27 February 2021
By Göran R Buckhorn
Netflix announced earlier this week that in March the streaming service will release the documentary film Operation Varsity Blues, which was the code name for the investigation of the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal that included the sport of rowing, Göran R Buckhorn writes.
On 12 March 2019, United States federal prosecutors made public an investigation of an enormous bribery scandal at some of the largest and most well-known educational institutions in the USA. More than 50 people were charged as having taken part in the conspiracy where 33 parents had bribed people to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges and universities.
The parents had paid more than $25 million between the years 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, who had organised the scheme. Singer, a college admission advisor, had built up a network of college officials, whom he bribed to offer admission into top schools for the offspring of his wealthy clients. Or, as one media outlet put it, Singer made it easy for ‘his wealthy clients to cheat an educational system already designed to benefit the privileged.’
Prosecutors said that Singer had different ways to cheat the system. He had organised a scheme where someone other than the student took the SAT exam or had a proctor correct a student’s exam. Singer also bribed school coaches to pretend that the children were so-called athletic recruits, which would ensure them admission to top schools. Among the sports were soccer, tennis, water polo, sailing, volleyball, basketball and rowing.
When the news broke about the scandal, the limelight immediately shown on two Hollywood actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, who both had used bribes to get their children into schools. Lori Loughlin, known for her roles on the American sitcom Full House and the drama When Calls the Heart, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, had ‘donated’ $500,000 to Key Worldwide Foundation, owned by Rick Singer, so that the admissions committee of University of Southern California, USC, would believe that their daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella, would join the university’s women’s rowing team. This despite that neither girl had any idea which end of the oar went into the water.
Laura Janke, USC soccer coach, contacted Loughlin asking for photographs of Isabella Giannulli on a rowing machine, which the actress sent to her. One wonders what would happen if it was actually a rowing coach who had received these images, as one can clearly see that the young woman in the photographs has no idea how to row on an erg.
Janke also provided fake sport images of students to other colleges and universities.
In August 2020, Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli pleaded guilty to the charges. Loughlin served a two-month sentence and was released in December 2020. She was also to pay a $150,000 fine along with two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service. Giannulli serves a five-month sentence and will be released in April 2021. He was also ordered to pay a $250,000 fine with two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.
Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues is directed by Chris Smith and, according to the streaming service, is going to ‘take a deeper look’ at Singer, ‘the man at the center of the scheme.’ The documentary will be released on 17 March.