They are sports that bring in little in the way of money or notoriety or attention compared with the behemoths, football and basketball.
In college athletics, volleyball, water polo, sailing, tennis and soccer are relatively small-time affairs that don’t fill stadiums or drive billion-dollar media contracts, and that is why they are at the center of what was described as the broadest college admissions fraud the Justice Department has uncovered.
Just like the high-profile sports like football and basketball, coaches in the so-called Olympic sports are generally allowed to reserve several slots each year for students who might not otherwise gain admission. These slots are often in addition to those reserved for the truly elite athletes who receive athletic scholarships or their equivalent at the most selective universities.
The Justice Department investigation revealed how this alternative admission path can be exploited and corrupted, especially at the dozen elite universities that were a target.
Unlike in football and basketball, there is little in the way of formal rankings or general knowledge about who might be good at what are seen as minor sports, so admissions officials usually have to take coaches at their word when they tell them that an applicant is worthy of a spot on a volleyball or soccer or sailing team, leaving them open to exploitation.
“You couldn’t really pull it off,” in football and basketball, said Cory Evans, a basketball recruiting analyst at Rivals, the recruiting website. “In basketball and football, it’s out there in the open, compared to the less financially driven sports.”
In short order today, the sailing coach at Stanford was fired. The UCLA men’s soccer coach was placed on leave, as was the Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach, and the men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas. J.B. Bird, a university spokesman, said Texas was “cooperating fully with the investigation. Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university.” The university stated it believed coach Michael Center’s actions did not involve “any other university employees or officers.”
The water polo coach at the University of Southern California, Jovan Vavic, who has won 15 national championships, was arrested at his hotel room early this morning in Hawaii, where he had traveled with the top-ranked women’s team for a match.
Federal prosecutors did not charge students or universities with wrongdoing.
At the heart of the scheme was a California-based intellectual property lawyer, who, between 2011 and 2018, collected $25 million from parents to bribe coaches, and encouraged them to go to great lengths to falsely present their children as the sort of top-flight athletes that coaches would want to recruit.
According to the indictment, William Singer, the ringleader of the scheme, fabricated athletic “profiles” of the students to submit with their applications, which contained teams the students had not played on and fake honors not won. One student sat on a rowing machine to pass herself off as a rower. Singer’s associates also photoshopped the faces of the applicants onto images of athletes found on the internet.
Kathy DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, said “people in the volleyball community know who the elite athletes are, but there isn’t enough of a spectator base at most places.”
Even fans of extraordinarily popular volleyball squads, like Nebraska’s, “are following who they’re bringing in,” she said, “but they may not be following their walk-ons. And there isn’t a community that is vested in who are the preferred walk-ons coming on to the volleyball team.”
Meghan Dubyak, a spokeswoman for Georgetown University, said the university had fired its tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, in December 2017 after an internal investigation found he had violated university rules concerning admissions. She did not provide details. Ernst became the tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island last year. The university placed him on leave today.
At UCLA Jorge Salcedo “will have no involvement with the soccer team while this matter is under review, ” said Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesman for the university. “If the facts alleged are true, they represent a grave departure from the ethical standards we set for ourselves and the people who work here,” Tamberg said in a statement.
The coach of the Yale soccer team was bribed at least $400,000 to recruit one student. Relatives of that applicant paid Singer $1.2 million. The coach, Rudy Meredith, stepped down in November.
Meredith resigned following a disappointing season for the Bulldogs. He told the athletics department then that “it is time to explore new possibilities and begin a different chapter in my life.”
A month later, he was elected to the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame. He led the Bulldogs team to their first NCAA tournament and first unshared Ivy League title. Meredith did not return a request for comment at a number believed to belong to him.
Stanford University fired its head sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who allegedly took financial contributions to the sailing program from an intermediary in exchange for agreeing to recommend two prospective students for admission.
“Neither student came to Stanford,” a statement from Stanford said. “However, the alleged behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s values.”
No school is more deeply entwined in the scheme than USC.
Singer is accused of funneling more than $2 million into accounts controlled by administrators, coaches and former coaches at the school for their help in admitting his clients as student athletes, often with fabricated credentials and sometimes whether they played the sport or not.
The central figure at USC is Donna Heinel, a senior administrator who for nearly a decade has overseen admissions of athletes. The affidavit charges Singer with depositing $1.3 million in USC accounts controlled by Heinel over a four-year period, and entering into a sham consulting agreement that paid her $20,000 per month beginning last July.
The school’s water polo coach, Vavic, is accused of accepting $250,000 from Singer after two students were admitted as water polo players. Singer is also charged with making payments to a private school for Vavic’s children in the guise of a scholarship in exchange for a commitment to designate students as recruits in the future.
Ali Khosroshahin, a former USC soccer coach, and Laura Janke, a current assistant, were accused of accepting $350,000 from Singer for a youth soccer club they coached in exchange for designating four students as recruits even though none of them played competitive soccer.
Wake Forest volleyball coach Bill Ferguson, who arrived from USC in 2016, is charged with accepting $100,000 from Singer in exchange for helping a client’s daughter, who had been wait-listed by the school, gain admittance as a volleyball recruit.
In a letter, USC’s interim president Wanda Austin said the university would “be implementing significant process and training enhancements to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. It is immensely disappointing that individuals would abuse their position at the university in this way.”
The case is only the latest to rock USC. The school’s football program was hit with severe NCAA sanctions in 2010 over payments made to Heisman Trophy winning running back Reggie Bush, and the basketball program is under investigation for the second time in the past decade. Former assistant coach Tony Bland pleaded guilty in January to accepting bribes to steer USC players to certain financial advisers.
Prosecutors included in the indictment a somewhat bizarre taped exchange between Singer and Augustin Huneeus, a winery owner in Northern California who would provide $250,000 to coaches and other sources that support water polo at USC in exchange for coach Vavic securing her admission.
“You understand that (my daughter) is not worthy to be on that team,” Huneeus said, of USC’s powerhouse water polo team.
“He knows (s)he’s not coming to play, he knows all that,” Singer responded, referring to Vavic. Moments later, he reassured Huneeus that the arrangement would work out, “because she’s a water polo player,
“But she’s not,” Huneeus said.