Donna Lopiano, a former director of college women’s athletics, said she wasn’t surprised when she learned about the recent college cheating admission scandal involving students who were allegedly admitted to universities with fake athletic profiles.
Universities usually reserve slots for admission under special circumstances, including legacy applicants, children of major donors and students with special talents, such as athletes, Lopiano said. They are known as special admits, and athletes account for most of those students at some Division 1 schools, she said.
“This story is about outsiders looking at the permissiveness of the institution, the lack of institutional oversight over athletics, understanding the special admissions system and manipulating it,” said Lopiano, the director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas at Austin from 1975 to 1992.
Former athletic directors say the scandal, which led to the arrest of wealthy parents and coaches, illustrates the need for more oversight in college athletics. That ranges from more scrutiny of the special admission of athletes who may not otherwise be accepted to thoroughly vetting prospective coaches.
“Coaches are acting as admissions officers. Admissions isn’t questioning the slots athletics is given,” Lopiano said.
Last week, federal prosecutors charged 50 people nationwide in the alleged scam, which officials said had two parts.
Parents are accused of paying a college prep organization to take tests for students or to correct answers, federal prosecutors said. The organization also bribed college coaches to fraudulently help get students admitted as recruited athletes regardless of their abilities, prosecutors said.
Many of the students who enrolled as recruited athletes did not take part in the sport.
Federal documents accuse some defendants of creating fake profiles for students to appear as successful athletes.
Coaches from several schools, including the University of Texas, University of Southern California and Stanford were implicated in the alleged scheme.
Several schools have fired coaches. Former Texas head men’s tennis coach Michael Center was among those fired.
In 2015, Center agreed to accept a $100,000 bribe from William Rick Singer – the owner of a college counseling and prep business and the central figure coordinating the scheme – to designate an applicant as a recruit, according to a federal complaint. The student’s application listed him as a manager for his high school basketball and football teams. He was not a competitive tennis player and only played tennis as a high school freshman, the complaint said.
The student was awarded a scholarship to pay for his books and added to the team roster as a recruited athlete.
After the student enrolled, he voluntarily withdrew from the team and renounced the scholarship, the complaint said.
Center has been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. His attorney declined to comment on Thursday.
“Coaches have a responsibility to absolutely guarantee the students they are recruiting are legitimate student athletes, not phony student athletes,” said Christine Grant, director of intercollegiate women’s athletics for women at the University of Iowa from 1973 to 2000.
‘Coaches have a responsibility’
Grant said when a coach is initially hired, “that is the most checks and balances that can be done.”
She added: “I defy you to challenge athletic directors to investigate every applicant they have for a finalist for a head coaching position. That is not being done.”
Federal prosecutors said another student was admitted to USC with a fake athletic profile that described him as an elite high school pole vaulter, even though his high school had no record of him taking part in the pole vault or track and field.
That profile included a photo purporting to be the student, but it was someone else, prosecutors said.
The system failed, one former athletic director says
“Obviously, somebody was not doing what they should’ve been doing or just didn’t pay close enough attention to those things or no one was holding anybody in the athletic department accountable for the spaces that they were taking up with respect to admissions,” said Peter Roby, the former athletic director at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. “At some point, the system broke down.”
Lopiano said the system has long been flawed. She said apart from the lack of oversight over special admits, there is no academic standard below the institution’s admission standard for those admissions. That may lead to admitting athletes who are academically unprepared, Lopiano said.
She said she believes admitting students based on special circumstances benefits the student body, but it shouldn’t be abused. More special admissions are given to athletes than students in any other group under the policy, Lopiano said.
“There needs to be an independent oversight over this highly political construct, and the only people who are protected from getting kicked out are tenured faculty,” she said.
In recent years, the University of Washington has put in place several measures to vet and track student athletes who are recommended for special admission or admitted under the policy.
Several layers of oversight
Several athletic administrators, including a compliance officer, have to approve a coach’s request to consider a student for admission under the policy before a formal request can be made to admissions, according to Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment management at the school. A faculty subcommittee, including deans and tenured faculty members, reviews appeals of student athletes denied admission under the special admission policy, Ballinger said.
Coaches are also prohibited from directly contacting the admissions office, to prevent any possible influence over the decision, he said.
Additional oversight comes from another committee, including deans and tenured faculty, that oversees and reviews the data of those student athletes, he said. That committee also reviews the academic outcome of those students, Ballinger said.
Ballinger said recruited athletes admitted under the policy have to remain on the team for at least a year or their admissions can be rescinded.
“Bad actors are bad actors, and I suppose if someone was really intent on just sheer-out lying and fabrication, I don’t know if we can purely safeguard from that,” he said. “But I think when you have lots of different people and layers of responsibility and good oversight … you minimize the possibility of this kind of thing happening.”
Roby said the scandal “makes you sick to your stomach,” as a parent and a coach.
“It just speaks to human nature being where it is that people will go to whatever lengths to gain an advantage,” said Roby, a former head men’s basketball coach at Harvard University.
He said parents teach their children to be good people, to be honest and responsible and earn their success.
“It rings hollow because when push came to shove you tried to leverage your wealth to benefit your kid in an unethical way,” he said. “What kind of message does it send to your children as they go out into the world and start building a career? That’s not a legacy there that anyone should be proud of.”
CNN’s Eric Levenson, Mark Morales, Holly Yan and Erica Hill contributed to this report.