tip the scales. We had actual hard numbers: 1080 on the SAT and a 3.0 GPA, and you could essentially get into a school who’s average admit was significantly better than that. Although in that case we needed to apply a $1000 scholarship to exert influence.
I can imagine that some of these places either had a certain number of extraneous “preferred walk-on” spots to give out, or just an excessive number of general admissions spots. Jovan Vavic, the water polo coach at USC, had to have an excessive amount of pull in admissions to be winning NCAA championships and giving admissions help to non-athletes.
Money Money Money
Moving on to the “non-illegal” side doors, there’s a wide spectrum of activities going on. They are all motivated by a simple fact of life in how we’ve set up higher education in this country: the more money the better.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that colleges, and their employees, spend more time thinking about how to accrue money to fund both necessary and completely unnecessary activities than actual instruction. At Penn, we had to fundraise most of our operating budget every year. At Georgia Tech we had to try to fundraise scholarship money every year.
At wealthy institutions with endowments in the billions, there are a ton of employees making meager salaries for the “honor” of working there.
At both schools, that position made us susceptible to influence of the people that gave us that money. I’m not alleging that anything illegal happened at either place. There was no explicit quid pro quo for the money people donated, but we still were heavily influenced by those that donated money.
At each place I was payed a very modest salary. Actually, to call what I earned at Penn ($2000) a salary is probably wrong. But I would gather that many coaches of non-revenue sports are particularly vulnerable to to bribes. They are not getting rich off of athletics, and the size of the bribes in many cases seems to have been a significant percentage of what I would guess their salary is.
In more specific terms, I have occasionally nerded over rosters of top swim teams and wondered “how did that person make the team?”. In a lot of cases there may be an innocent explanation. In some cases, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there is quite a bit of quid going for that pro.
There’s still plenty of incentive and vulnerability to keeping these side doors open, and so they will remain so.