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COLUMN: Authority Figures Must Learn from the Harvard Fencing Scandal

The Building Where It Happens
The Murr Center is home to several Harvard athletic facilities, including tennis and squash courts.
We were so close, guys. USC. Stanford. Hell, even Yale – as if last weekend’s bashing from the batter’s box wasn’t enough. In the midst of the largest admissions bribery firestorm in collegiate history, it seemed like Harvard would emerge from the ashes scot-free, our sole offense being that one of the paid test-takers at the center of the scandal was a Harvard alum. But alas, our innocence was fleeting. Just as the Crimson was ready to saunter away from the quagmire that is Operation Varsity Blues, we were hit with an admissions scandal on our own front piste.

Now, nothing is definitive, and Harvard’s independent review into the allegations is still ongoing – but here’s what we know. In 2016, Crimson fencing coach Peter Brand’s Needham, Mass. home was bought by businessman Jie Zhao for almost $1 million, about $400 thousand over its market value. Zhao’s son, a fencer, was subsequently accepted to Harvard’s Class of 2021, where he proceeded to join the Crimson fencing team. Zhao then sold his newly-acquired home at about a $325K loss, having never lived in it himself.

A sketchy story? Certainly. Definitive proof of bribery? Perhaps.

Regardless of whether or not the real estate irregularity was carried out with malicious intent, the situation points to a much larger systematic concern – the victimization of college students, especially student-athletes. According to The Boston Globe, Zhao’s son had no clue about his father’s home transaction; he was left completely in the dark. Sound familiar? To anyone who’s been keeping up with the Varsity Blues news, it certainly should.

Almost all of the cases being brought forth by federal prosecutors follow the same pattern: a wealthy parent solicited the help of a notorious college counselor, who then, without their child’s knowledge, rigged testing results or bribed coaches to get that high schooler into college. Now, whether these students’ claims of ignorance are true is anyone’s guess – but regardless, they were victimized, their names forever blacklisted because of their parents’ actions. And if you are finding it difficult to feel bad for these wealthy students, keep in mind that because of the wrongdoings of authority figures, the names of these students will always be followed by an asterisk reading parents paid their way into college. These six words will almost certainly overshadow any academic achievement, any victorious fencing bout, any accomplishment that these implicated students achieve.

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And then there’s the athletic side of things – not only does this scandal victimize students, but it speaks to a much larger pattern of coaches’ disregard for their most valuable assets: college athletes. Rick Pitino’s funneling of money from Adidas to his basketball players. The existence of “paper classes” for athletes at UNC. The Rajin’ Cajun’s falsification of its football players’ standardized testing scores. Yes, in all of these cases, student-athletes ended up on the wrong side of the scandal – but it was their coaches, their administrators, and their parents that put them there. This newest fencing controversy is the same story that has been told time and time again, in which a coach or other authority figure, in what are disguised as actions meant to benefit college athletes, end up instead marring students’ names.

Unless steps are taken to hold college coaches to a higher standard, this story is one that is destined to be repeated many more times. In the words of FAS Dean Claudine Gay, “where there are opportunities to clarify practices and strengthen procedures, we must act on them, and do so with a sense of urgency.” Harvard has already announced that its coaches will undergo training on the university’s conflict of interest policy – certainly a step in the right direction, but one that must be followed by a stride ten times as long. It is high time that authority figures, rather than the athletes over whom they wield authority, face the consequences of their actions. Until coaches become the standard bearers for, rather than victimizers of, college athletes, the somber sound of the varsity blues is a harmony that will continue to play on every field, every court, every piste.

— Staff writer James Joyce can be reached at james.joyce@thecrimson.com.

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