The Case Study


After a long Tuesday, you sit down and put your feet up. Your hand reaches for the remote to turn on the television. With a flash, a news report comes on: “College Admissions Scandals.” 50 people have been involved in this alleged criminal conspiracy, including parents, teachers, coaches, and test proctors; the majority came from California and targeted elite universities such as Stanford, USC, UCLA, Yale, and Harvard. The news report shares more about how the big name colleges were involved with parents paying for their children’s SAT answers to be changed or listed as college recruits without any real record of them ever playing the sport. It all started with a man who goes by the name of William Rick Singer, now known as the “college admission fraudster,” who used his organization, Key Worldwide Foundation, The Edge College & Career Network, to run his lucrative scheme (Bonagura). Parents of the college applicants have been accused of wiring more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to Singer to help their children gain admission to distinguished competitive colleges. The shock was the only expression on your face.

The college recruiting process has always been a tough one, so getting a head start is what the educated Americans often advise especially with it being so competitive. From the world outside of the college recruited athlete application process, news articles, reporters, and “professionals” write about the process and how easy it just is. According to the NCAA, 7,300,000 athletes take the chance to play in college, yet only 492,000 play. This data shows the slim number of athletes that actually make it to the collegiate level from high school to college. It shows the pressure, the chance that high schoolers will actually make it into a college as recruitment, and the hard work that must go into being recruited to be part of that 492,000. The process isn’t easy. Parents usually say it all starts with good grades. Academically, students have to be ready to still study in college despite also playing a sport. Next, it is essential to create a competitive resumé to showcase skills and accomplishments of the athlete. Asking for help also is helpful because it’s tough going through the arduous process for the first time (Bottjen). Be open-minded and taking everything that colleges send the recruit. It really helps with the process because the athlete can take in all the knowledge and have more options. First, let’s uncover the college admission scandal then let’s take a look at the raw faces of recruitment and their journey to becoming the next college athlete and not let the people who have been scamming their way into college stop them from reaching their goal.

Report: Operation Varsity Blues

“Operation Varsity Blues” is what the admission scandal has been renamed after the 1999 comedy, drama, sports film. The scandal was the largest-ever college admission prosecution that the Justice Department has uncovered. Starting in 2011, William “Rick” Singer and his business, “The Key”, started helping parents bribe elite colleges to help their children gain admission, taking a total of over $25 million in bribes in the process. The scandal has been known to follow two schemes. One was the changing of standardized test scores. The second was faking sports resumés to be listed as sports recruits for colleges.

The first scheme is where test proctors were paid to changed change students’ standardized test answers to better their scores. The test proctor was Mark Riddell, a pro tennis player, and a Harvard graduate. He would fill in the answer bubbles on test for students or change a couple of answers to correct ones. Riddell didn’t change all the answers to make it less obvious that someone was changing the answers. With his previous experience of taking the tests and getting a near perfect score on his test, he knew what many of the answers on the test were suppose to be.

In the second scheme, the Key bribed college coaches with large amounts of money to put students as prospective student-athletes for the college which guaranteed admissions. In most cases, the students didn’t even play the sport. Employees of the Key fabricated athletic resumés like taking pictures of them on sports training equipment, photoshopping a child’s faces on top of photos of other athletes, and making up results from events or matches. In one case, a father asked them to Photoshop his son’s face on to another athlete playing water polo. He went as far as going out to buy water polo gear to stage the photo. Coaches would receive those resumés and send them to admissions people for admissions to list the students as recruits for the college. Yet with only 50 some people part of this scheme, that leave thousands of other athletes who have worked for their spot as a recruit (Ryan). Case by case, let’s break down the recruiting process. From emails, to phone calls, to official visits, the real recruiting process isn’t as easy paying millions of dollars to be put on a college’s recruiting class. Each case will shine a light on an athlete trying to get recruited and bring positivity to the uphill battle known as recruiting.  

Case 1: The Volleyball Player

It all started with a bump, a set, and a pass. From across the hall, anyone can see him towering over others with his 6’6” frame, yet when you talk to him, he is both nice and sweet, not a typical tall, scary, big ego teenager. Ethan Makishima, a 16-year-old junior in high school, is a student-athlete who would love to play volleyball in college. He started playing with his father. He had little interests in volleyball but after “getting to pass the ball and stuff”, he thought it was really interesting. Sports come with griefs and triumphs. Ethan recalls a time when he made a mistake in a game. It happens to be the game point. There was a pass but he and the setter had a miscommunication and the ball ended up landing on the floor of their side of the court. But the good memories always outshine the bad. This game, Ethan had blocked three balls in a row. Being middle blocker, he must try to block all the balls coming from the opposing team so the balls don’t end up on his side of the court. Despite his great playing this game, it came down to the game point. The setter set Ethan the ball and bam! Ethan had hit the ball straight on to the other side. Ethan had scored the game-winning point. A highlight he will always remember.

He started caring about scholarships around sophomore year, which he says is usually a little early. With the skills and talents that he had displayed in games, Ethan believed that he had the skills to play in college. He started going to volleyball practices where they would take videos of him and send them to volleyball coaches.

Ethan started by reaching out to colleges. He emailed colleges and reached out to them. In emails, athletes usually state their name, their age, and what team they are a part of. Then they list their accomplishments and skills and interests they have about the school. That’s often how the first email goes to get their foot in the door. From there, the coach and athlete talk about the athlete’s ability and skills. Then it could be sending back and forth conversations about the sport and here and there the athlete may include a highlight video, showcasing the skills of themselves in games or events, until the coach offers an official visit.

According to the Next College Student Athlete Association, sending a simple email isn’t enough to get a coach’s attention. A clear concise email with an attention-grabbing subject title will hopefully grab the attention of the coach and make them more likely open the email. The NCSA suggest that your subject line include your graduation year, your position, state, and a piece of information that is interesting about you. Interesting information could include a dash time, to an impressive SAT score, to the team you play club for, or an attachment of your next tournament schedule. Similarly to what Ethan said, when emailing a coach NCSA breaks it down into four sections: your general information, academics, athletics, and contact information. Often people follow their emails up a few days later with a call, so let the coach that is being contacted know at the end. An insider tip that NCSA includes is to turn on the “read receipt” function so you can see if a coach opens your email. The NCSA also has sample emails for both academic-focused and athletic-focused emails on their website (“How to Email College Coaches”).  

As of now, he is reaching out to college coaches that he is interested in and see if they feeling the same way back. A helpful service that Ethan has found is the NCSA, which is a recruiting service. It includes highlight videos, statistics from games, pictures, a biography, and grades. The athlete can see when coaches view the account and they can send their link to their website portfolio to coaches. Ethan tries to keep the communication going to show his interest and commitment. While he does that, he also tries to balance a good academic standing with being a committed volleyball player. With his sight set mostly on studying computer science in college, he reaches out specifically to colleges that provide a computer science program. Right now, he is more focusing on school “because sport is like your hobby; it’s what you do in the meantime – but academics is more your career and actually helps you succeed” (Makishima).

Case 2: The Golfer

She started out with a swing on the greens with her family. Being dragged into the sport by her family, she has now fallen in love with golf. Katelyn Lee, a 16-year-old junior in high school, is a student-athlete who would love to play golf in college. Katelyn becoming interested in playing in golf in college summer after her sophomore year. Colleges had started reaching out to her. She has had an amazing golf year with an appearance in CCS league finals, representing her school team.

Katelyn started receiving emails from colleges which now has turned into emails and phone calls. In emails, she talks a little bit about herself before saying that she is looking for a school with a good challenge in golf but mainly academics and lastly attaching her golf resumé. Katelyn made a golf resumé that has her golf scores and accomplishments along with her academics profile because she wants to target schools with good academic standings. Whereas in phone calls, Katelyn is more finding out the team dynamic. “A big part of college golf is their environment whether it be more competitive or relax” (Lee), as she puts it. She, in talking to the coach, is trying to find whether the golf team fits her and what she would like to play in college.

The NCSA also has information regarding calling college coaches. Their research found that an average college coach receives seven phone calls from recruits each week. A small number, it is a great option to do to stand out amongst other athletes. With phone calls though, be careful because there are certain dates that coaches can’t answer or return calls like D1 coaches can’t answer or return calls until June 15th after the athlete’s sophomore year or September 1st of their junior year. The NCSA advise that you should practice and be comfortable on the phone prior to the call. Also, doing research about the school and the program so you are more prepared for what they are looking for or what type of questions they could ask you based on the school’s reputation. Calling a coach between 6-9pm when they are in the season seems to work best but asking the coach for the best time is always the best option (“Calling College Coaches: Phone Scripts and Voicemail Templates to Use on Your Next Coach Call”).

Katelyn is keeping her options open, especially since she hasn’t figured out what she wants to study and do in the future. To stand out in academically-strong schools that have a golf team, she believes that it is also about being herself, in her words, “It’s really to me about being yourself. It’s not just you want to sell yourself. The coach always wants to sell themselves to you and being yourself and seeing if you will be a good fit for the team” (Lee).

Case 3: The Water Polo Player

Tony Nardelli, a 17-year-old junior in high school, is a student-athlete who would love to play water polo in college. He always thought he’d be in the water, especially with his father and grandfather’s love for the water. He started caring about recruitment the end of his sophomore year when he began reaching out to some colleges through email. He since has been in contact with coaches, visited some colleges, and been on two official visits. Along with that, college coaches have watched him play when he is in their area. His dad told him, “don’t depend well on water polo as your way into college over school” (Nardelli). School is Tony’s priority which is why Tony wants to major in engineering but coaches have told him that it is difficult to juggle both in college.

As for key parts of getting recruited, standing out is important especially for a small sport like water polo. Tony is usually a captain or leader on his water polo teams, making sure that everyone is well-behaved in the water and out. He says he’s “like the coach’s right-hand man” (Nardelli). To grab the attention of colleges though, players have to not only be good at the sport and academically fit.

When narrowing down colleges to apply to, not every college has a team. It also depends on the style of water polo you’d like to play in the future or what division you plan on playing. Once again, building a resumé with water polo achievements, and academic information like your GPA or SAT score is also helpful in recruiting. With email, Tony typically writes who he is, where he is from, a little bit of background information, what club he plays for, his grades, and classes that he is taking. In addition, his interest in the school, what other schools he’s are looking at and asking whether he can visit the school in the future. On official visits, he is flown out or driven to the college where he stays with the water polo team at the school’s dorm for two nights. The visits seemed to be for both the team and Tony to see if they are a good match. Along with that, Tony is given a campus tour and has a one-on-one meeting with the coach. There are other little factors that coaches look for like personality, good work ethic, and connecting with the team.

The NCAA has rules about official visits but each sport is different. Looking up the official calendar for a specific sport on the NCAA recruiting calendar is the best option to make sure that you are following the right dates. There are some rules that are for all sports. The NCAA only allows a recruit to make five official visits to Division I and Division II schools but Division III schools have no limit on their visits. All recruits can only make one visit per school though. The school pays for transportation to and from the campus but they may provide transportation for the parent as well. Each visit is often last a whole weekend or 48 hours long. Official visits mostly happen during the athlete’s junior year. When preparing for your official visit, register with the NCAA Eligibility Center for Division I and II schools, the recruit needs to get a Certification Account to make sure that you are eligible to play. Requesting the college coach to add you onto the Institutional Request List would be the next step which is another formality to ensure that you can compete at an NCAA school. On official visits, it is advised to dress professionally and to bring athletic clothes, in case you get invited to work out with the team. Be prepared to answer questions about other schools that are recruiting you, other colleges you plan on visiting, and when you can commit to a school (“Everything You Need to Know About College Visits”).

Case 4: The Swimmer

Brennan is a 16-year-old swimmer, who has been swimming since the age of 6. He started all because of his love for the water. Since then, he can always be found swimming whether it be in a pool or in the ocean. He starts by filling out forms on websites that gave colleges access to his swim times his sophomore year. The websites would show his times and how to compared to other swimmers around his age or his area. With swimming an average of 15.5 hours per week, he keeps himself busy with swimming and school, but school is always the priority.

Swimming for so long, he has moments that he won’t forget like at the Waikiki rough water swim, a race where the best and fastest compete. It is a 2.348 miles ocean swim between the New Otani Hotel and the Hilton Rainbow Tower in Waikiki, Hawaii. The race is conducted by the Waikiki Roughwater Swim Committee and is held annually (“Race Media”). The race is a really big event with local swimmers and some as far away as Australia and Canada. There are swimmers of all levels from those who have only been swimming for a couple of years to those of the US National Open Water team. Brennan placed first in his age group with a time of fifty minutes and sixteen seconds. He beat second place by a whole minute. He placed twenty-second overall in the race, which is in front of almost the entire US National Open Water swim team.

In college, he plans to study biology and swim in a Division I school. He keeps a list of his swim times and qualifications that he has achieved in a resumé format. Currently, he mainly focuses on his swimming and his academics but he does still keep in contact with colleges through emails. In emails, he tends to write to the coach of swim teams letting them know that he is interested and hoping to keep in communication with them. Next year, he hopes to sign the National Letter of Intent for a Division I school, which is signed by a college-bound student-athlete that is an agreement that they will attend the college for one academic year. It is the final and last step of recruiting and prohibited other schools from recruiting the athlete.

The Thoughts of Operation Varsity Blues

These four student-athletes hold many mixed opinions about “Operation Varsity Blues,” especially because they have been working hard to be recruited as part of their dream college’s class of 2024. Ethan, the volleyball player, believes that paying to gain admission into college is very unfair. Working hard, it is very unfair to him that people are just paying to get into colleges. He says, “I’m trying really hard to get into a school through sports, while other people have advantages and exploiting them to get into certain colleges that they shouldn’t be able to get into” (Makishima). Schools are just taking people’s money, not people who are working really hard. Katelyn, the golfer, believes that it is frustrating, she says that golf is a small sport, similar to the crew. Katelyn says, “Golf is one of those sports that no one pays attention to and something like this could happen to the golf team” (Lee).  Katelyn is also working so hard to get recruited. She plays almost every day and practices really hard to be able to swing into the future with her golf skills. Tony, the water polo player, was actually getting recruited to USC himself but since then the USC water polo coach has been let go due to this scandal. Tony thinks that it happens a lot. He says, “You probably won’t find a school in the US that doesn’t offer bribes. It’s just whether or not they’re going to get caught or not but I personally don’t have an opinion.” Brennan, the swimmer, believes that “Operation Varsity Blues” is disgusting. He was disgusted when he first heard about the story because of all the hard work, time, and travel he has dedicated to swimming.

Thoughts on “Operation Varsity Blues” isn’t just frustrating for prospective student-athletes but it is also irritating to athletes who have endured the difficult process. Gretchen Geraghty, a twenty-two-year-old lifestyle Youtuber with 312,000 subscribers, is currently attending Boston University. She was recruited into Boston’s crew team and was able to row for the division one school. On March 15th, 2019, she published a video titled “Dear Olivia Jade”, which highlighted her thoughts on the scandal as a crew recruits herself. She explains the tough process and how she worked six long, hard years to be able to row in college. She says, “What hurts the most, knowing that, basically colleges always have a maximum number of athletes they can bring in for a recruiting class, and knowing that her name was on that list and kicking someone else off basically a potential athlete at USC, that was going to row. That person didn’t get in and didn’t get to go to USC, breaks my heart because that’s somebody that actually did, probably, didn’t have to pay” (Geraghty). Throughout the video, she shares her frustration and disappointment in finding out about this situation. She ends with, “What I have learned is making bad ethical decisions is a very slippery slope and I’m sure with all these parents, coaches, and everyone involved. It probably started off as a small thing and then they just grew into this huge, big thing where 50 people are getting arrested for racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the US, obstruction of justice, like that is so insane. They probably thought it would never get to this point, you know because when you make these really bad ethical decisions and you keep going with them, it almost becomes easier” (Geraghty).

The Conclusion

As the book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values puts it, “the success of a team depends much more on the athletic talent available to it than how that talent is nurtured” (Claerbaut). The talent from athletes that actually play the sport would benefit the team so much more, not the check that gets to be cashed in.

However, will this ever change how the recruiting process will be in the next years? Ethan, Katelyn, Tony, and Brennan all think that the recruiting process won’t change too much. Katelyn believes that the process won’t involve the coach as much so the coach won’t have as large of a contribution say as they use to in their recruits. This would only be a minor change though, nothing extreme to prevent this from happening. Tony believes that it is pretty common and it’s simply about whether you get caught or not. In this case, many people were caught all tied into one scandal. Tony believes that nothing will change with the process though, just those coaches that were caught up in it would be let go of and replaced. Brennan agrees with Katelyn, in that different administrations of different colleges have to be more strict and keep their eyes open for suspicious scams. Yet, it would only be a precaution and admission would be in charge of double-checking their recruits.

In Recruiting Confidential: A Father, a Son, and Big Time College Football, David Claerbaut says Gen Z has become “‘What can you do for me?’ Quick outcomes, a weaker work ethic. It’s part of the computer age. You punch in the keys and get the answer. It undermines the learning process” (136). Claerbaut’s thoughts seemed to have foreshadowed this whole scandal as the book was published in 2003. Yet, it also seems to be a warning for all student-athletes. Nowadays anything seems to be able to be bought like being admitted to a certain college. Paying for a quick outcome of getting into a good school and not actually work for it. Hopefully, these parents have learned from their mistakes after the biggest college admission scandal in history. Along with that, appreciate the time, hard work, and effort that student-athletes are putting in to be recruited to play in college.