“Operation Varsity Blues” Review

Story posted March 23, 2021 in Arts & Entertainment by Maggie Wilson.

Wednesday, Netflix released “Operation Varsity Blues,” a riveting documentary about the infamous college admissions scandal. Director Chris Smith led his cast through reenactments of actual conversations from wiretap transcripts.

Smith is an accomplished director best known for his work on “Tiger King,” a docu-series centered around the eccentric Joe Exotic. He also wrote and directed “Fyre,” a documentary about “The Greatest Party That Never Happened.”

“Operation Varsity Blues” reveals the details of a bribery scheme arranged by college counselor Rick Singer and abetted by dozens of wealthy parents. Singer routinely bribed coaches and university officials to secure seats at prestigious colleges for students. Parents made donations totaling $25 million to Singer’s foundation between 2011 and 2018 to conceal their bribe payments.

The con artist used his side door technique for over 750 families. His clients wanted a guarantee, which is why they opted for his unique services over the traditional back-door method of donating for admission.

Singer is portrayed by actor Matthew Modine, who spends most of his screen time on the phone speaking with parents and academic faculty members at schools like the University of Southern California (USC) and Georgetown.

The documentary emphasized that American colleges are ranked by prestige rather than academics. Education is becoming a commodity, and influential parents want to buy their children the connections that prestigious Ivy League universities, like Harvard, can offer.

Shockingly, most of the students in these cases didn’t know about their involvement in the scam. Parents were less worried about their unethical practices and more about their children discovering the truth and being penalized.

Distinguished New York attorney Gordon Caplan said on a phone call with Singer, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about [if my daughter] gets caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”

Caplan paid $75,000 to inflate his daughter’s scores on a college admissions test. He was one of 50 people charged in the scandal and eventually pleaded guilty, serving one month in prison.

Perhaps the most visible offenders in the media were parents Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli. They paid Singer $500,000 to pose their daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose, as USC rowing recruits, despite their complete lack of experience in the sport.

“Operation Varsity Blues” points out the flaws in the U.S. college system that skew preferences toward the rich and white.

Massive donations get wealthy students noticed by fundraising offices, which will recommend candidates to admissions (this is the back-door method). The documentary pointed out that anything under $10 million is unlikely to tip the scales favorably in today’s world.

Students are offered a greater chance of acceptance at highly selective universities if they play a niche sport like sailing, fencing or horseback riding that most kids never get to attempt. Singer actively abused this knowledge, choosing under-the-radar sports to secure seats for his clients.

When Smith was asked what the ultimate message he hoped people would take away from the film was, the director told Nylon Magazine that he hoped it would start a dialogue about the issues at hand.

Senior director of advocacy at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing Akil Bello leaves us with this question: Why did these parents choose to cheat when their children had so much already? His answer: the relentless pursuit of the trappings of power.

Rating: 5/5 stars


Maggie Wilson is a sophomore majoring in public relations. To contact her, email mwilson@psu.edu.