The True Story of 'Operation Varsity Blues' Is a Fable of American Greed

Olivia Ovenden
·4-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

From Esquire

In Operation Varsity Blues there are shades of Bong Joon Ho's film Parasite, a story in one sense about a family who are conned into hiring a fake tutor for their stupid children. Of course, it is hard to feel sorry for rich people who believe that securing the future of their kids is like buying a new sports car – a financial transaction which shows everyone that you've really made it – but this new Netflix documentary about the college admissions scandal attempts to understand why those who already had so much had to cheat to get even more.

In 2019 the FBI announced their investigation – codename Operation Varsity Blues – had busted a a criminal conspiracy linked to over 750 families who had sought to influence the admissions of their children at elite American universities. The sting saw 50 arrests of high profile CEOs, and even celebrity figures like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were caught pretending their children were star athletes, bribing university officials and faking test scores to get into these high profile schools.

Photo credit: DAVID MCNEW - Getty Images
Photo credit: DAVID MCNEW - Getty Images

The man at the heart of the story is Rick Singer, a tracksuit wearing Jay Gatsby figure who started off as a basketball coach and changed tack when he saw the opportunity for siphoning money off rich parents desperate to get their children into prestigious schools.

A little on the word prestige itself, which is what these top Ivy League colleges tend to be ranked on, rather than, say, academic achievement or student satisfaction. As Jon Reider, a former Stanford Admissions Officer, points out during the documentary, prestige actually translates from French as meaning deceit, which is exactly what these institutions are selling to anyone stupid enough to buy it. That's a lot of people, it turns out, with parents paying Singer around $25M between 2011 and 2018 to bribe coaches and university administrators.

Photo credit: Boston Globe
Photo credit: Boston Globe

The service which Singer offered was a 'side door' in to elite universities using his connections – the front door being the regular admissions which their children aren't clever enough to get in through, and the back door being a donation of $50M or so which doesn't even guarantee them entry. Singer's guaranteed side door, for a fraction of that price, appealed to the entitlement of the clients he courted, people for whom getting their children into Harvard was like bypassing a fully booked restaurant, and which gave them something new to brag about on the golf course.

Director Chris Smith, who was also behind Netflix's Fyre festival documentary, is becoming the go-to when it comes to stories about rich people getting their comeuppance, and this is another fable of American greed which offers some delicious justice. The documentary uses the real conversations which the FBI recorded which play over reconstructions of the events, as Singer promising parents their kids future is a done deal. Watching it knowing how it ends, with a spectacular fall as these people were caught, it's hard not to laugh at the extreme arrogance on display as these awful people size each other up.

Photo credit: JOSEPH PREZIOSO - Getty Images
Photo credit: JOSEPH PREZIOSO - Getty Images

The pandemic has been a reminder that we're really not all in this together, as rich people head for their private jets and bunker down with their infinity pools. Operation Varsity Blues shows how even in something like taking the SAT exams, there was a shortcut for people who could afford it, hiring someone to illegally take the test for them. As one young teen vlogger says during the documentary, "This is America, you got money? Best believe you have access to certain spaces that other kids don't have".

What makes this fable of greed feel so American is how unnecessary it all feels. As test prep expert Akil Bello, points out in one moment, these people already had every advantage going into the process. They had the expensive tutors, the fancy schools, even extra time on exams in some cases, "and yet they still cheated", he says. It's this dogged obsession with status, combined with the arrogance to think the rules don't apply to them, which makes their downfall so enjoyable to see.

'Operation Varsity Blues' is on Netflix now

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