Netflix’s new documentary “Operation Varsity Blues” is a dramatized look inside the 2019 college admissions cheating scandal that rocked elite universities and Hollywood, and it gives viewers a better understanding of William “Rick” Singer, the college coach who orchestrated the entire racketeering ring.
Singer ran a fraudulent education nonprofit called The Key which he would use to funnel donations from wealthy clients to the staff at elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and USC as bribes in exchange for admission or spots on athletic teams. Singer brags in the film that he’s created over 760 of these “side doors,” as he called them. One of Singer’s frequent tactics was photoshopping photos to make students who’d never played a sport look like star high school athletes in order to get them accepted on athletics scholarships.
Between 2011 and 2018, Singer accumulated roughly $25 million in bribes.
Singer is cooperating with the FBI but faces a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison on charges including mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, tax conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He has yet to be sentenced and was released on $500,000 bail.
One of the weirder tidbits in Netflix’s new docudrama is an aside where we learn that Singer actually pitched his scam as a reality show, and even recorded a video audition to pitch the show to networks. It never sold, which meant that Singer could devote more time to bribing college athletics teams, SAT/ACT test proctors, and other admissions staff in order to get his wealthy clients’ under-performing kids into elite schools.
In “Operation Varsity Blues,” Singer’s audition tape is first mentioned by Patricia Logan, a former lover and employee of Singer’s who said she found the tape confusing. “When I watched that video that he sent to do this reality show, it was a bit shocking to me,” Logan said. “I thought, really? You’re going to put yourself out there like that for this? It just didn’t make sense, everything was so private with him.”
In the film’s copy of the audition video (also posted by TMZ) Singer basically pitches his racketeering ring without admitting it as such — instead, he trumps up his access to wealthy families and calls the entire thing “a game.”
“This is a game,” he said. “My job is to life coach kids and families through the whole process of getting into college. It’s unbelievable. It’s so competitive to get your kid into school today.”
One of the ways Singer got his rich clientele into the idea of giving him a bribe for the schools was the argument that it was cheaper than what he called the “back door,” i.e., just donating a ton of money or a building to the college — which is legal, but expensive even for the 1%.
“At some schools, giving $10 million isn’t enough. Because $10 million makes no impact on their school,” Singer added. “They want $30, $40, $50 million.”
In the audition tape Singer emphasized how close he was getting to the families he worked with and his (literally) high-flying lifestyle. “I have families in Champaign, in Miami, they send their plane to go pick me up, come to the meeting for a couple hours, put me right back on the plane and send me to the next place I need to go. It’s amazing.”
“We work in the homes of all these families so we know them intimately,” Singer added. “I know what their bedrooms look like, what their laundry room looks like, I know how they get along.”
Ultimately over 50 people were indicted for their roles in the scandal — including big figures in business, CEOs, Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannuli. Only some of the people charged have been sentenced so far.