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Philip Esformes is a Florida business executive facing numerous federal charges of Medicare fraud related to the nursing homes and assisted-living centers he has owned. The case took an unusual turn Thursday when the federal government accused Esformes of bribing a basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania to help get Esformes's son admitted to Penn.

The indictment says that Esformes gave $74,000 in cash, plus additional perks such as limo services and rides in private jets, to a basketball coach who then placed Esformes's son on the list of "recruited basketball players," greatly enhancing the son's chances of being admitted. The coach is not identified by name in the indictment and was not charged with anything. Nor was Penn named. But prosecutors in court acknowledged that Penn is the university in question. The coach is Jerome Allen, who led the Penn program for six years and is now an assistant coach of the Boston Celtics.

Esformes is in jail, but his lawyer said he would dispute the new bribery charges. The lawyer has acknowledged that payments were made by Esformes to Allen to help Morris Esformes, the son, get better at basketball. But that answer may be complicated for Penn, given that such payments may violate National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. Morris Esformes, who played basketball in high school, did enroll at Penn and is currently a rising senior. He has never played on the basketball team there.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said via email that in his 18 years at NACAC, he has never experienced a bribery case in admissions. NACAC's ethics code bars any payments to influence an admissions decision. "Bribery is a well-established corrupt practice that has no place in college admission or any other facet of life," he said.

Beyond the case against Esformes, the indictment draws attention to the extreme advantage that athletes have in the admissions process -- not just at universities known for winning national championships, but at elite academic institutions that are highly competitive in admissions.

What the Indictment Says

The indictment links charges against Esformes in allegedly bribing the Penn coach with what the government charges is a pattern of money laundering by Esformes.

Specifically, the indictment says:

  • Esformes engaged in activities that "knowingly and with intent to defraud" devised "a scheme and artifice to deprive [Penn] and its employees of their intangible right to honest services by an employee through kickbacks and bribes." The bribes were specifically to place Morris Esformes on the list of recruited athletes for the basketball team, even though he would not have otherwise been placed on the list.
  • On "several occasions" Esformes paid for Allen to travel to Miami "and to stay in expensive hotels," even though Allen was not allowed by Penn "to accept funding of this sort in connection with athlete recruitment."
  • Esformes had the payments made to Allen by nursing home administrators connected to Esformes's business.
  • Esformes had the owner of a limousine service who owed him money repay that money by giving rides to Allen.
  • On some of these trips, the purpose was to watch Morris Esformes play basketball.
  • Esformes paid more than $19,000 for a private jet to take Allen from Philadelphia to Miami.

Allen has not spoken in public on the indictment. A spokeswoman for the Boston Celtics, which handles his press, told Inside Higher Ed that there would be no comment at this time.

Esformes's lawyer told Bloomberg that no bribes led to Penn's admission of Morris Esformes. And he noted that Morris has been successful academically at Penn. But the lawyer acknowledged that the senior Esformes had made payments to Allen. “His father hired the coach when Mo was a high school sophomore to help Mo improve his game, as many parents do when their kids show athletic promise,” the lawyer said.

Outside of the indictment of Esformes, that defense could be complicated. For starters, many commenters have noted that the payments seem quite high for some basketball coaching (for which time would have been limited, since Allen has a full-time job in another city). Esformes is alleged to have paid Allen in cash alone roughly what a year at Penn costs a parent whose student doesn't qualify for financial aid.

Then there is the question of Penn and NCAA rules. While many basketball coaches augment their income through basketball camps and other activities, taking direct payments (or money-laundered payments) from the parent of someone about to apply would generally not be permitted.

Mike Mahoney, director of athletic communications at Penn, said that the university was not commenting on the indictment. Asked if the university would allow a coach to receive payments for individual basketball coaching, as Esformes's lawyer said was the case, Mahoney said via email, "I believe NCAA rules would not allow a coach to provide individual training to a recruitable athlete."

An NCAA spokeswoman did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The Edge Athletes Receive in the Ivies

Esformes's lawyer also tried to rebut the indictment by noting that Morris had good SAT scores and has been doing well at Penn. The problem with that argument, experts note, is that most Penn applicants (including those who are rejected) have good SAT scores and most of them would succeed there -- and this is the same for other Ivies and colleges with highly competitive admissions.

James Shulman, vice president and chief operating officer of the American Council of Learned Societies, is co-author (with the late William G. Bowen) of The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press). The book argues that the advantage gained by athletes in admissions is greater at elite academic institutions than at the universities known as much for athletics as academics.

At competitive colleges, "the scarcest resource is a slot" in the freshman class, Shulman said in an interview, stressing that he did not know any details about the allegations involving Penn. In the years since the book was published in 2001, he said, admissions competitiveness has gone up dramatically at the elite colleges and universities, so the pressures are even greater. In that environment, he said, making the list of recruited athletes is a major edge. To be sure, he said, coaches don't want to admit (and most admissions officers won't go along with admitting) those who wouldn't succeed. But if coaches find candidates who can do the work, placement on the recruited athlete list makes a major difference in the odds of admission.

"A lot of the responsibilities of admissions officers are seconded to coaches when coaches are compiling their recruited list," Shulman said. "High test scores and good grades are table stakes" in elite college admissions, he said. Being on that list makes the difference.

Most people don't realize just how powerful an edge athletics can be at elite colleges, he said. Given all the tension over the consideration of race and alumni status in admissions, Shulman added, it is odd that athletic preferences attract so little attention.

"There is still sort of this societal belief that being a very talented athlete merits an admission advantage," he said.

Indeed, one time this year that this admissions advantage attracted attention was in the context of the lawsuit by some Asian-American students charging that Harvard University discriminated against them.

One Harvard document they obtained in discovery for the case showed an internal Harvard analysis (one the university says was preliminary) of admission chances for various racial and ethnic groups. The analysis showed that if applicants were evaluated solely on the basis of academic qualifications, Asian-Americans would make up 43 percent of incoming classes. When alumni and athletic status were added (together, so this doesn't isolate either status), the Asian share dropped to 31 percent.

Gregory Kaliss, visiting assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Towson University and author of Men's College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality (Temple University Press), said the allegations about a former Penn coach are a useful reminder that ethical issues in athletics are not restricted "to the power schools we think of." He added that "we think of corruption in the big-time places, but it can happen anywhere" in the process of admitting athletes.

Kaliss said that he's a sports fan, but that the Penn allegations and others show that when it comes to college athletics and ethics issues, "we've created a monster."

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