Bribes, ‘athletes’ and the side door: An inside look at ‘Operation Varsity Blues’


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USC’s athletic director, played by Angela Nichola (left), and Rick Singer, played by Matthew Modine (right), were two of the key players in the college admissions scandal of 2019.

Getting into college is becoming more and more difficult. Acceptance rates are dropping year after year for schools all across the country, and getting in is especially hard for students who can’t afford expensive resources. Rich elites have an advantage in the form of  SAT tutoring, the ability to donate money to schools they want to attend and access to obscure sports such as sailing and crew.

While the wealthy have always had advantages in college admissions, the college admissions scandal of 2019 was different. A number of parents paid bribes to Rick Singer, a college counselor, to get their children into schools, and America saw people like Lori Loughlin going so far as to lie about a sport her daughter, Olivia Jade, played to get into a school she wasn’t qualified for, USC. 

As I am starting to go through the college process, learning about the resources of the rich in college admissions is frustrating to me. Hundreds of thousands of qualified students are applying to schools every year, but spots are being taken away by students like Olivia Jade, who gained admission to USC in part by lying and saying she was a rower. Hearing this makes me wonder how many people at prestigious universities get in because of money and back door deals. 

“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is a film that I recommend to anyone, but especially those currently involved in the college admissions process. The movie came out on Netflix in March, and it is focused on Rick Singer, the man in the middle of the scandal, and the “side door” into college admissions for those who are willing to pay. 

The film opens with clips of students being accepted to high-level colleges followed by videos of those who were on trial for paying bribes to get their children into those same schools. In addition, the film features reenactments of key scenes with actors playing the main characters from the scandal. The film uses real conversations between Rick Singer (played by Matthew Modine) and the parents who paid bribes. The conversations were recorded by the FBI and reenacted by the actors playing the main characters in the scandal.

In the film, Singer describes the three ways to get into college: the front door, the back door and the side door. The front door is the traditional way students get into college through applying, but fewer and fewer students are getting in this way. The back door is when parents pay millions of dollars in donations to a school in order to get their child in, which is legal because there is no guarantee of acceptance. Rick Singer’s system made use of the side door, which is much less expensive and involves fraud of some sort, such as bribing the athletic department or paying someone to take the SAT for their child.

Even though Singer is the mastermind, I believe it’s the parents who are to blame in this scandal. They are the ones who reached out to Singer and initiated the wrongdoings. They are also the ones who wanted their children to attend these elite schools that their children may have not been qualified to attend on their own. Some parents didn’t even tell their children, many of whom were oblivious to the whole situation, what was going on. The kids would think that they got in on their own merit after studying for the SAT and getting a good score without knowing that someone took the test for them.

While I did not have any sympathy for the parents portrayed in this film, I had a soft sport for Stanford’s head sailing coach of over ten years, John Vandenmoer. 

Singer called up Vandenmoer and introduced himself as a college recruiter. Vandenmoer accepted money for his sailing program from Singer in exchange for considering Singer’s “recruits” for the team. However, Vandenmoer was completely unaware that he was doing anything wrong. Even though he took money from Singer (with approval from the athletic director), he did not personally enrich himself; the money went to the sailing program, which did not receive much funding from the school. Vandenmoer was the one coach caught in the scandal that made an appearance in the film and was interviewed, and while Vandenmoer didn’t fully understand the extent of what was going on, the film suggests that the Stanford athletic department was aware of what was going on and made Vandenmoer take the fall.

The film is powerful because it uncovers the corrupt system that students enter into each year when they apply to college. As someone preparing and working hard to get into a good school by participating in various activities and keeping my grades up, I don’t like seeing people waltz into schools by paying their way in. This just goes to show that colleges don’t always accept students based on merit.

Even though there are many issues in the admissions system, I’m still going to continue to work my hardest to get into one of these elite schools. College admissions need work; those who come after me can take part in that reform.