THE SIDE DOOR
By Fred Klein, Drake Group Member, Arizona
A former Wall Street Journal sports columnist, see more opinions at Fred Klein on Sports
It’s hard to shock people these days about the corrupt ties between sports and academe, but a case now playing out seems to be doing just that. This time the money isn’t going from the schools and their supporters to top-jock kids but the other way around. Rich people have been gaming the system by using bribes and phony sports credentials to get their children into schools that otherwise wouldn’t accept them. The fact that a couple of those people are well-known actresses has amped up the attention, and the outrage.
In the latest go-round 50 people– parents, coaches or athletics administrators– have been federally charged in a scheme in which some $25 million changed hands to secure admission to such high-toned U’s as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford. Some of the money went to ringers who took college-admission tests for the kids or simply changed their scores. Most of the rest went to coaches who were paid to set aside team places for teens with no prowess in their sports. The fakery went so far as to include “photoshopped” pictures incorporating the kids’ faces into sports-action shots.
The episode has brought into play the term “side door” as it applies to college admissions. That refers to the special ties between coaches and admissions offices that exist at just about every American college or university. We’re not talking about the big-time men’s revenue sports of football and basketball; recruits there tend to be so well known that unfamiliar names can’t be slipped into the mix. But in the so-called “minor” sports –the likes of tennis, soccer or water polo– admissions people usually take coaches’ words for who does and doesn’t qualify for special treatment, opening the door to abuses. The fact that this preference exists at all testifies to the long-standing hold sports have had over American higher education, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
The side door grew enormously in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Federal Education Act banning discrimination by sex in programs at colleges and universities that take Federal funds (which is to say about all of them). Women’s teams, formerly marginal, suddenly blossomed because of the requirement that sports opportunities be equal between the sexes.
That goal remains more aspirational then real, but still has real consequences. Because large-roster football commands by far the biggest chunk of institutional backing, schools have scrambled to create or expand offsetting programs for women, so at most schools women’s teams have come to outnumber men’s. For example, Stanford now supports 20 teams for women to 16 for men, including beach volleyball, field hockey and synchronized swimming. The school’s sailing coach was implicated in the latest scandal.
One upshot of this situation has been the stellar performance of American women’s teams on international stages; college seasoning has been the main driver of repeated world’s championships by U.S. women’s basketball and soccer squads. Another has been the plethora of women’s athletic-scholarship opportunities, many of which go begging.
The same is true to a lesser extent for male athletes of below-elite skills. A boy who stands 5-foot-10 can’t expect to play center on the UCLA basketball team, but if he’s good enough some school, somewhere, will find a spot for him. Even schools in the Ivy League, the military academies and NCAA Division III, which don’t award athletic scholarships per se, give special enrollment opportunities to boys and girls with athletic talents. They also may secure financial help for them for reasons other than sports, whether or not they’re the most qualified for them academically.
“If a kid has bona fide athletic credentials, is reasonably intelligent and a coach wants him, schools will find a way to get him in,” says Bill Serra Jr. He heads the College Athletic Placement Service (CAPS) in Ramona, California, a firm which, for a fee (it’s legal), helps parents find athletic-scholarship help for their children.
He continues: “Poor grades or test scores narrow the range of places a kid can go, but don’t close the door. Some junior colleges will accept kids without high school diplomas– they let them pass equivalency tests once they’re in. Flexibility is the key; the kid might not wind up at his dream school but if I say I can get him or her a ride I will, although it might be to a junior college in Nebraska.”
CAPS was started in 1971 by Mr. Serra’s father, Bill Sr., who died a few years ago. I did a column about him in 1989. The extent to which colleges all of sorts will stretch their entrance requirements to give preference to athletes was an eye-opener for me. No money need change hands; it’s just the way things are done.
“The athletic-scholarship world is like an iceberg—only the tip is visible,” he says. “The minor-sports coaches at most schools, and just about all the women’s team coaches at the smaller ones, have zero recruiting budgets. To get players they roam the halls outside of classes looking for prospects.”
How low will they go? “I’ve had calls from tennis coaches asking me if I had any girls who can hit the ball over the net,” he says. He goes on: “I once got a scholarship to a school in Missouri for a kid for his ability as an equestrian. They even let him bring his horse.”