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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Stacked Deck

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Rest easy. The rosters of teams at academically elite institutions are in no danger of being overrun by a caravan of undertalented children of the super-rich and famous. Rather, at America's academically presitigious colleges and universities, true athletic talent has become yet another area where socio-economic privilege provides access.

The figure $200,000 pops up consistently in news articles as the bottom end of the bribes and fees that the super-rich/celebrity parents paid for their children's spots at elite colleges and universities. It's an eerily familiar figure to me, the sum, in fact, that was my back-of-envelope estimate of what I'd invested over a decade in my children's youth athletic activities, which ultimately became a critical part of their admission to highly selective colleges. Youth athletics, once the humble landscape of Little League play at the town park, has become a multi-billion dollar industry highly effective at sorting talent and increasingly affordable only to the upper middle class and affluent. This is the soft spot that the scandal families exploited. The rosters of most athletic teams at highly selective colleges and universities are filled with the children of the upper middle class and modestly wealthy. Like the the super-rich scandal families, these children attended excellent private schools or deeply funded public schools, but unlike their super-wealthy peers, the families of these students shoveled much of the remainder of their discretionary dollars into the enormous machine that is contemporary youth athletics in America. The super-rich kids, by comparison, have too many other options. When Paris awaits, what sane parent would choose a 70 game summer baseball schedule in the dusty sports mega-plexes that now collar every sizable city in the nation?

A quick look at the 2019 Harvard baseball roster provides a good example. Twenty of the 35 members of the team attended highly selective private schools. The rest are from well-funded public schools. Thirty years ago, baseball might have been an access point for a bright middle-class kid from a solid public or parochial high school, an opportunity for the school to recruit socio-economic diversity. Today, that same kid just can't compete athletically with the kid whose parents could afford private coaching, expensive equipment, auxiliary training, and the travel expenses associated with elite youth sports. Football, perhaps, remains the last American sport where high school play is still relevant to college recruiters, and where a big strong, aggressive kid can walk out of the cornfield or the subway stop and earn acclaim.

The impostor super-rich kids were easily disguised, an extra spot on a stacked roster, easy enough to hide in plain sight a kid who resembled in every way--other than athletic talent--the rest of the roster.

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