Mac Engel

College cheating scandal exposes loopholes in sports. ‘Does not surprise me at all.’

Coaches, celebrities indicted in college admissions bribery case

Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.
Up Next
Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.

A recently “dismissed” University of Texas tennis coach at the center of college sports’ newest embarrassment worked at TCU for two years, and those who know Michael Center cannot envision him accepting a bribe, if for no other reason that he makes $232,338 a year.

To coach a tennis program that is defined as a “non revenue” sport.

“This is not the Michael Center I know at all,” said current Arlington Heights soccer coach David Rubinson, who was the TCU women’s coach from ‘81 to ‘04, and was a colleague of Center’s when he was the men’s head tennis coach at TCU from ‘98 to ‘00.

“He has plenty of money. His wife has plenty of money. Michael’s case just doesn’t feel right.”

I called a close college friend who worked with Center when they were at Kansas in the ‘90s, and he said, “Does not surprise me at all. It’s $100,000.”

Center was placed on leave by UT on Tuesday and arrested as part of a sweeping national scandal that was exposed by federal authorities of college coaches accepting bribes to get kids on the team, or to gain acceptance into certain universities from Yale to UT to Stanford. He was dismissed on Wednesday, the school announced.

In this day and age of parents vicariously living through their children, and absurd competition for kids to be accepted into college, no one should be surprised by what the feds are alleging Center, and other leaders of molders of young men and women, have done in return for cash.

For years the wealthy have bought their children into being accepted into elite, name schools; this end-around through sports no one watches was exposed.

You know your school has arrived when the sailing coach is busted, such as what happened at Stanford. Or the water polo coach goes down. Or the volleyball coach is dirty. Or the men’s tennis coach is alleged to have accepted a $100K bribe.

These “non revenue” sports that exist mostly to satisfy Title IX requirements are viewed by few fans, less media, and distracted administrators that are normally too busy to make sure everything is “legal.”

Through his lawyer, Center said he is innocent of charges that include him accepting $100K to designate a prospective student as a Texas tennis recruit. Normally you pay the kid to play for your team, not the other way around.

There is no indication that Center participated in any similar activity when he was at TCU.

“I never saw this sort of thing in my sport in 39 years, and certainly never saw anything like this at TCU,” said former swimming coach Richard Sybesma, who also worked with Center at TCU. “I would never have thought of it, but it’s parents buying their kids a spot on the team.”

Or, in these cases, mostly just a spot into a college they could not academically qualify for admittance. Or just a spot ahead in life. Because, God forbid, they earn it.

A prospective student athlete typically does not have to meet the same academic requirements as a member of the general population. So if the child of a wealthy parent is designated as a “sailing recruit,” they may get in to the school with the skill only to sink.

“Wealthy people are preying on people that need the money and they are taken advantage of and the coaches become pawns,” Rubinson said. “Every one of them is chasing money, especially in girls sports (for scholarships).”

Take a coach of a non-revenue sport, who is in good standing with their university, and their athletic director. The coach fields a fairly competitive team, the athlete-student graduate with good grade-point averages.

Athletic administrators are too busy raising money, baby sitting the headaches of a department, placating wealthy boosters, and dealing with coaches, to concern themselves with problems they don’t see. A problem that likely isn’t even there.

They are not going to see if a coach puts one kid on a team who maybe is borderline, but is doing fine academically and isn’t a problem. This sort of move is risky for the overall future of the coach, but it’s not difficult to slide in a kid or two past administrators.

“You don’t want to use too many favors on kids that are not going to make it,” Rubinson said. “I’m not going to help the kid who is not going to make it (academically). That’s a little far-fetched. I don’t think I am any different in that we all tried to help a kid out ... but I did it for nothing. What kind of idiot am I?”

Rubinson’s rhetorical question was tongue in cheek.

In light of these allegations, every athletic director will have to hold “another meeting” to remind their staffs that accepting bribes, or favors, is wrong and a fireable offense. Who knew?

“Is there a way to catch it? There is so much cheating going on not just in the big sports; I believe that with all my heart,” said Rubinson, who has worked in America’s youth soccer development programs for decades. “Just because it goes on in the big sports, like men’s basketball or football, why would it not in the other sports?

“Coaches need to keep their jobs. Will they often do something out of the norm that is unethical? Yes. I do believe that. I personally never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

Now we know it is. At least it’s a good reason to watch college sailing.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram