A water polo coach at the University of Southern California fired off a breathless email to his athletic director in February 2014, boasting of a promising recruit.
“[He] would be the fastest player on our team,” Jovan Vavic allegedly wrote, noting the high school student in question could swim 50 yards in 20 seconds, besting even the fastest players on USC’s team.
“This kid can fly,” he added.
On the surface, it appeared to be typical correspondence about a potential recruit. The only problem? The student’s athletic profile and performance record were fake, fabricated by a criminal mastermind — William Singer — whom the athlete’s parents had paid tens of thousands of dollars to grease the wheels of the admissions process, according to an FBI affidavit.
And Vavic, the coach, was in on the scheme, federal officials said.
The alleged example is one of dozens put forth in a bombshell report Tuesday that indicated wealthy parents had paid bribes to Singer — through his supposed nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation — to ensure their children would gain admission to elite universities.
In most cases, Singer used a three-pronged approach to do so: First, by funneling money to standardized-testing proctors to have students’ SAT or ACT scores inflated, the affidavit stated. He also reportedly conspired with and bribed college coaches to pass such students off as athletes for them to gain access to certain universities through what he dubbed a “side door” — even if the students had little or no athletic ability, federal officials said. Finally, Singer allegedly worked with parents to disguise their bribes as donations to his nonprofit, allowing them to be written off on their income taxes.
“Okay, so, who we are . . . what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” Singer reportedly told parents, according to a transcript of a phone call included in the affidavit. “My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me, ‘Here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school,’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”
On Tuesday, Singer pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. In all, 50 people were charged in the scheme — 33 parents and 13 “coaches and associates of Singer’s businesses.” Those coaches included John Vandemoer, the head sailing coach at Stanford University and Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, the former head soccer coach at Yale University
The allegations cast an ugly light not only on the often enigmatic college admissions process but on the world of college athletic recruitment. In the wake of the charges, the NCAA said it would investigate the extent of fraud and bribery alleged by the Justice Department.
“The charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education,” the NCAA said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated.”
It’s unclear what violations those would include or which schools would be involved. NCAA representatives did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night.
There is a “very realistic possibility” that the NCAA essentially does nothing in this case, according to Don Jackson, a sports attorney who teaches sports law at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law.
For one, there is no NCAA-imposed litmus test for a player’s ability that coaches have to establish.
“You assume that a coach is not going to spend any time recruiting a player that doesn’t have the ability to participate in the program,” Jackson told The Washington Post.
“There may be some culpability that will fall on the schools for lack of institutional control,” Jackson added, citing a term that comes up frequently in NCAA sanctions on football of basketball programs deemed to have run amok. The NCAA could also find schools had failed to maintain “an atmosphere of compliance within their athletic departments,” he said — though he cautioned it was still too early to say.
"Other than possibly the payments to the coaches, it just may be that there were no objectively provable NCAA violations here,” Jackson said.
Among the more baffling details included in court documents was the extent to which Singer reportedly went to fabricate athletic profiles for children of his wealthy clients. In several cases, according to the affidavit, he used Photoshop to edit the students’ faces onto pictures of actual athletes to try to lend more authenticity to their applications, even though photos are not necessarily required for athletic recruiting.
Such doctored photos were “kind of pathetic and comical,” Jackson said. “To the extent that it’s true, and these are all allegations right now, that was troubling and is really indicative of an effort to engage in fraudulent conduct.”
It’s also unclear whether any of the high school students admitted to colleges under the guise of being athletes ever accepted NCAA scholarship money. In the case of the water polo recruit at USC, the student ultimately was admitted and joined the water polo team as a “bench warmer side door person” — then quit the team after one semester, according to the affidavit.
Some of the coaches named in the indictment reportedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars, as The Post’s Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky reported:
Prosecutors also charged Georgetown’s former head tennis coach, Gordon Ernst. Authorities said he made $950,000 promoting several students as potential tennis recruits — when they were not tennis players of that caliber.
For example, prosecutors alleged, Ernst flagged a California couple’s daughter as a “potential spot,” and her application falsely indicated she had played club tennis through high school and achieved a Top 50 ranking in the U.S. Tennis Association’s junior girls category from her sophomore through her senior years. In fact, she had not played at any Tennis Association tournaments in high school, officials said.
“At her best,” prosecutors wrote, “she appears to have ranked 207th in Northern California in the under-12 girls division, with an overall win/loss record of 2-8.”
In a statement, Georgetown said the school was “deeply disappointed” to learn of the criminal charges against Ernst and said he “has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, following an internal investigation that found he had violated University rules concerning admissions. Georgetown cooperated fully with the government’s investigation.”
On Tuesday, officials at numerous colleges caught up in the scheme stated they were unaware of illegal activity. Many took swift action against the coaches named in the indictment.
USC officials said Vavic, the water polo coach, and associate athletic director Donna Heinel had been terminated, and that they would try to identify funds the university had received through the scheme.
“USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation,” USC’s athletics department tweeted. “We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university. USC is conducting an internal investigation.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that indicted coaches included Mark Riddell and that standardized-testing officials took bribes to inflate students’ SAT or ACT scores. Riddell was a counselor at a private school in Bradenton, Fla. Standardized-testing proctors, not officials, were bribed to alter students’ tests, according to the affidavit.