On Tuesday, America found at what many if not most Americans already knew: The system around college sports is broken. Over 50 rich people were arrested by the FBI for participating in an elaborate scheme involving falsifying test scores and bribing coaches at universities like the University of Southern California, the University of Texas and Georgetown to give their non-athletic children spots on Division I teams in order to guarantee their children admission. The sports involved were water polo, tennis, sailing, rowing, volleyball and soccer, sports that often slip under the radar (though, I’d be remiss not to say that college volleyball is actually a pretty big deal).
Some of the coaches involved have been fired, others put on leave. The tennis coach who allegedly participated in this scam during his time at Georgetown was fired back in December 2017 “after an internal investigation found he had violated university rules concerning admissions.” He subsequently got another job at the University of Rhode Island — which has since put him on administrative leave.
There is plenty to say here that is not about sports. We should talk about how our narratives around affirmative action puts scrutiny on children of color when they don’t deserve it.
There is plenty to say here that is not about sports. We should talk about the problems with using standardized tests in admissions decisions and how our narratives around affirmative action puts scrutiny on children of color when they don’t deserve it. We should be having a discussion about the role of money in higher education, about legacy admissions, skyrocketing tuition and debt, and how much of the actual teaching at universities is left to adjuncts with low-pay and no security.
But also, we have to talk about sports. Because it’s time we had an honest conversation in America about who benefits from lucrative athletic scholarships — and why.
On the one hand, we have a college sports system where the unpaid labor of mainly black and brown students is funneled to the mainly white men in charge of universities, athletic departments, teams, and the NCAA, but punishes the athletes whenever they take even a little slice of the pie (all while looking away whenever the very thing they are supposed to get as payment — an education — is lacking).
Just last week, two Adidas employees and a sports agent were sentenced to months in prison for breaking NCAA rules and paying high school players under the table in order to influence where they chose to go to college. The idea is that universities were the victims of these schemes, which the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said, “defrauded multiple public universities” and “upended the lives of young student-athletes and corrupted a game cherished by so many.” But it’s not these outside actors ruining something pure and unsullied. Plenty of coaches are implicated in this scandal, and it’s long been known that lots of money is moving below board as often as above with little care unless it’s unearthed publicly. So one wonders what exactly there was to corrupt.
On the other, we have a system where rich, mainly white, parents are paying astronomical sums out of pocket to exploit the loophole that allows their non-athletic children to have lower admissions into schools by lying and saying they are athletes. And that’s on top of the fact that, as Saahil Desai wrote for the Atlantic last year, “college sports at elite schools are a quiet sort of affirmative action for affluent white kids, and play a big role in keeping these institutions so stubbornly white and affluent.”
The sports that are part of this admissions scandal are not ones that are as readily accessible to young brown and black kids — often the result of centuries of segregation and racism.
The sports that are part of this admissions scandal are not ones that are as readily accessible to young brown and black kids — often the result of centuries of segregation and racism. For example, women’s soccer, a sport that should be as diverse as the population of this country, is instead largely played by white girls and women. On the flip side, earlier this year, Alana Samuels reported about the trend of “kids in mostly white upper-income communities…are leaving football for other sports such as lacrosse or baseball,” while “black kids in lower-income communities without a lot of other sports available are still flocking to football.” And so you end up with mainly white kids rowing crew or playing water polo.
Coincidentally, March Madness is just around the corner, the NCAA’s favorite exploitative season because of the billions (that’s with a “B”) the organization makes off of this one annual tournament. There’s a reason William Rick Singer, the ringleader of the current scandal, wasn’t paying to get rich kids admitted to colleges on basketball or football scholarships. Sports like tennis or water polo will never generate that kind of revenue or attention or, perhaps, any at all. These are the kind of sports where you find schools often lying about how many women participate in order to fudge numbers to make it look like they are honoring Title IX and equity in sport when they are not. And these are also sports teams that draw from a relatively small pool — literally or figuratively.
College sports are broken — we have known this for a very long time. Unsurprisingly, we focus most of our attention on the most visible examples of this. But as this scam has made clear, there is corruption to be found throughout collegiate sports. With the spotlight turned elsewhere, plenty of educators and coaches have been more than happy to exploit their gatekeeper status. Because while you might not immediately think of a tennis coach as the best way to bribe your way into Georgetown, these coaches and administrators can wield impressive influence, whether or not they participate in marquee revenue-generating sports.
The fact that this broken system is well-known is not an excuse for its continued existence. Maybe the utter shamelessness of this scandal will finally spark the change we so badly need.