How to buy a US sports scholarship without ever playing sport

US college system is rife for corruption as wealthy parents pay their kids’ way to the top

Lauren Isackson was on the women’s soccer roster at UCLA in 2017, despite never having played soccer before. Photo: Aubrey Washington /Allsport

Lauren Isackson was on the women’s soccer roster at UCLA in 2017, despite never having played soccer before. Photo: Aubrey Washington /Allsport

 

In May 2017, UCLA was especially giddy about the quality of players recruited to the college’s women soccer team for the following academic year. Among the incoming class were Ashley Sanchez, a star striker with the American Under-20s, Kennedy Faulknor, a full international with Canada, and a whole host of high school graduates who had played for the national youth team. Also on their roster was Lauren Isackson. Her resume was kind of different. She had never played competitive soccer. Ever. In her life.

Olivia Jade Giannulli got accepted to the University of Southern California last year, her application bolstered by notable achievements as coxswain for an outfit called LA Marina. She joined a polyglot rowing squad boasting elite young rowers from all over the world, most had represented their countries at Under-23 level, and all had one advantage over Giannulli. They had actually competed as rowers for real clubs. LA Marina does not exist and her only experience of the sport was posing awkwardly for a photograph on an indoor rowing machine.

The curious cases of Isackson, Giannulli and dozens of others were exposed recently when Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, went public with “Operation Varsity Blues”, an investigation exposing how dozens of individuals gained admission to some of the most prestigious universities in America under false pretences. The enterprise was masterminded by Rick Singer, owner of The Key, a consulting company designed to help parents with more money than sense navigate the choppy waters of the college application process.

Elaborate schemes

Phil Mickelson is among those who has admitted using The Key but insists he never did anything illegal. The golfer is in a minority then because Singer concocted a range of elaborate schemes. He helped students cheat on Standard Aptitude Tests (SAT), encouraged parents to claim their kids had learning disabilities to get extra time to take exams, and bribed coaches to create spaces on teams for kids with neither talent nor interest in their sports.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” said Lelling. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either. For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

To this point, 50 people have been arrested for their parts in the scam, many of them university administrators and coaches. Among the highest profile names embroiled is the actress Felicity Huffman who is charged with paying $15,000 to fix her daughter’s SAT test. That sum is small beer next to the money being forked out by others. Isackson’s parents (her father is president of a real estate investment company) handed over $250,000 in Facebook shares to a soccer coach to smooth their daughter’s path into UCLA. Giannulli’s ticket to USC cost her family the same amount.

The involvement of Giannulli’s mother, Lori Loughlin, star of “Full House”, a popular sitcom here in the late 1980s, also garnered huge headlines but her story is particularly shocking because it showcases a lack of due diligence on behalf of the university. The ersatz coxswain is actually a YouTube star in her own right, somebody whose videos about make-up and fashion have attracted 1.9m followers. That nobody in USC thought to check her social media activity, something which would have shown she had never rowed, never talked about rowing, and, crucially, wasn’t really that pushed about getting into the college.

Wealthy and well-connected

In the absence of a national Leaving Certificate type end of high school exam, the admission process here has always been prone to corruption. A system where letters of recommendation, interview performance and, ahem, hefty donations to the college by family members can matter as much as grades, it is wholly weighted in favour of the wealthy and the well-connected. Witness Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who somehow got into Harvard University immediately after his father Charles gifted $2.5 million to the institution. Outrageous as it is, this kind of stuff has so long been part of a rancid academic culture that it is just tolerated and accepted. The American way.

Even against that disturbing reality, the Isacksons and the Giannullis are among the most reviled characters in American public life right now. It’s not just that they cheated the system, it’s that they used sports to do so and, in many eyes, that made their crimes even more egregious. Plenty of working and middle-class families across this country routinely spend small fortunes on their children’s athletic careers in the hope of honing a talent that will gain them entry to a blue chip school. These people are understandably irate that prized spots on team rosters were given to the scions of the super rich, despite them evincing neither an aptitude nor an interest in these pursuits.

This is why, aside from the federal charges being brought by the FBI, there will be plenty more lawsuits as those whose children missed out on their dream schools now seek redress. And with some justification. Imagine the fun lawyers will have with the case of the grid-iron punter who had never, eh, actually kicked, the water polo player who had to stand in the shallow end when posing for a fake photo on her application, and the sailor, who, you’ve guessed it, never sailed.

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