Operation Varsity Blues Scandal: Should We Be Surprised?”

Sarah Suddarth

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law JD 2021

In March 2019, charges were brought against a number of National College Athletic Association (“NCAA”) athletic department personnel. These officials were found partaking in a fraudulent scheme which allowed affluent young adults to gain admission to elite universities under false pretenses, like fake test scores and phony athletic prowess. The actions of these athletic directors and coaches call into question the effectiveness of the NCAA monitoring and reporting methods to combat misuse and abuse of the athletic system. The NCAA and their institutions must learn from this most recent scandal to identify the problems in athletic compliance that allowed this fraud.

The charges were filed against 50 people involved in the ruse, which included athletic department staff members, coaches, and a senior associate athletic director. The University of California Los Angeles, Yale, Georgetown, and University of Southern California are just a handful of schools that had teams and programs caught up in this large-scale manipulation. The other individuals that face charges are seven administrators who facilitated cheating on the ACT or SAT for students and 33 parents that paid for these services for their children. The mastermind behind this plan was William Singer. Singer owned a college counseling company called Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key. His promise to the parents was a “side door” for admission into elite universities by labeling the students as “athletic recruits”, which afforded these students preferential admission. Singer pled guilty to charges which included racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice.

Last year, the Department of Justice brought corruption charges against ten people in an unrelated matter. This scandal included charges against four NCAA Division I basketball coaches. This chronic problem of employees skirting the system of college athletics is pervasive. Singer’s services had been effective in gaining underqualified students admission through the athletic system for eight years prior to these new charges being filed. For years, Singer created fake athletic “profiles” for students with false statistics and photoshopped pictures of them participating in whichever sport was their target. Although last year’s scandal did not gain the widespread attention that the college admissions scandal has, it is important to note that the NCAA has holes that are being exploited on many different levels.

What is being done to combat fraud? 

Many universities, whether involved or not, quickly implemented layers of oversight to their athletic recruitment and admissions process after the college admissions scandal broke. These were initiated before the NCAA had a chance to announce overarching policy bylaw changes to the system that had given opportunity to the abuse. Many have speculated about what could have prevented this scandal. Some suggest that the NCAA should have a more rigorous verification and vetting processes when students are being admitted to the school with athlete preferential status. Others have suggested that universities should be banned from admitting prospective student athletes with preferential treatment altogether and require that these students go through the normal admissions process to avoid unfair privilege entirely. This latter idea has sparked renewed debates about the ethics of college athletics and the student athlete’s amateurism.

What is the compliance response?

The NCAA has announced that they are looking into whether specific laws were broken by the institutions, such as if any athletic programs received funds from the bribes involved. If they find any evidence of this, sanctions will be imposed on the schools, such as fines and bans from post season play or recruiting periods. But the question still remains how the NCAA will actually change to prevent fraud like this in the future.

This college admissions scandal went on for eight years before charges were finally brought to put an end to it. The number of coaches and administration officials that knew or participated in this ruse is likely much more than only the handful that were named in the suit. Although it may not be reasonable to verify each and every incoming student athlete or claim, the oversight the NCAA compliance should have been complete enough to detect this pervasive problem. Whether the NCAA finds misconduct by the universities and implements appropriate punishments will be telling for the future of college athletics and admissions.