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On a Monday morning in April 2017, students at Sage Hill School gathered in its artificial-turf quadrangle, known as the Town Square, to celebrate seniors who were heading to college as recruited athletes. The 10 honorees lined up behind an archway adorned with balloons. One by one, they stepped forward as their sports and destinations were announced. Patricia Merz, the head of the private high school in Newport Coast, California, placed a lei in the appropriate college’s colors around each student’s neck.
Most of the students were recruits to low-profile Division III programs. Only three had committed to play Division I college sports. Two were the captains of Sage Hill’s girls’ volleyball and girls’ soccer teams, bound for Columbia University and the University of Denver, respectively. The other, Grant Janavs, played tennis. As his shirt and blue-and-gray lei both showed, he would attend Georgetown, the elite Catholic university in Washington, D.C.
The Town Square is framed on three sides by Sage Hill’s gym, library and administration building. As Adam Langevin watched the ceremony with other seniors, sitting on four rows of steps at the quadrangle’s open end, across from the archway, he was stunned. Adam had been Sage Hill’s top tennis player for four years, and he had lost only three singles matches as a senior. He had trained long hours with renowned coaches, hit with college stars and budding pros, and acquitted himself well in regional and national tournaments. Although his two-handed backhand needed work, Adam had developed a solid serve and a forehand that one of his coaches, the former college and professional player Ross Duncan, described as “pro potential, tour level.” Between tennis and classes, he’d had little time left for other extracurricular activities or a social life. In four years, he’d attended only two school dances, and had no romantic relationships, or even casual lunches with friends. He’d sacrificed it all for his goal of playing for the best Division I college tennis team he could.
And yet his dream had narrowly eluded him. Although he would likely have played for a weaker Division I program, such as Georgetown, he had his heart set on California Polytechnic State University, which matched his academic interests and is a perennial contender in the Big West Conference. Unlike Georgetown, Cal Poly typically ranks among the top 75 of the more than 250 Division I men’s college tennis teams in the country. Earlier that month, Adam held back tears when a coach at Cal Poly phoned him in calculus class and said that there was no spot left on its team for him. He had been beaten out by players of similar ability whom the coaches had identified as prospects earlier. Desperate to hide his shame and embarrassment from classmates, he immediately fled school. That afternoon, when his father, Rick Langevin, came home, he found Adam sitting on the hood of his car in the driveway, disconsolate.
Now Grant was being celebrated as a future Division I Georgetown tennis player. When Grant had mentioned that he would be playing for Georgetown, Adam had privately thought that Grant was deluding himself. In their freshman year, Grant had played doubles regularly for Sage Hill, but, as the team improved, he lost his starting position. As a senior, Grant wasn’t even on the team. He hit the ball hard but sprayed his shots outside the lines; he couldn’t stay in a rally for more than three or four strokes. Grant had a private coach who went to his matches and practices, but he still didn’t get better. Adam sometimes wondered if Grant would prefer playing for fun rather than competing.
“I must admit it, I was jealous,” Adam recalled in June, as he sprawled on a couch in the living room of his family’s home, part of a residential development on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Adam, 5-foot-10 and a sturdy 155 pounds, wore white socks without sneakers because he was recovering from surgery for an ingrown toenail, a common tennis malady. “He was living my dream after I worked for so many years,” Adam told me. “I was known as the tennis kid. That’s what I did. Grant gets up there, and I felt people looking over. ‘Why aren’t you up there?’ The whole team was like, ‘What?’ It was really, really frustrating.”
A.G. Longoria, who served as Sage Hill’s tennis coach from the school’s founding, in 2000, to his retirement, in 2015, coached both players. Adam “was the better athlete and devoted much more time to tennis as this was his number one passion — he was in an elite tennis academy, had high performance coaches and played USTA tournaments almost every week,” Longoria told me in an email. “He got good in a hurry” and “could have played at Georgetown.” By contrast, “Grant was limited by his form (strokes) which all his coaches tried to correct but either he could not or would not change them. I am guessing that Adam was surprised, as many were, that Grant was going to play for Georgetown.”
When Adam told his parents that Grant was a Georgetown tennis recruit, his father speculated that Grant’s billionaire family had endowed a building at the university. Grant’s mother, Michelle Janavs, is the daughter of Paul Merage, who, with his brother, co-founded Chef America Inc., which created the Hot Pockets microwavable snack. Universities frequently reward donors by giving their children or grandchildren an edge in admissions.
Nearly two years later, in March, 2019, the actual explanation emerged. An independent college-admissions counselor named William (Rick) Singer pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston to fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice in a case known as Operation Varsity Blues. Singer’s clients had paid him more than $25 million to help their children enter an array of selective colleges with bogus credentials. He bribed college coaches and athletic officials to misrepresent students as recruited athletes, and he paid proctors at testing sites to improve their scores on the SAT or ACT by secretly correcting wrong answers.
One billionaire family paid Singer $6.5 million for their daughter’s admission to Stanford. Her application to Stanford was embellished with false credentials for the sailing team, according to a court filing by prosecutors. The university expelled the student, according to news reports, but she and her parents have not been charged in the case. Stanford’s sailing coach, who pleaded guilty, admitted to taking bribes to help some of Singer’s clients, but he spent the money on the sailing program rather than himself. The 33 parents who were charged included the television actresses Lori Loughlin, who pleaded not guilty, and Felicity Huffman, who apologized and was sentenced to 14 days in prison. There were also two Sage Hill trustees: Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of Pacific Investment Management Company, or PIMCO, one of the world’s largest bond managers, and Grant’s mother, Michelle Janavs.
In May 2017, after Georgetown admitted Grant, a foundation controlled by his grandfather had wired $400,000 to a California nonprofit that Singer had set up — the Key Worldwide Foundation, according to court documents. Prosecutors said that Singer, through that foundation, paid Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst more than $2.7 million in “consulting” fees to designate at least a dozen applicants, including Grant, as tennis recruits. Ernst, who declined to comment through his lawyer, pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy. Grant was not charged in the case, and no evidence has emerged that he knew or suspected anything inappropriate regarding his recruitment. His mother and Singer appear to have engineered his acceptance to Georgetown without him being aware of their alleged scheme.
Michelle Janavs’ alleged bribes continued after Georgetown admitted Grant. She paid $200,000 for her older daughter to get into the University of Southern California for beach volleyball, according to prosecutors. (The daughter had been on Sage Hill’s junior-varsity team.) She paid another $100,000 to rig both of her daughters’ standardized-test scores: a proctor on Singer’s payroll corrected their answers so that their scores would be within a preselected range. Janavs pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud and money laundering. (Her lawyers declined to comment. Grant did not respond to requests for comment.)
Media coverage of Operation Varsity Blues has highlighted the accused celebrities, tycoons and coaches. The culpability of the students who gained admission has also been widely debated: Did they know of the bribery, or were they deceived by their own parents, like Grant? The elite colleges involved have portrayed themselves as helpless victims. In reality, they created the conditions for Singer’s scheme, from the lower admissions standards for athletes to the ever-increasing selectivity that ratchets up parents’ desperation. They’ve tacitly sold admissions slots for decades to major donors, yet professed shock that their coaches would as well.
Less understood is that the repercussions extended beyond the families and colleges entangled in the scandal. The true victims were other, and perhaps more deserving, high school students and athletes, like Adam. For every student like Grant who benefited from Singer’s crimes, there was a student who aspired to attend premier schools and sports programs. Despite their stronger credentials, some were rejected. To students like Adam, the scandal shows that the college-admissions game offers shortcuts, but only for the wealthy and well-connected. “Grant is a nice person, but he’s a god-awful tennis player,” Adam told me. “I knew he wouldn’t see a day on court. He would never play a match for Georgetown.”
In the wake of Rick Singer’s guilty plea, media reports portrayed him as a criminal mastermind who deftly hid his activities. He shrewdly exploited procedures that were vulnerable to abuse — such as college-admissions committees taking a coach’s word for an applicant’s athletic prowess. But Singer didn’t fool everyone. Long before 2011, when court documents indicate that his bribing of coaches and test administrators began, he was notorious among some guidance counselors and college advisers for boosting students’ chances by pretending that they were racial minorities or by burnishing their extracurricular activities. Singer had a white applicant identify himself as Hispanic to qualify for affirmative action, a former business associate told me. “It blew up,” this person said, after “the college questioned it because he didn’t put it on the SATs,” which ask about ethnicity. Many of Singer’s associates — other independent counselors, high school guidance counselors, his own employees — suspected him of cheating. At least one prep school banned him from its campus.
It didn’t matter. Singer knew how to appeal to the panic of wealthy parents who fear that their children will not get into exclusive universities. He promised the certainty they craved, and at a bargain price compared with the legal donation needed to improve their chances. In 1994, Singer, a former high school and college basketball coach, established Sacramento’s first independent college counselor business. A pioneer in the high-priced field of coaching college applicants, Singer helped upend the admissions process by increasing the advantage enjoyed by the affluent. Soon well-off parents — doctors, lawyers, businesspeople — were clamoring, and paying, for his advice. What he lacked in expertise, he made up for in chutzpah. “I did see him tell a kid, ‘You mind if I put in your application you were in the Key Club?’” the former associate recalled. When Singer requested brochures from colleges, he told them that he was working with more than 500 students; the actual number was about 50. “He did embellish, even back then,” the former associate said.
Margie Amott, another independent counselor in Sacramento, said that she knew a parent who hired Singer. The mother was astonished when Singer revamped her son’s college application, claiming that he had organized a fantasy football league, marketed an international blog on social responsibility, written several short films for television, spoken Spanish at home, ranked as a top-50 junior tennis player and coordinated the basketball program at Helen Keller Park. None of it was true, and there was no such park in Sacramento. The mother paid Singer’s bill, stopped working with him and had her son fill out the application accurately.
In 2004, Singer burnished his credibility by assembling an advisory board for his counseling firm, CollegeSource. The board included five higher-education heavyweights: William Bowen, Donald Kennedy and Ted Mitchell — the former presidents of Princeton, Stanford and Occidental College, respectively — as well as the former UCLA chancellor Charles Young and the former Princeton dean of admission Fred Hargadon. In January 2008, more than a decade before Singer’s guilty plea, Jon Reider, then the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former senior admissions officer at Stanford, emailed advisory board members Kennedy, Hargadon and Mitchell and urged them to stop working with Singer.
“Do you want to be associated with this guy? He is the epitome of sleaze in the private counseling business,” wrote Reider. “How did he get your names onto his website? There are some decent independent counselors, but he isn’t one of them . . . . .We can’t stop this guy, but we can slow him down a bit.”
Reider knew all three of the prominent administrators from his time at Stanford. Hargadon had been Stanford’s dean of admission before moving to Princeton, and Mitchell had earned three Stanford degrees and been Kennedy’s deputy. Mitchell’s response disappointed him. “I strongly disagree that Rick is the ‘epitome of sleaze,’” Mitchell replied to Reider. “Don and I got involved with Rick when he was trying to get college access info to poor kids and ‘break the code,’ for kids who didn’t have access to private counseling. . . Do you know Rick? He’s a decent guy, Jon, and I’d love to find a time to introduce the two of you.” Reider pushed back. “There are ways to go about this business in an ethical way, so that you do not earn the disapproval of other professionals. I am the tip of the iceberg.”
Mitchell went on to serve as the U.S. undersecretary of education in the Obama administration and the president of the American Council on Education, a higher-education lobbying group. When asked for comment after Singer pleaded guilty, Mitchell downplayed his ties to the disgraced counselor, saying that he “served briefly nearly 15 years ago in an unpaid role in an advisory board of one of his previous ventures.” Mitchell also expressed surprise, saying that he was “shocked, sad and angry that someone I thought I knew could perpetrate these crimes.”
In 2012, as he was carrying out what would become the biggest college-admission scandal in the country, Singer relocated from Sacramento to Newport Beach, where the Langevins lived. Adam Langevin was then a middle school student striving to become a tennis star. At the age of 4, he had taken his first tennis lesson. By the time he turned 8, the court was the only place he wanted to be. He trained four to five hours every other day at an academy run by Phil, Taylor and Jenny Dent — a father, son and daughter-in-law who had all been ranked among the top 60 players in the world. In 2010, Taylor Dent had blasted the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon — 148 miles per hour. The Dents’ academy practiced at the same club where the Sage Hill varsity tennis team trained. Adam sometimes hit with high school players who were four to five years older than him, which improved his game. When Adam began playing tournaments, he found that he also loved competing. “I just enjoyed being out there,” he said.
Adam’s father, a realtor and recreational tennis player, and his mother, Alisa, a homemaker, encouraged his passion for the game. Unlike some tennis parents, they prioritized education as well. Neither Rick nor Alisa had graduated from college, and they hoped that Adam would do so. “He’s extremely academic,” Alisa told me. “I felt that also needed to be nourished.” Until Adam entered ninth grade, they didn’t let him have a cellphone and limited his television viewing to an hour a day. He listened to audiobooks about world history and Greek mythology. As a seventh grader, Adam startled one of Rick’s real estate clients, who was purchasing a 17,000-square-foot home with outdoor pools and a movie theater, by identifying a painting on the ceiling as a copy of Raphael’s “The School of Athens” and the figures in a backyard sculpture as Pygmalion and Galatea.
As a child, Adam dreamed of turning pro, but, as that began to seem unrealistic, he switched his sights to playing Division I college tennis. Players with such lofty goals are often home-schooled so they have more time to practice and travel to national tournaments. When Adam asked his parents if they would consider home-schooling, they pointed out that he also loved science and might make a career of it. Sage Hill, which opened a science center with seven labs and four classrooms, in 2014, offered a far superior academic program to anything available online.
After Adam enrolled at Sage Hill, he initally balked at joining its tennis team. College coaches, he knew, pay scant attention to high school matches. They notice tournament results and the Universal Tennis Rating, or UTR, which enables them to compare U.S. and international prospects. But his father told him that, as Sage Hill’s top player, he had to support his school. For the next four years, high school and tournament practices and matches consumed Adam’s time.
In the 2017 Sage Hill yearbook, seniors were asked what they would like to say to their future selves. The responses from Grant and Adam were strikingly different. “Nothing because the future is going to be great,” Grant wrote. “You worked so impossibly hard to get where you are,” Adam wrote. “Remember that.” Their divergent attitudes were also reflected in their approach to academics and athletics. William Dupuis, who taught chemistry at Sage Hill and had both young men in class, said that Grant scraped by with B’s in first-year chemistry. Adam was “very good, very hard-working.”
Longoria, the former Sage Hill coach, used a startling expression to convey how much Adam sacrificed for the sport. He “suicided” tennis, Longoria said. “He was all in.” Already the team’s best player as a freshman, Adam steadily improved, and his skill and drive set an example for his teammates. As a junior, he damaged a tendon in his left wrist, rendering him unable to hit his normal two-handed backhand. Instead of sitting out matches, he donned a brace and played doubles for Sage Hill, protecting his wrist by serving and volleying, and slicing the few backhands he couldn’t avoid. Adam enjoyed encouraging others. “My intensity for the sport got a lot of guys playing tournaments,” he told me. Rival coaches noticed. “He was a top-notch player and a great kid,” said T.J. Reynolds, the coach of Crean Lutheran High School, in nearby Irvine. “He stood out as a freshman to me. He was relentless, he would never give up. He played with a lot of intensity. As he got older, he started adding offense to his game.” A junior tennis website assessed Adam as a three-star recruit (out of five stars) and ranked him 135th nationally in 2017.
Grant was less single-minded about tennis. He enjoyed other pastimes, like surfing. His response to a yearbook question about his bucket list suggested a thirst for adventure. Grant said that he hoped to skydive, ride an elephant and send a message in a bottle. Longoria said that Grant couldn’t or wouldn’t change his unorthodox tennis strokes. He “hit a wall” and was replaced in the starting lineup. Longoria credited Grant for being “very ethical” and a “great competitor.” Once, Sage Hill’s hopes of defeating another school rested on a tiebreaker in Grant’s match. In the key rally, Grant made a correct line call in favor of his opponent on a close shot, depriving Sage Hill of victory. “Ninety percent of kids” would have called it the other way, Longoria, who is now a consultant to Sage Hill’s tennis program, said.
Grant’s mother supported the team and appeared to respect boundaries. “She opened up her beach house for team barbecues,” Longoria said. Like other parents, “she bought a lot of things for the team. But she never said, ‘I want my son to start.’” It didn’t occur to the coach that she might find another way to burnish Grant’s tennis resume.
In 2000, a group of Orange County parents and community leaders opened Sage Hill, the first nondenominational, nonprofit private high school on the Southern California coast between Irvine and San Juan Capistrano. Nestled in the hills above the Pacific Ocean, with a clock tower and low-slung concrete buildings painted to look like terra cotta, Sage Hill quickly gained a reputation for academic excellence. It also thrived financially. As of June, 2017, its net assets were $76.3 million. Depending on market conditions, its endowment fluctuates between $18 million and $20 million. The former Major League Baseball commissioner and U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth was integral to the school’s founding. The Sage Hill gym, known as the Ube, is named after him, and his daughter served as the chair of the school’s board. Current Sage Hill parents include the former Los Angeles Lakers standout Kobe Bryant, whose daughter Natalia plays volleyball for the school. “Most of the billionaires in Newport have a child or grandchild at Sage,” Adam’s father, Rick Langevin, told me.
At first, Sage Hill was strict with donors. It didn’t let them dictate how their money would be spent. When Bryant offered to fund a gym if he could practice there at night, the school turned him down, according to Longoria, the former tennis coach. Over time, financial pressures caused the school to loosen its approach. Today, buildings, classrooms, locker rooms and sports facilities are named for donors — with exceptions, such as the A.G. Longoria Center Court, which honors the ex-coach’s service. The exterior wall of the Sage Hill Athletic Complex displays 60 disks of varying sizes, with donors’ names printed on them. One of the largest is labeled “Merage Family Janavs Family.” In 2014, the year after Grant enrolled in Sage Hill, a foundation operated by his mother, Michelle Janavs, donated $82,500 to Sage Hill, and she became a trustee. After her two daughters also enrolled at Sage Hill, Janavs gave the school another $190,000. Torrey Olins, the school’s spokesperson, declined to comment on “rumors about who may or may not have considered making donations for our facilities.” She said that the school has “always recognized those who donate money, time or talents to our community.”
Ninety percent of Sage Hill’s almost 550 students pay the school’s roughly $40,000 a year tuition. Ten percent receive financial aid. A former student who received financial aid told me that many classmates donned expensive brand-name clothes and a few wore a different outfit every day. A May 2018 article in the student newspaper accused the school of grade inflation. The story, headlined “Inflated Grades, Inflated Egos, Inflated Futures,” reported that 70% to 75% of all grades given in the previous semester were A’s or A-minuses. There were few C’s and no D’s or F’s. Teachers told the newspaper that the school initially had rigorous academic standards, and that the soaring grades were a response to parental pressure and diminished enrollment caused by the 2008-9 financial crisis. “I remember when I got my first B, I was so surprised,” a 2017 graduate, Andrea Flores, told me in an interview. “I didn’t know they gave B’s.”
No evidence has publicly surfaced that Sage Hill participated in or was aware of Singer’s bribery of college coaches and test docents. The school says that its “consistent practice has been to not communicate directly with independent college counselors” and to recommend against their use. One prep school consultant, though, estimated that up to a fourth of Sage Hill parents may rely on independent counselors to help their children get into top colleges. One of them was Michelle Janavs, who hired an independent counselor for Grant. The counselor was well-respected and certified in both college counseling and educational planning. (The counselor asked not to be named and did not acknowledge that Grant was her client until I had identified him by other means.)
The counselor told me that she worked with Grant for three years, guiding him toward academic programs in sports management. She felt that it was a field that suited both his personal interests and his family connections; through a holding company, his aunt, Lisa Merage, co-owns the Sacramento Kings, a National Basketball Association franchise, as well as the Golden 1 Center, the team’s home arena. The counselor didn’t see tennis as a realistic route to college, given that Grant couldn’t start for his high school.
Apparently, Grant’s mother thought differently. Early in Grant’s senior year, Michelle Janavs asked Longoria to recommend Grant to the coach at either the University of Southern California (her alma mater) or UCLA. (Longoria initially said that it was USC, and later said that it was UCLA.) “I was sort of surprised,” Longoria recalled. Janavs’ request put him in an awkward position. Longoria believed in taking care of his players, and he never refused to write recommendations for them. But, he also valued his professional reputation, and “we all knew Grant couldn’t play” at either university, he said.
To protect himself, Longoria developed a code for recommendation letters that would please the parent and send the correct signal to college coaches. His letters always contained four paragraphs — one each about tennis, academics, family and outside interests. Longoria put tennis first if the player could start for the college team; second if he could be a backup; third if he couldn’t make the team but was responsible enough to be a student manager and handle equipment, laundry and other duties; and fourth if the candidate couldn’t help in any way and Longoria was simply pacifying the family. For Grant’s recommendation, the first two paragraphs were about his grades and his family. Tennis was third. “He could maybe be a manager,” Longoria told me. Apparently grasping his message, coaches declined to recruit Grant. His mother then insisted that Grant apply to Georgetown, which doesn’t offer an undergraduate degree in sports management and had not been on his initial college list. After the family visited Georgetown, Janavs fired the counselor and told her that they were going to work with a second counselor they had hired. His name was Rick Singer.
Federal prosecutors later found that Singer had a connection at Georgetown: Gordon Ernst, who had coached both men’s and women’s tennis there since 2006. Ernst had also given lessons to Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama. College coaches, especially in sports played by the wealthy, often supplement their modest salaries by taking outside pupils. Not long after Michelle Janavs hired Singer, he emailed her that he had spoken to Ernst: “I just spoke to Gordie and let him know” that Grant had applied to Georgetown.
Grant’s first college counselor, surprised by her sudden dismissal, checked out Singer’s website and found it to be “strictly a sales pitch.” Although Singer lived five blocks from her house, and 8 miles by car from Sage Hill School, she had never met him. Though she joined professional associations and visited college campuses to stay up to date, Singer didn’t appear to do either. “It seemed like he was gaining a big following, but I didn’t see him at any conferences or any college tours,” the counselor said. “He wasn’t part of that professional counseling landscape. It’s baffling to me that no one was vetting him.”
A few months later, when Sage Hill announced that Grant would play tennis for Georgetown, the counselor immediately sensed Singer’s handiwork. Because they had both worked with the same student, she worried about damage to her own reputation. She wanted her clients and colleagues to know that his methods were not hers. She warned fellow counselors about Singer and added a sentence to her standard contract with parents: “I do not pay coaches, administrators or others in the admission process.” Michelle Janavs called to let her know — for the counselor’s records, Janavs said — that, in addition to Georgetown, Grant had been admitted to a prestigious university that did have an undergraduate sports-management program, one that he and the counselor had selected as a fit for him. When the news of Operation Varsity Blues broke, the counselor felt vindicated. “Although I never met Rick Singer, I suspected that he engaged in unethical behavior,” she wrote in an email to her clients. “Students should not be thinking about manipulating the system but instead focusing on their own personal growth and journey. I believe in your student and you should too.”
Georgetown University’s admissions office has long maintained a strict policy against dealing with independent counselors. Its official contact is with high school counselors, and it won’t talk to independent counselors or accept recommendations or other materials about a candidate from them. But Singer didn’t need to approach the admissions office; he could approach Ernst, the tennis coach. Ernst may have initially classified applicants as tennis recruits as a favor to friends and not taken bribes, according to a person familiar with the situation. Court documents say that Georgetown accepted the older daughter of Douglas Hodge, the former PIMCO CEO, as a tennis recruit in 2008 but do not mention any money changing hands. “I spoke to my connection at Georgetown and he will work with us,” Singer wrote in an email to Hodge. “He helped me get two girls in last week.”
Singer told Hodge that his daughter’s chance of getting into Georgetown based on academics was 50% “at best,” but that “there may be an Olympic Sports angle we can use.” The application she submitted included fabricated victories in multiple United States Tennis Association tournaments. She didn’t play tennis at Georgetown and graduated in 2013. Hodge, who pleaded not guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges, declined to comment through his lawyer. (His daughter did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ernst was able to shepherd a dozen applicants incapable of playing Division I tennis into Georgetown without drawing attention in part because recruits aren’t always chosen for their athletic skills. Though athletic scholarships are generally allotted to the most promising recruits, who are counted on to be key contributors to the team’s success, an array of other factors can affect selection of nonscholarship players. A marginal athlete with a high GPA or SAT score may be chosen to offset the lesser academic records of top recruits.
Universities also often favor major donors’ children to fill out the last spot or two on a roster. In 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times, UCLA’s athletic department ushered in a track and field recruit, even though her personal best times weren’t fast enough for her to make the team, after her parents pledged a $100,000 gift. A university investigation concluded that families of tennis walk-ons at UCLA “made substantial donations to the program under circumstances that might suggest the donations were expected at the time the student was admitted.” Several families endowed coaching positions at Yale shortly before their children enrolled there, and Harvard’s fencing coach sold his home for almost double what it was worth to the father of a prospective recruit, The Boston Globe reported. In July 2019, Harvard fired the coach for violating its conflict-of-interest policy.
Longoria, who spent 15 years as a college coach, told me that administrators sometimes asked him to make room on his roster for the child of a donor. “You’d get a call from a dean, ‘Can you help us out?’” he said. “‘This family is very important to the school.’” If the student could play at all and wasn’t disruptive, Longoria would go along with it. Tennis aficionados who saw the Sage Hill announcement that Grant would be playing tennis at Georgetown assumed that he had some edge. “He would not have been recruited to play in the top six at Georgetown,” one said. “He certainly could have been a guy who could have hit with the team.” He added, “A lot of great tennis players who could play college tennis never get the opportunity, and a lot of mediocre players end up on the team.”
Ernst, the Georgetown coach, exploited the wide latitude that coaches enjoy in the admission of recruited athletes. Every year, universities designate their total number of admissions slots for preference — at Georgetown, it is usually 158 — and the athletic director divvies them up by sport. Each coach then vets prospects with the admissions coordinator for athletics, develops a prioritized list of recruits who are academically acceptable and submits the list to the admissions committee for formal approval. Crucially, the admissions committee takes the coach’s word regarding the candidates’ athletic prowess. Admissions officers then review their academic credentials. Many universities bend academic standards more for recruited athletes, especially those at or near the top of the coach’s priority list, than for any other applicant group, according to a landmark 2001 study, “The Game of Life,” by James Shulman and William Bowen (the same former Princeton president who served on Singer’s advisory board). From 2010 through 2015, Harvard admitted 86% of recruited athletes, compared with 6% of nonathletes, according to a filing in the recent lawsuit challenging affirmative action there.
Typically, athletic directors also trust the coaches, and they don’t vet recruits or closely monitor admissions files. “He deceived everybody,” a person familiar with the situation said, referring to Ernst. “It’s not that hard to do. There’s no coordination between athletics and admissions. These are minor sports, low on visibility, beneath the radar screen.”
Ernst was undone not by his own actions but by Singer’s decades-old habit of misrepresenting white clients as minorities to qualify them for affirmative action. The person familiar with the situation told me that another university had contacted a high school counseling office about a student whom it was eager to enroll. Her application to that university portrayed her as African American and the first in her family to attend college, qualifying her for two admissions preferences. Startled, the high school replied that the student was white and her parents were college graduates. The high school counseling office then called Georgetown, where she had also applied, to find out how she was portrayed on that application. Georgetown records showed her as a tennis recruit. When the high school said that she didn't play tennis, Georgetown began investigating. As it identified and talked with bogus tennis recruits, it uncovered a common thread; Singer had been their private college counselor. Georgetown placed Ernst on leave in December 2017 and fired him, in 2018, for violating university policies.
The case broke open when a suspect in a securities fraud case sought leniency by admitting to authorities that he had agreed to pay Yale’s longtime women’s soccer coach to designate one of his daughters as a recruit. The coach led investigators to Singer, who became a government informant. His calls with parents were recorded, including conversations with Janavs about getting her older daughter into USC as a beach volleyball recruit and fixing her younger daughter’s ACT score. Janavs worried that her younger daughter would suspect something was amiss. “She’s not stupid,” she told Singer. “How do you do this without telling the kids what you’re doing?” Singer replied, “Oh, in most cases, Michelle, none of the kids know.”
Adam Langevin could have been a top player at a Division II or Division III college. Several Division III colleges courted him avidly, including the University of Redlands, in Redlands, California. Although schools in that division don’t give athletic scholarships, Redlands offered academic merit aid to reduce his tuition. “We followed and recruited him for the better part of a year,” Geoff Roche, the tennis coach at Redlands, said. “He had a very complete game. He was very focussed, very mature, extremely competitive. We felt he had all the ambition and the drive to take his game to the next level. His best tennis was still ahead of him.”
Adam could also have made some Division I teams. The U.S. Naval Academy, a Division I program, contacted him, but it requires a five-year service commitment, for which his peanut allergy could have disqualified him. After years of training, practice and sacrifice, Adam had no desire to be the best player on a lesser team. He wanted to continue to push himself. “I want to compete, to learn, to get better,” he told me. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo was his choice. It was the right distance from home. It had a strong chemistry department and a combined program that would allow him to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years. And Adam’s Universal Tennis Rating was similar to that of the varsity’s bottom rung. He had a fighting chance.
Cal Poly coach Nick Carless told me that Adam is “at the Division I level. He’s pretty close to some of the lower guys on my team.” The difficulty, he said, was timing. Most college coaches sign up players a year in advance, so his roster was already set when he learned of Adam, he said. “Adam got in touch with me relatively late. It’s really bad timing for a really great kid who loves the sport, is passionate about it, and put in the hours.” Carless said that four of Cal Poly’s 12 players are foreigners, who increasingly compete with American players for roster spots in college sports like tennis. Overall, more than a third of Division I tennis players today are international students, reducing the roster spots available for U.S. players. Carless also acknowledged that “hands-on” majors like chemistry pose a scheduling challenge. “If you’re traveling as an athlete and you have a major that requires a lot of labs, you have to be there in person,” he said. “Other majors have online work or video conferencing. Many of our athletes at Cal Poly tend to be business majors because of the flexibility.”
Even after being passed over, Adam didn’t give up. He enrolled at Cal Poly with a new plan. He would be more motivated than ever, practice harder than ever, take lessons from the coaches, play club tennis and dedicate himself to improving his game until a spot opened up and he would be worthy of joining the team. “The greatest feeling is proving someone wrong and being successful,” he said.
Sage Hill administrators are sensitive about the school’s connection to a scandal that has made headlines. They instructed faculty and staff not to speak to me and to notify the school’s director of communications if I contacted them. When I tried to visit, security personnel escorted me off campus, even though I was the guest of an alumna. Then they escorted her out, too.
The school’s board, administration and faculty were “shocked and felt betrayed” by the allegations against Janavs and Hodge, Olins, the school’s spokesperson, told me. “The alleged actions are contrary to everything the school has stood for since its founding.” A review by its outside counsel concluded in June that no Sage Hill administrators or college counselors knew of “dishonest activities by students or parents in the college admission process” and that “no current trustee engaged in dishonest conduct.” The modifier “current” referred to the fact that both Hodge and Michelle Janavs have stepped down as trustees. Janavs’ sister-in-law, Lisa Merage, remains on the Sage Hill board.
Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, declined to comment. When I reached Singer directly, he politely thanked me for the opportunity but declined as well. “Nobody will talk to you until after sentencing,” he said.
As Adam predicted, Grant has not played tennis for Georgetown, nor even been listed on its roster. Though Georgetown has expelled two students involved in the scandal, Grant remains enrolled and appears to be majoring in computer science. “Our review focused on whether students knowingly provided false information to the university during the admissions process,” a Georgetown spokeswoman said.
The Cal Poly coach, Carless, encouraged Adam to transfer to another university where he would make the tennis team. “I just kind of felt bad I didn’t have a spot for him,” Carless told me. “I said: ‘You can play. I see your work ethic, I see your love for the game. You could reach out to schools that are lower in the rankings or losing a lot of seniors.’” Adam considered transferring, but he stayed at Cal Poly and is glad he did. His life has expanded to include a girlfriend, a fraternity and chemistry research guided by a professor. He’s playing No. 1 singles on Cal Poly’s club team — and still trying to walk onto the varsity squad. For his 21st birthday, in June, his parents paid for a 90-minute off-season lesson with Carless.
Ross Duncan, one of Adam’s former private coaches, regrets that his dream of playing on a strong Division I team hasn’t panned out. “I think what stood out with him — and why I feel bad he never got the opportunity — is that his game still had a lot of room to grow,” Duncan said. “His style of play was aggressive. His game would have translated well to college tennis.”
Before leaving the Langevins’ home, I asked Adam a hypothetical question: How would he have felt if he had been recruited, like Grant, by a Division I team, only to find out that it was because someone had bribed the coach? “It wouldn’t feel right,” he told me. “My goal is to earn it. It’s not about being on the team. It’s about proving to yourself who the best player is. That’s how you become a legend. That’s what makes the best the best.”