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The Stanford Sailing Coach’s Defense in the Varsity Blues Case

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The Stanford Sailing Coach’s Defense in the Varsity Blues Case

John Vandemoer was a perfect mark for the college-admissions scheme now known as Varsity Blues, in that he was surrounded by wealth he did not himself possess. Instead, as Stanford’s head sailing coach, he supplied some of the institution’s luxurious scenery—“those familiar white sails with red numbers tacking up Redwood Creek,” as he puts it, wistfully, in a new book, “Rigged Justice: How the College Admissions Scandal Ruined an Innocent Man’s Life,” which attempts to account for how, exactly, he ended up pleading guilty to a federal charge of racketeering.

Vandemoer, a doctor’s son in his forties, from Hyannis, Massachusetts, has spent nearly his entire professional life within the world of amateur sailing, serving as Stanford’s head coach for nearly a decade, until 2019. But sailing was a small-time endeavor within the big-time world of the Stanford Department of Athletics—no television deals, no Rose Bowls, no donor suites—and, though Vandemoer’s team had some successes, it had not accomplished what he’d dreamed of: becoming the first West Coast team to win the sport’s biggest collegiate prize, the Leonard M. Fowle Trophy. Fund-raising was a key ingredient to success in amateur sailing, but Vandemoer felt awkward about it, and his competitors seemed more successful at commanding resources for their teams—Dartmouth’s sailing coach, he noticed ruefully, had managed to get work-study students to record the races with drones.

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One morning in October of 2016, Vandemoer recounts, he took a meeting with an independent recruiting consultant from Newport Beach, a sailing hotbed, who had cold-called him. The consultant, whose name was Rick Singer, said that he had worked with several other Stanford coaches and had some prospects who might help Vandemoer’s team. Singer arrived for the meeting in a T-shirt and flip-flops; Vandemoer recalls him as “wiry and fit-looking, with a close-cropped helmet of silver hair, a deep tan, and a narrow, lined face.” Singer acted so relaxed and at ease that Vandemoer, sitting in his own office, felt overdressed and out of place. Mostly, Singer listened as Vandemoer spoke of the strain that his constant travel had put on his young family, the challenges of keeping a full team of driven college athletes engaged when he could select only a few for prime slots, and a slightly dreamy vision, which he had begun to implement, of converting talented gymnasts to sailing. One man had status and stress; the other, ease and perhaps something to offer. In assessing who was in the more powerful position, you would have had to call it even.

Then, as he was leaving, Singer tipped the scale. “I wanna tell you about this girl I have,” he said, in Vandemoer’s recounting. “She’s from Hong Kong, goes to school in the UK. She says she’s a good sailor. I don’t know how good she is. Great grades. Can I send you her information? See if I’m in the right spot in thinking that somebody like you might want her?” Vandemoer said that he would be happy to take a look. A few days later, Singer e-mailed information about the girl, whose name was Molly Zhao. Vandemoer found that she had excellent grades but regatta results that were “just okay.” He wrote Singer that he could take her as a walk-on. Singer responded, “The family is pretty affluent. They’re willing to donate a million dollars to your program if she gets in.” Singer did not disclose another detail: Zhao’s father, a billionaire, was paying the consultant $6.5 million. (The Zhao family has not been charged in relation to Varsity Blues, and they have publicly stated that they believed the $6.5 million sum was a genuine donation to Stanford, and that they, too, are victims of Singer.)

Singer, as it turned out when he, Vandemoer, and more than fifty others were indicted in March, 2019, had been conducting a simple, ancient transaction: money for status. The rich parents of college applicants would pay Singer, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars; he, in turn, would help rig their children’s test scores or persuade coaches at academically élite colleges to list them as recruits, even if they were hopeless athletes. The coaches were paid off, either directly or through donations to their programs. The U.S.C. water-polo coach, Jovan Vavic, was arrested in Waikiki and charged with accepting two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to get two applicants admitted as recruits. (Vavic pleaded not guilty.) The Georgetown tennis coach, Gordie Ernst, who had once trained Michelle Obama, pleaded guilty to taking $2.7 million from Singer’s clients in the course of nearly a decade. Vandemoer was the only coach who did not accept money for himself, only donations for his program; Singer’s clients contributed more than seven hundred thousand dollars to the sailing team. The funds went to new boats, sports-performance consultants, and the salary of a second assistant coach. He did not end up helping Zhao get into Stanford (she did anyway), but he accepted a five-hundred-thousand-dollar donation from Singer, who said that the money came from her parents. He received another two hundred and seventy thousand dollars from Singer, for agreeing to recommend two “recruits” to the admissions office.

By the standards of high-profile federal prosecutions, the sentences in the Varsity Blues scandal, only some of which have been formalized, have been pretty light. Singer, who coöperated extensively with the federal government, pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy, but has not yet been sentenced. The U.C.L.A. men’s soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo, received one of the longest sentences, of eight months in prison; more than a dozen sentences have been given to parents, ranging from probation to nine months in prison. Vandemoer was sentenced to a single day in prison, which was deemed already served. More consequentially, he lost his job and housing at Stanford.

After an external review, Stanford concluded that Singer had approached seven of the school’s coaches in the course of a decade, but that none other than Vandemoer had agreed to support Singer’s recruits in exchange for money. (“Stanford has worked diligently to learn from this regrettable experience and to strengthen its policies and processes to prevent such fraud from happening again,” a university representative told The New Yorker.) In his book, Vandemoer admits that he took the money, but says that he thought he was “taking regular donations and getting players who could help the team.” He also argues that he was a fall guy—that the athletics department was complicit as well. To support this contention, Vandemoer writes that, shortly after he met Singer, he got a voice message from another coach at the school, who recommended the consultant to him. “He’s a guy you can trust,” the coach said. Then when the half-million-dollar check from Singer arrived, Vandemoer continues, he went to tell a development official. “That’s fantastic!” she said, and told him that the check’s memo line should read “Sailing Equipment Fund” and that Singer should write a brief letter saying the money was to be spent at the sailing coach’s discretion. At the development office, Vandemoer recalls, he ran into the Stanford athletic director, Bernard Muir, who congratulated him on the donation and asked where it had come from. He replied, “This is a donation from a Chinese family through Rick Singer,” and started to explain who Singer was. According to Vandemoer’s account, Muir said, “Oh, we know Rick,” raising his hand to cut the sailing coach off and glancing at the development officer nearby. “We know Rick well.” As evidence of institutional complicity, this is pretty flimsy. The Stanford representative told The New Yorker that Muir never met Singer and had no relationship with him. And if Muir did say that he knew Singer what did he mean? He could have been offering an endorsement or something like a warning. In any case, the anecdote ends there.

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The Stanford Sailing Coach’s Defense in the Varsity Blues Case