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‘Operation Varsity Blues’ Is Light on New Information, Heavy on Schadenfreude

Dramatizing the scandal that exposed the underbelly of college admissions and implicated Hollywood stars, Netflix’s new documentary may not be shocking, but it is rewarding

Netflix/Ringer illustration

By now, you probably know the basics of Operation Varsity Blues.

In 2019, the FBI announced a slew of indictments and arrests stemming from a yearslong college admissions bribery scheme. At its helm was William “Rick” Singer, a self-styled college counsellor who built a network of coaches at prestigious universities across the country—Yale, USC, Stanford, UCLA. Using those connections, as well as fraudulent standardized testing, Singer worked with wealthy parents to provide what he called a “side door” into those schools: bribes, sometimes well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, to have their children earmarked as recruited athletes, in many cases for sports that they did not play. In the end, the FBI’s investigation led to 50 arrests—including, most infamously, of the actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who both spent brief stints behind bars. Loughlin’s husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, is currently serving a five-month sentence for his involvement. The crimes weren’t exactly victimless, but they were sufficiently preposterous—mega-rich muckety-mucks gobbling up name-brand prestige on behalf of their good-for-nothing teens, already ensconced in leafy private high schools with sky-high tuition fees—that they made for sensational, and often twistedly funny, tabloid fodder.

And so it stands to reason that Netflix’s go-to scam documentarians would get a crack at it. Debuting on Wednesday, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is directed by Chris Smith, who also helmed 2019’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and executive produced last year’s Tiger King, and written by Jon Karmen, also a Fyre vet. Together, those two documentaries served both as definitive histories (OK, Fyre had to share the limelight with the Hulu competition) and viral flashpoints, imprinting onto the public consciousness not just the tales’ weird histories—an aborted music festival that left thousands of 20-somethings stranded in the Bahamas and the life of the now-imprisoned Oklahoma zookeeper Joe Exotic, respectively—but also their oddball stars. In the two films’ wake, Andy King, one of Fyre Festival’s producers, became a meme; Carole Baskin, the woman whom Exotic was imprisoned for attempting to have murdered, went on to, er, dance with the stars.

Netflix clearly hopes that The College Admissions Scandal will be the next entry in its stranger-than-fiction documentary line. Alas, it fails to cover much new ground, but it does offer the one thing that close reads of all those damning FBI wiretap transcripts couldn’t: It lets you be a fly on the wall. The doc makes the unusual choice of relying on reenactments, deploying a coterie of actors—most notably Matthew Modine as Singer—to recreate the dialogue of the wiretaps. Between clips of the real parents hobnobbing at Davos and on cable news and giving self-congratulatory speeches in evening finery, we see their stand-ins making calls from plush libraries, gleaming pools, mansions, mansions, and more mansions. They hem and they haw, just like their real-life counterparts did during the calls, blissfully unaware of federal surveillance. And then they pay up. Are there drone shots of Greenwich, Connecticut, at night? you ask. Please: Smith and Karmen aren’t amateurs. (Which is to say—yes.) That Netflix couldn’t improve upon the perfection of the bust’s FBI codename tells you everything you need to know. The facts themselves are sensational enough.

It’s the details that make the whole thing so delicious, of course. In Guilty Admissions, Nicole LaPorte’s book on Varsity Blues, she writes about a student fraudulently portrayed as a water polo player who “was into horseback riding and had a $40,000 horse.” In that case, a “clerical error” at USC resulted in her water polo–featuring application being sent to the general admissions pile; plan B was to portray her as a soccer player to UCLA’s admissions department. When the latter plan succeeded, the student finally encountered a problem her family couldn’t pay away: UCLA’s soccer team was too good. So good, in fact, that the school requires each and every recruit to play for their first year—and so there was the would-be rider, suiting up for a full season for a nationally ranked soccer team.

While he did not cooperate with The College Admissions Scandal, Singer himself makes for a strange and vaguely sad figure. His girlfriend-turned-employee gabs about their failed romance; Singer “wasn’t necessarily charismatic,” says another woman who knew him. In one reenacted call, he jokes with one of the coaches in his network about moving to Sweden, saying that he would just need “a good Swedish girl.” When the feds finally brought him in, Singer rolled over immediately, working his way through his roster of parents at the agents’ behest and egging them one by one into confessions of their involvement. “If he was talking to organized crime members,” one lawyer remarks, “he would have been made as a cooperator within 30 seconds.” For now, as his onetime clients continue to work their way through the justice system, he is back in Sacramento, where another college counsellor, who dishes about how shifty Singer seemed in his early days in the biz, recounts sightings of him doing yoga and swimming at the local pool in a Speedo.

The documentary’s biggest get is John Vandemoer, the Stanford sailing coach who was implicated in taking $610,000 in bribes and is the lone indicted person included. Vandemoer, too, cuts a hapless figure: He was, per LaPorte’s book, the eighth coach Singer targeted at Stanford, and the first to take the bait. His legal defense was, essentially, that he just didn’t understand that he was being bribed; he was, at least, alone in giving the proceeds straight back to his university. Vandemoer’s own attorney discusses telling him that a jury would have lapped up the evidence incriminating him.

But however pitiful the principals might be, Varsity Blues never has been a case that engenders much pity for those involved. The College Admissions Scandal knows it, and if your only regret is not being able to see the looks on all those wealthy parents’ faces as they were led out of their mansions in handcuffs—well, here’s the next best thing.

It is here that I should say that I went to one of those leafy private high schools—the very same one, in fact, where two different fathers caught in Varsity Blues sent their kids. One of these parents, Agustin Huneeus, figures heavily in The College Admissions Scandal: We see him strolling alongside his in-ground pool overlooking the family’s Napa winery in the midst of crimes for which he was ultimately sentenced to five months in prison. A second dad at my high school, Bill McGlashan, a prominent investor with ties to Bono (who at the time was also a member of the school’s board), plead guilty to a wire fraud charge in February.

I am a bit too ancient to know any of the parties involved. But I knew, I suppose, people like them, or at any rate kids who came from families of the sort of ludicrous means that defined Varsity Blues. There were the children of movie stars, famous comedians, noted writers; there was the one who had a private driver. The going rumor was that George Lucas himself had paid for the state-of-the-art theater building, which wasn’t hard to believe—my freshman year, I snapped a blurry picture of him attending graduation. Somebody’s parents always had a place in wine country or Tahoe for a party, or else season tickets behind home plate to see the Giants. Once, the Doobie Brothers played a concert in the gym during an assembly, because someone’s dad was, in fact, a Doobie Brother. It was a strange school, where my own substantial privilege—being born into a family that could pay tuition to this place—felt pedestrian. But no one is more convinced of free will than a teenager. We were the ones making things—grades, thick envelopes from colleges, our presence at the school in the first place—happen. Weren’t we?

Tuition there has doubled in the nearly decade and a half since I graduated. By all accounts, college admissions—and particularly how parents and, to a lesser degree, students interface with the process at private high schools—have undergone a radical militarization over that same time frame. Maybe it had not quite come to my high school when I was there. Maybe it was happening there then.

But given the brazenness on display in The College Admissions Scandal, any kind of discretion feels unlikely. The documentary captures Huneeus’s entry into Singer’s scheme, as recorded in the wiretaps. He had learned about Singer’s methods from McGlashan, and called Singer to ask for specifics. Was McGlashan “doing any of this shit?” Huneeus wanted to know. “Is he talking a clean game with me and helping his kid or not? ’Cause he makes me feel guilty.”

McGlashan, Huneeus said, had explained that he had a limit. “‘Look, I’m gonna push, I’m gonna prod, I’m gonna use my relationships,’” McGlashan had explained, according to Huneeus, “‘but I’m not gonna go and pay to get my kid in.’” Pushing and prodding, leaning on the USC board members McGlashan knew—well, that was all above board, just the way of doing business in this world. Any more than that, this logic seemed to imply—that would be something to feel guilty about.

Huneeus didn’t seem too worried about it. In the end, he agreed to pay $50,000 to have his daughter’s SAT answers corrected, another $50,000 to a USC athletic department official, and a final $250,000 upon her eventual fraudulent admission as a water polo player. Before they were done, Huneeus asked Singer whether he should worry. “Is there any risk that this thing blows up in my face?” he asked.

“Well, no, because she’s a water polo player,” Singer replied.

Said Hunneus, “But she’s not.”

She was admitted to USC with an application that described her as a “3-year Varsity Letter winner.” McGlashan, meanwhile, had his son apply to USC as a football kicker. “You got an NFL punter?” Singer joked to him. “He does have really strong legs,” his father replied.

The thing is, my high school doesn’t even have a football team.