Former sailing coach implicates athletics director in college admissions scandal

March 18, 2021, 10:14 p.m.

Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer claims that Athletics Director Bernard Muir knew college admissions scandal ringleader Rick Singer while Singer was bribing coaches to secure wealthy children admission to elite universities, according to a Netflix documentary released on Wednesday. 

Muir is not named in the documentary, but Vandemoer refers to Stanford’s “head athletics director,” who is played by a Black man in the film.

The University denied that Muir had any knowledge of the matter, and Muir did not respond to requests for comment. Vandemoer declined a request for comment.

Vandemoer was fired in March 2019 after pleading guilty to accepting more than $100,000 in bribes for the University’s sailing program. During his sentencing, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel described Vandemoer as “least culpable of all of the defendants” in the scandal. He was sentenced to one day in prison, six months of house arrest and two years of probation and charged a $10,000 fine. 

The documentary, titled “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” comes almost exactly two years after the college admissions scandal first broke. It reveals supposed new details about Vandemoer’s role in Singer’s scheme. 

Vandemoer and his lawyer downplayed Vandemoer’s role in Singer’s scheme and allude to Singer’s supposed deeper ties with Stanford in interviews for the film, which details his involvement with the operation from his first meeting with Singer to his eventual guilty plea. When he first met Singer, Vandemoer explained that he expected Singer to call or text him when he arrived at the office, but instead Singer showed up at his office door. 

“It definitely told me that he had connections with Stanford that were deeper than myself,” he said. 

Vandemoer describes an athletics program obsessed with finances, claiming that when he told his unnamed athletic director about a $500,000 donation to the sailing program made through Singer, the head athletic director, also unnamed, was present. According to Vandemoer, after congratulating him, the head athletic director said, “Oh, I know Rick.” Muir was the head athletic director at Stanford, a position he remains in now. 

The University denies Vandemoer’s account.

“Vandemoer never spoke to the Athletic Director or any other senior person in Athletics about Singer,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda. 

Vandemoer also recounted a meeting with Muir in which Muir ignored him the majority of the time, instead watching basketball on television. Vandemoer said the only time Muir looked up from the TV was to compliment him on his fundraising efforts. Stanford Athletics spokesperson Brian Risso told The Daily in an email that Muir “does recall this meeting, but he does not believe this is an accurate depiction of the meeting.”

An external review of the University conducted in the wake of the scandal revealed that Singer approached seven Stanford coaches between 2009 and 2019, but that there was no evidence of additional fraud. According to the University, the athletics department has since implemented a new written policy to clarify that fundraising results will not be used in evaluations of coaching performance, and required all coaches to undergo mandatory training.

Vandemoer’s statements in the documentary also had broader implications for Stanford admissions. During Vandemoer’s first meeting with Singer, he said, Singer suggested then-prospective student Yusi Zhao as a potential sailing recruit, but Vandemoer had already finished his recruiting that year. Singer later offered a $1 million donation, which Vandemoer says he brought to his athletic director. According to Vandemoer, the athletic director told him the deal was “something Stanford could do” but that $1 million wasn’t enough to have an impact on admissions.

“Mr. Vandermoer’s allegation about the Athletic Director and a $1M donation is false,” Miranda told The Daily.

Zhao was ultimately admitted to Stanford after her parents paid Singer $6.5 million to secure her admission to Stanford. In Vandemoer’s telling, Vandemoer had nothing to do with her admission: He says Singer called him months later after Zhao was admitted and donated $500,000 to the sailing program in Zhao’s name even though he “didn’t really do anything.”

After the scandal broke, the University found that her application contained falsified sailing credentials linked to the $500,000 payment and rescinded her admission. 

The University donated the funds received from Singer to “ten college access programs working with marginalized Bay Area communities,” but did not specify which organizations received money. 

Michael Espinosa '22 is majoring in international relations. He's the head of The Daily's social media team, and editor for the University beat and also occasionally writes for sports, arts, and The Grind. He's the biggest Taylor Swift fan at Stanford and the proudest New Yorker you will ever meet. Contact him at mespinosa 'at' Talley is the Vol. 261 Editor in Chief. She is from Sacramento, California, and has previously worked as a two-time news editor and the newsroom development director. Emma has reported with the San Francisco Chronicle with the metro team covering breaking news and K-12 education. She's also obsessed with coffee. Contact her at eic 'at' or etalley 'at'

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