Athletic Recruiting: The Scandal and the Reality

Athletic recruiting in lower-profile sports programs was at the center of the recent admissions scandal, along with special accommodations and cheating on college admissions testing.  Former Georgetown tennis coach George Ernst allegedly accepted bribes to help 12 students earn admission as tennis recruits over the course of 6 years. Rudy Meredith, Yale’s former women’s soccer coach, allegedly accepted a six-figure bribe to list an applicant as a recruit. Stanford’s now former sailing coach John Vandemoer pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy for falsely designating applicants to Stanford as sailing recruits. A volleyball coach at Wake Forest, a tennis coach at UT Austin, plus a handful of USC coaches—water polo, soccer, and crew— and an athletic administrator were all charged with federal crimes.

What we know is that the individuals perpetrating these crimes went to great lengths to falsify students’ athletic accomplishments. But how did these falsified athletic (and academic) records make it through the admissions process, especially at these schools with holistic review processes for athletic recruits?

HOW DOES ATHLETIC RECRUITING WORK?

Coaches are vested with the responsibility of developing a list of prospective students who meet both the college’s admissions requirements (usually based on grades and test scores) and demonstrate the athletic abilities and potential that coaches seek for their teams. The recruitment process—heavily regulated by the NCAA and within leagues like the Ivy League that typically have more stringent processes—coaches review student credentials, watch students play at tournaments or online, offer on-campus summer camps where talent and potential are assessed, and invite students for “official” visits. Typically for a sport like crew the coach might have 6-8 spots to fill with his/her recruited picks. A tennis coach might have 3-6 spots to fill.

No coach is an island. Even the smallest teams typically have an assistant coach or two (sometimes unpaid) and athletic departments include staff charged specifically with NCAA and institutional compliance. Despite their status as “lower profile,” all coaches and all teams are accountable to the university’s athletic director and a great deal of vetting should occur before a coach asks the admissions office for an early review of a prospective student athlete.

Once the coach receives a ‘green light’ to recruit a student athlete (timing varies from school to school, across athletic leagues), the coach then shares that feedback with the student athlete and encourages him/her to submit a complete application to the admissions office. Among Ivy institutions, this early review process begins July 1 in the summer before senior year. Beginning October 1, Ivy schools may issue “likely” letters to recruited athletes—after a complete review of the student’s academic and athletic credentials.

athletic recruiting college admissions scandal

It’s at that point that this story becomes a head scratcher. The FBI has outlined how the perpetrators doctored photographs, cheated on testing, and presumably fabricated essays and lists of activities. But what about letters of recommendation from guidance counselors and teachers? Presumably, their letters on behalf of elite student athletes in their classes would highlight these students’ exceptional accomplishments in the athletic arena. Admissions officers at schools that practice holistic admissions emphasize a close review, looking for themes and patterns, reading recommendations and essays, not just admitting based on scores and grades. Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to imagine that the students admitted under fraudulent circumstances had recommendations that lauded their exceptional athletic abilities. Did admissions staff read the letters of recommendations for these recruited athletes or simply trust that the coaches had done their due diligence?

No doubt college staff in admissions and athletics departments are wrestling with these very questions. Although it seems unlikely that universities will disband teams and no longer offer coveted seats in the class to talented athletes who meet the school’s academic benchmarks, a tightening of controls, greater levels of scrutiny, and other measures will be put into place to guard against this kind of “side door” process.

The larger question of the role that athletic talent should play in the college admissions process is a more complex one but will no doubt be a topic of conversation as the marquee NCAA basketball tournament gets underway this month.

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