News of questionable action regarding college admissions taken by several prominent actors and wealthy professionals, including “Full House’s” Lori Loughlin and MGM Resorts CEO Gamal Aziz, broke in March of 2019. Within hours, local college coach Rick Singer’s far-reaching and unsettling college admissions operation was revealed, with his clients spanning from Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman to a Palo Alto family.
“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” Chris Smith’s Netflix documentary about the scandal, is a thought-provoking inside look at Singer’s illicit operation and raises questions about the college admissions process. Ultimately, though, it falls flat in addressing more meaningful themes such as racism and classism prevalent in the increasingly cutthroat college admissions process.
The documentary begins with overlapping news anchors discussing the scandal but mostly forgoes other documentary staples and minimizes talking heads. Instead, the dialogue is transcribed from FBI wiretaps of Singer’s phone.
Eschewing the fallout of the scandal for most of the film, the documentary instead takes a deep dive into the inner workings of Singer’s operation and the side doors he opened into elite universities for his clients. The documentary explains there are two conventional ways into elite colleges: the front door, which is getting in based on academic and extracurricular merit, and the back door, which involves parents donating seven-figure sums of money to a university in order for their child to be admitted.
Singer’s side door, which is far cheaper than the back door, involved fraud and cheating the system to provide advantages to his clients. Singer’s techniques included paying an expert to take SATs and ACTs for his clients’ children, bribing athletic directors and coaches of underfunded sports at universities and faking applicants’ academic and extracurricular backgrounds.
Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer was one such coach. The documentary portrays Vandemoer as far more altruistic than being indicted in a federal investigation may suggest, and FBI wiretaps show that while Vandemoer accepted donations from Singer, he funneled all of the money back into Stanford’s sailing program and did not keep any for himself.
The film’s use of real conversations, some of them spliced together for flow, was more impactful than a dramatization of events. The shockingly casual manner in which Singer and his clients discuss the side door hammers home their lack of understanding of the gravity of their actions — the only concerns his clients had were being caught or having their children find out.
But despite well-done portrayals of real conversations, “Operation Varsity Blues” fails to convey any message beyond claiming the college admissions system is fundamentally broken. It glosses over Singer’s and his applicants’ race, and it’s hard to ignore that almost every one of Singer’s clients were white.
The documentary also fails to address how income remains the biggest indicator of success in the college admissions process or how applicants of color get the short end of the stick because Singer misrepresented his clients’ children. The film also doesn’t address how the sports Singer passed his clients’ children off as playing, such as water polo and sailing, are all sports dominated by white people.
Rather than delving into the systemic inequities hurting low-income applicants and applicants of color, Smith closes the documentary by reminding the audience the back door remains open and essentially divides all college applicants into those who use the back door and those who don’t, instead of acknowledging the more fundamental issue: the position of privilege Singer’s clients had and will continue to have.