Varsity Blues' scandal and COVID-19 force universities to rethink priorities

The stereotype of youth sports parents is that they’re sinking tens of thousands of dollars into their kids’ athletic development in the hopes of getting a scholarship that probably won’t pay all that money back.

The truth is a little different. A lot of parents aren’t pinning their hopes on an ironically named “scholarship.” They just want to get a foot in the door.

With COVID-19 and the “Varsity Blues” scandal forcing universities to rethink priorities, that door might be more difficult to open.

As part of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, parents managed to get kids admitted to the colleges of their choice by bribing coaches to falsify their sports accomplishments. Coaches who’ve pleaded guilty to a variety of related charges include former UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin and assistant Laura Janke.

As the scandal unfolded, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of the Ivy League school that dismissed its fencing coach in connection with the sale of his house to a recruit’s father, investigated its own university admissions. Harvard insisted that it didn’t reserve specific slots in each class for recruited athletes, but a 2018 analysis by Students for Fair Admissions -- a group that sued Harvard on unrelated admissions issues -- showed that athletes in the fourth tier of the admissions department’s academic rankings had a 70.46% chance of admission. Non-athletes in the same tier were admitted 0.076% of the time.

The Ivy League isn’t strong in football -- its teams don’t even accept bids in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs -- but the emphasis on a well-rounded sports program shows up in the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup. In 2018-19, Princeton finished 30th, ahead of sports powerhouses such as Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Louisville and Auburn. Harvard was next at 57th, one place ahead of Miami (Fla.).

Even the top 10 overall schools lean heavily toward academic excellence. Stanford, sixth in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the nation’s best universities, placed first in the Directors’ Cup. Duke finished 10th at U.S. News and ninth in the Directors’ Cup. The public schools in the Directors’ Cup Top 10 included top U.S. News public universities such as Michigan, Texas, UCLA, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

It’s the same story in Division III -- which, like the Ivy League, doesn’t offer specific athletic scholarships. The top five in the Directors’ Cup are Williams, Johns Hopkins (not including its Division I lacrosse teams), Washington University (St. Louis), Middlebury and Emory -- all top-tier academic schools. No. 6 is U.S. News’ third-ranked university -- MIT, which claims not to do “signings” but says coaches “may choose to advocate for you in the admissions process, support that we consider along with the rest of your application.”

All told, 25% of students at Division III schools are athletes. And high schools celebrate their student-athletes’ commitments to these schools. Even if they’re going to MIT. The kid from your Science Olympiad team or drumline likely won’t get the same ceremony.

So the stereotype of athletes ignoring academics often doesn’t apply. But neither does the notion that sports pay the bills.

At most Division I schools, these athletic endeavors are what a corporation would call a “loss leader.” Even in the “Power Five” conferences, awash in football and basketball money, a lot of schools pull in student fees to help balance the budget. The “non-revenue sports” -- including Olympic sports and soccer -- don’t help the bottom line.

“(T)he vast majority of Olympic sports teams, both Group of Five and Power 5, turn an annual loss in the six figures, if not seven,” Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde reported in Sports Illustrated.

The move toward the “Power Five” over the past 30 years, while revving up the revenue in the high-dollar sports, also yielded new expenses. The vast expanses of an Atlantic Coast Conference that covers the entire Atlantic coast and an inaccurately named “Big Ten” conference spanning from New Jersey to Nebraska forced the non-revenue teams to travel as if they were in the NBA or NHL. Justifying a couple of long trips for football Saturdays is a little easier than writing the checks for a 700-mile trip for a Thursday night field hockey game.

One justification for college sports is the bonding effect they have on students and alumni alike. Alumni can commiserate over a team’s successes and failures, though that seems less likely for cross-country and bowling than it does for football and basketball. Students have high-quality sports to see on campus, and they can go to class with overachievers.

For generations, few have questioned the desire to spend more and more. Meeting Title IX requirements meant adding a women’s rowing or equestrian team, not cutting a men’s sport. (Wrestling advocates would argue that it sometimes means both.) Professional European sports clubs would love to have some of the facilities U.S. universities have built up over the years in an effort to impress recruits.

Then you have the athletic department staffs. Stanford lists 17 people under “administration,” nine under academic services, 11 under communications, five under compliance, 13 under “sports performance,” a small army of trainers, three “Offensive Quality Control Analysts” for the football team, and many more. Indiana has a smaller group under administration but 18 employees and four interns in the “academic services and excellence academy.” MIT has smaller admin departments but manages to have six assistant coaches in field hockey.

As long as colleges have been willing to spend all this money, parents have continued to spend as well. They pay for private coaches. They upload video highlights. And yes, they play travel soccer.

The sports-industrial complex isn’t going away. Not entirely. But traveling may be more expensive, at least in the short term. Revenues from home football and maybe basketball games are in jeopardy. Campuses as a whole are looking at the potential of deferred or declining enrollment, the expense of switching facilities to distance learning, the expense of renting hotels and apartments to make dorms less crowded, and a general lack of income from having people on campus.

So the budget looking bleaker and “Varsity Blues” denting the image of the student-athlete, facilities’ price tags will raise more alarm. The football team might have to go with only two analysts ensuring the quality of the offense.

And the soccer teams may travel a bit less. Or get cut entirely. Some schools may simply see club soccer as a cheaper option than varsity soccer.

All the more reason to rethink youth parents’ spending priorities while the colleges rethink theirs. And if you’re a soccer player trying to practice in your backyard, maybe spend some time hitting those books to get a head start on those history and precalculus classes this fall.

6 comments about "Varsity Blues' scandal and COVID-19 force universities to rethink priorities".
  1. Mike Lynch, June 17, 2020 at 10:30 a.m.

    Good and timely article Beau on many fronts. The side door admissions scandal is instructive on how upside down much of society and sport have become ... willingly. As "Pay to Play" club soccer has its significant dysfunctions, "Pay as you Go" college athletic model has its significant advantages, though flowing over with scholarships and high salaries would not be listed as their attributes. Unfortunately, not enough institutions sponsor athletic programs in reality world, until now as you can see by all the budget cuts, or even worse, program cuts. Many programs were living by the widely held belief that money can be either printed or magically appeared, instead of being earned. The big bummer is ultimately, it's the players (or the students in the case of the side door admissions scandal) who ultimately are negatively affected the most.  

  2. Ric Fonseca, June 17, 2020 at 5:18 p.m.

    As one who was intrinsically involved in the sport - going back to the mid '60s - what has transpired in our sport at the post-secondary level, has in fact and deed boggled the mind to a very large and great degree!  My own personal experience as a transfer student from - then - junior college to a California State University came crashing down when I went to try out for the team but was almost immediately declared ineligible by a somewhat unscrupulous AD who determined that I was a: too old, and b: I had been going to college too long.  What he did not take into consideration my three years of military service from high school until my enrollment at a junior college - something the NCAA had in its books giving me the additional three years of eligibility the same it gave to those doing religious missionary work.  However, the NCAA is IMHO just as much to blame as those seeking that infamous side door, that is to say, with its numerous and long-winded rules and regulations, such as permitting the large coaching staffing for some sports, while decrying the other "lesser" and "non-revenue" sports to flounder. 
    The above article does good service in outlining the NCAA's three divisions, and yes Div III universities do not offer athletic scholarships, and yet the coaching staffs do a pretty damned good jobs with what they're given.  BUT, what rankles the mind is the millionaire D I football, at times basketball coaches and some baseball coaches they permit, etc.  Yeah, OK, private universities are not bound to disclose the exact amount they pay their head coaches, while state universities must disclose those coaches' salaries and must also include their "base state salaries," and if memory servces me well, must also disclose how much alumni chip in to increase the state university coach's total salary. 

    There's obviously much more than meets the eye, however, as a retired history college professor I CAN say that my annual retirement would total perhaps one week's salary of a DI, private or public university coach's salary, while a full-time tenured four year university teaching/research professor possibly blanches when they see how much those coaches get paid. 

    As for the student-athletes, whether ju-co/comm college, DI, II, or III, they are the ones who toil for the coaches salaries.  Some coaches do get paid hourly at the "lesser" colleges universities, and because the state universities are required to publish the salaries of ALL staff members, I do believe many would be amazed how much they get/got paid.  BUT the private university coaches's salaries are not published simply and because they're private institutions.  Of greater interest is to see just how much those universities not affiliated with the NCAA, in other words the NAIA members, pay their coaches.  As I said above, there is whole helluva lot yet to disclose....   

  3. Kevin Sims, June 20, 2020 at 1:22 p.m.

    In many industries and in may specific jobs, research tells us that professionals with a background in competitive sports through college perform better and excel. Athletics is integral to the holistic education and development of responsible, contributing citizens. Eliminating athletics will reduce the quality of the graduates hailing from those backgrounds. Ditto for the arts and various other co-curricular endeavors.  

  4. Beau Dure replied, June 22, 2020 at 8:35 a.m.

    That's a fair point. But if arts and other co-curricular activities are important as well, shouldn't they get a lot of resources as well? I know it's difficult to parse out the numbers because drama and music departments are academic departments as well as extracurricular activities, but I think it's fair to say the varsity teams at Duke were better-equipped to function (and had more scholarships) than the musical activities I did. 

  5. Ric Fonseca, June 23, 2020 at 5:13 p.m.

    As I mentioned above, and coming from the "academic" side of the picture, to see just how much we - those in the lecture "trenches" - are not great fans of the "intercollegiate athletic" side of that trench. In my opinion, one must try and perform on both sides of the university/collegiate trenches, i.e. academic and athletic, to fully understand and hopefully appreciate what an "academic" professor must do (yeah, OK, some do have one or two TA's (teaching Assistants), while some/many interaollegiuate athletics coaches may(depending on the sport) have as few as three or as many as - say, a full varsity soccer quad of 23 players) or as many ass 80 or so players.  and when an ac ademic department submits is request for a new academic year budget, and then sees what the athletics "department" receives.... I'll stop here now, as this is a very sensitive topic and it's making me a bit ill to my digestive system...

  6. Ric Fonseca, June 23, 2020 at 5:17 p.m.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that the correct terms to use for those who toil on the athletic trench, is "student-athlete" with emphasis on one first being a student, and an "athlete" second. P.S.  I strongly suggest that folks read what some 30 or so, student athletes at UCLA are or have demanded of the University as they're being summoned to report for some 'pre-seaon" training.  'Tis interesting indeed, and maybe this august sports journal ought to print the article from the Los Angeles Times.

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