The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In search of George Santos’s illustrious college volleyball career

The congressman claimed to have been a star of the team at Baruch College. We went to a game and talked to former players to see how they’re reacting.

(Illustration by Anna Lefkowitz/The Washington Post; Win McNamee/Getty Images; iStock)
6 min

NEW YORK — You would think such a decorated former student-athlete would be … remembered. University of Michigan undergrads still take pride in Tom Brady, after all; even the youngest Tar Heel can boast about Michael Jordan.

But when I asked two young women who had come to see the Baruch College men’s volleyball team play St. Joseph’s College on Tuesday night what they thought of local college volleyball legend George Santos, they looked at me blankly. Fair enough; perhaps Santos’s stardom was before their time.

Still, though. You would think a school’s administrators would leap at the chance to advertise his involvement with the school. But no. At the Baruch College Athletic & Recreation Complex on Manhattan’s East Side, the first walls one sees as a visitor are emblazoned from floor to ceiling with 8-foot-tall heroic action shots of standout swimmers, basketball players, tennis players of yore. And yet: Nowhere in this shrine is there any trace of the purported volleyball star who became a congressman from New York’s 3rd district.

After losing his mother in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then graduating from New York’s prestigious Horace Mann, but long before he made a name for himself on Wall Street, survived an assassination attempt and began an animal-rescue charity that rescued thousands of dogs and hundreds of cats (and most certainly did not perform in drag or allegedly steal thousands of dollars while letting a dog die), Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) has said, he went to Baruch College in New York City on a volleyball scholarship. According to his résumé, he graduated summa cum laude from Baruch, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system and the NCAA’s Division III, in 2010.

“We went to play against Harvard, Yale, and we slayed them. We were champions across the entire Northeast Corridor. Every school that came up against us, they were shaking at the time. And it’s funny. I was the smallest guy and I’m 6-2,” Santos told the WABC radio show “Sid & Friends in the Morning” in 2020. “It was a great time. I sacrificed both my knees and got very nice knee replacements, knee replacements from playing volleyball. That’s how serious I took the game.” He also mentioned that he chose volleyball over basketball because it “was easier.”

So how could an athletic department simply pass up the chance to boast that Santos played volleyball here on this very campus, before he Forrest Gumped from tragedy to the upper echelons of the American Dream and the lower house of Congress? What, I wondered as I traversed the dusty back hallways of the under-construction ARC on Tuesday night, would become of Santos’s athletic legacy, if the school hadn’t even thought to include him in the 2009 and 2010 men’s volleyball team photos hanging in the ARC’s hallway in their modest black frames? Were his contributions already lost to history?

The school’s media office said no one currently involved with the team was available for an interview about Santos’s career, and the athletic director did not return a request for comment. But surely some of the folks who were involved with the program during the legendary run Santos described would be able to help keep the memories of his contributions to the sport alive.

“George Santos never played for Baruch men’s volleyball,” Vincent Cruz, 33, who played middle blocker for the team from 2010 to 2012, told me.

“There wasn’t anyone with that name playing on the team,” said Eryk Kowalski, the team’s middle blocker between 2008 and 2011.

“I know every single player that I coached. On the men’s and the women’s side. I communicate with most of them,” said Allison Stack, the coach of the Baruch Bearcats men’s volleyball team from 2007 to 2013. “This gentleman never tried out, never practiced with us.”

“There was a George Chave, and there was a Santos Rivera,” said Jonathan Tuwaidan, 35, the team’s setter, outside hitter and libero from 2007 to 2010. “But no George Santos.”

No George Santos? Was his legendarily brave sacrifice (of his knees) on the altar of Bearcat victory really just … a legend?

“Baruch does not have a record of George Santos or George Devolder [another name Santos has used] born on July 22, 1988, with a graduation year of 2010, enrolled at Baruch College,” Suzanne Bronski, the director of public relations for Baruch, wrote in an email to me. In other words, she added, “there is no record of this person … attending Baruch, and therefore, [was] not a student-athlete on one of Baruch’s athletic teams.”

To clear up the confusion, I tried to contact Santos directly, but neither he nor any representative wrote back.

The alumni of the Baruch volleyball program, though, were more than happy to fill me in, calling Santos’s descriptions of his time at Baruch “blatant lies,” “disgraceful” and “obviously false.” For starters, “NCAA Division III does not allow athletic scholarships. Only academic,” said Stack, the coach. (Also, Stack argues, volleyball is not easier than basketball.)

And what’s more: “We did beat Harvard, but we never played Yale,” said Kowalski. Yale, he points out, doesn’t even have a men’s volleyball team.

Cruz, meanwhile, noticed that Santos has described his position on the team as “striker” — which isn’t a real position in volleyball. And according to Tuwaidan, 6-foot-2 would have been far from the shortest guy on the team in the late 2000s. “At the top elite schools, like the big Division I schools in California, 6-1, 6-2 — fairly short,” Tuwaidan said. But at Baruch, “6-2 is still fairly tall. I’m 5-11, and I was one of the shortest guys on my team.” Baruch’s current libero, the scrappy and dynamic senior Jonathan Liao, is listed on the team’s official roster at a compact 5-foot-5.

On Tuesday night, Liao leaped and dove alongside five of his brethren on the court while 13 more players cheered from the bench. All were seemingly oblivious to the blaze of national attention their storied volleyball lineage has lately brought upon them. As were the 50 or so fans scattered throughout the arena who cheered the team on to a relatively businesslike straight-sets loss.

But that was the other weird thing, according to Kowalski. Graduating from Baruch and having played volleyball there, “it’s an accomplishment,” Kowalski says. “But it’s not something you would think someone would be lying about, like it’s some kind of like medal of honor.”

“He doesn’t know enough about the sport to even fabricate an intelligent lie,” said Cruz.

“That said, I am more than happy to extend an invitation to him to play at an alumni match the next time we have one. I think we would all get a kick out of it.”

New York Republican George Santos, who is accused of fabricating details from his past, started his new congressional job Jan. 3. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

More on George Santos

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was elected to Congress in November and faces calls to resign due to a long list of falsehoods he has told. Here is the list of Republicans calling for George Santos’ resignation.

What has Santos lied about? Santos fabricated much of his biography. The list of untruths is long, here are few: