Operation Varsity Blues and the NCAA’s Special Admission Exception


  • Joshua Lens University of Arkansas




university admissions, NCAA, college athletics, Operation Varsity Blues


“Operation Varsity Blues,” the university admissions scandal and ensuing federal investigation, made national news and captivated the public. Fascination with the scandal could have stemmed from the involvement of celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and/or the sheer ridiculousness of the scheme, in which wealthy and prominent families paid exorbitant amounts of money to secure their childrens’ admission to elite universities. Others may have closely followed the resulting legal proceedings that included federal criminal charges like racketeering against 50 individuals and civil lawsuits against elite universities and celebrities with one suit seeking $500 billion in damages. Lawmakers’ attempts at preventing future university admissions scandals legislatively may have also caused curiosity.

This article, though, explores the scandal’s intricate ties to college athletics and seeks to determine the most effective and practical means to mitigate the likelihood of a future similar admissions scandal. More specifically, the article explores how head coaches and an athletics administrator used their positions at academically elite universities to exploit a little-known NCAA rule permitting universities to use more lenient admissions standards for incoming student-athletes. Scheme participants falsely indicated dozens of applicants were incoming student-athletes in order to trigger the less rigorous standards and secure admission to elite universities. The criminal proceedings resulting from the scandal have yielded relatively light sentences for involved coaches, and civil suits against universities have been unsuccessful. California attempted to address the scandal legislatively, but, as this article explains, its reform package contains holes that fail to address many of the scheme’s key components.

The article concludes that the NCAA, as opposed to lawmakers, the legal system, or individual universities, is in the best position to prevent, or mitigate the likelihood of, a future university admissions scheme like Operation Varsity Blues. Doing so would require only eliminating a single NCAA rule that is inconsistent with myriad other NCAA rules and principles and has resulted in decades of poor academic results.

Author Biography

Joshua Lens, University of Arkansas

Joshua Lens, JD, is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. Prior to entering academia, he spent seven years on Baylor University’s athletics compliance staff and, in addition to his duties at the University of Arkansas, consults for college athletics conferences, universities, and university athletics departments regarding legal and NCAA matters.






Original Research