Editorials

Editorial

Drawing an ethical line on sports endowments

DOUG ENGLE/STAR-BANNER VIA AP/FILE 2016
Former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudolph Meredith (right) has pled guilty to bribes in a college admissions scandal.

The college admission scandal currently playing out in federal court in Boston is also shining a harsh light on the everyday practices at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, raising the broader question: Just because it’s legal, is it right?

At what point does the generosity of the parents of prospective students, including student athletes, cross ethical boundaries?

A Sunday Globe report on the practice of soliciting endowments for coaching positions at a number of Ivy League universities found a correlation between such donations and the admission success rate of students from the families making those donations. The Globe review found at least six instances at Yale alone in which a family’s endowment of a coaching position was followed closely by the admission of a child from that family.

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Yale insists that all students are admitted on their merits. But universities have long wrestled with what amounts to affirmative action for rich kids — children of parents who were alums, or whose families have endowed buildings. That $2.5 million donation, pledged to Harvard by the father of Jared Kushner, shortly before the latter’s admission, is still the subject of much speculation.

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But certainly the guilty plea in federal court of Yale women’s soccer coach Rudolph Meredith, for soliciting more than $800,000 in bribes between 2015 and 2018, ought to be a wake-up call for the university. In at least one instance, Meredith designated as a recruit a high school senior who had never played soccer. Yale has since rescinded the acceptance of that student.

But isn’t it time to take a closer look at those who write perfectly legal checks?

Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton are also among those Ivies that even list on their websites coaching endowment opportunities that range from $1 million to $2.5 million. The Globe found that Yale has accepted endowments for 24 of its 33 teams. Harvard has some 20 endowed coaching positions and Cornell has 30. Some of the schools also offer smaller donor opportunities to fund certain expenses for its teams.

Sure, endowments are the new Big Thing for all sorts of organizations — including the ballet and the opera. But there a donor gets a nice mention in the program. The mezzo-soprano isn’t anyone’s kid and had better be able to reach those high notes.

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In sports programs, whether it’s the Ivy League or Big Ten football, there is also nothing wrong with alums thanking the university, its coaches, or its faculty for being part of their own success with a generous donation long after the fact. Nor does it raise ethical issues for parents of grads to do likewise.

But as a spokesman for Brown explained to the Globe, “As a rule, if a student is a prospective applicant to Brown, their family is not in gift conversations with Brown.” Dartmouth says it follows a similar policy.

That surely ought to be the clear, bright line. How early it gets drawn in the life of a promising high school athlete matters too.

Like that mezzo-soprano, the college quarterback, and the basketball center are indeed expected to perform at a level deserving of their recruitment. But the ongoing federal court case has shown that there’s a good deal less exposure — and scrutiny — for programs like golf and tennis and sailing. And that makes scrutiny of those coaching endowments and their potential for conflicts of interest that much more important.

Universities have a role to play as ethical leaders. Ignoring the potential for abuse that lies under their very noses chips away at that leadership role.