Views on Operation Varsity Blues from an Ivy League Student-Athlete

On March 12th, federal authorities charged fifty adults who took part in nationwide scheme to get students admitted to elite universities like Yale and the University of Southern California. The investigation, since nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI, is still ongoing.

Much of the American public was shocked to read about wealthy, powerful parents paying millions of dollars in bribes that ultimately ended up in the hands of test administrators and athletic coaches. Lori Loughlin, known for her role on the sitcom Full House, paid $500,000 to get her two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California. Others were appalled to read how it was all coordinated by private admissions counselors like William Rick Singer. Parents paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 per test to have someone else take the SAT or ACT in place of their children.

But on Princeton’s campus, it was hard to be surprised by revelations of college admissions’ dark and expansive underbelly. While I’m proud to say that none of my classmates here in New Jersey had their parents pay their way into school, students aren’t shy to discuss how they sought the advice of college counselors, enrolled in test prep courses, and sat with private tutors.

I attended a suburban, public high school in Sacramento, California where the majority of students came from an upper-middle class background. I know I’m not dirty, but Operation Varsity Blues and the national reckoning surrounding the college admissions industry didn’t leave me feeling clean either.

But for me, there’s another layer to this mess. Almost six years ago I picked up rowing, and I turned out to be pretty good. I was recruited by the Ivies and other elite schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley before picking Princeton. I completely relish my identity as an athlete, but I am a student first. That’s why the stories of parents and counselors photoshopping kids onto water polo players, football kickers, and rowers alike, and bribing coaches and athletics officials to have their “student-athletes” admitted to college leaves me feeling disgusted.

Nine collegiate coaches and one collegiate athletics administrator have been indicted by the FBI so far. The list includes USC’s famed water polo coach and the leaders of programs like Yale women’s soccer, Georgetown tennis, UCLA men’s soccer, and Stanford sailing. All have since been terminated or placed on leave.

Over three years in high school, I gave fifteen hours each week to rowing. I spent a summer competing on the junior national team. I worked incredibly hard in the classroom, too. My schedule was packed with AP classes and an honors political science program. I earned my spot at Princeton, and I deserve it. Still, I’m aware that my application, sans sports, likely would not have garnered admission. Athletes at institutions like this one aren’t immune from feeling like they aren’t good enough.

But the one feeling I couldn’t handle was guilt; and guilty was exactly how I felt reading one op-ed that appeared in The New York Times. In it, the author claims that Operation Varsity Blues is essentially an athletics scandal. But that evaluation seemed a bit near-sighted to me. Parents would arguably have to fight harder and pay more to get their students into college if there was not the option to masquerade them as athletes.

Yes, athletics play an outsize role in American higher education. But I do not agree that this scandal can only be breaking because of the presence of athletic empires at top universities. Yes, athletes at prominent schools might be “about 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a non-athlete with the same academic record.” I wasn’t shocked by the statistic. I was shocked by what it implied: that student-athletes are not qualified to attend elite universities.

Operation Varsity Blues reminded me of the value colleges and universities place on sports and the students who compete. I want to be respected for the work I put in, not confused with a kid whose parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a roster spot.