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Pear-Shaped, and Stuck with It

The aftershocks of the college admissions scandal keep on shakin’ for former Stanford coach John Vandemoer.

Book cover
John Vandemoer shares his personal account of his involvement in Operation Varsity Blues in his new book, now on sale. Courtesy Harper Collins Publishing

The day after I sat down with John Vandemoer, news broke that one of the other coaches in the college admissions scandal—someone who pocketed money and recruited other coaches to accept bogus athletes for cash on the barrel—now has a deal allowing him to pay a fine and avoid prosecution. That came down in October, 2021, and it ran counter to everything Vandemoer had been dragged into when he agreed early to plead guilty to a felony, even though he did not feel like a felon.

Vandemoer stands alone as the only coach named in the scandal who took no personal profit. At every turn, he’s encountered Catch 22a, Catch22b, and Catch22z. He screwed up, and he tells everyone that. What is misconstrued, he says, is the way that fits into the American system of striving for excellence.

Vandemoer entered a guilty plea upon advice of counsel. The attorneys said that to contest the charges painting him with the same brush as others would take years, drag his family into greater misery, ruin him with debt, and leave his reputation soiled even if he eventually won the case. Better to take a licking and get it over with. I sat down with a man who is stung to be labeled a felon—but to see someone who actually advanced the scheme get off lighter than he did? I asked as soon as I heard the news:

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“My first reaction was pure anger. From what I think I understand, if you break the law to such a degree that you can offer up other people, you get off with a fine.”

These are John Vandemoer’s words, and I don’t propose to fully tell his story here. It can be found in many corners of the mediaverse in varying stages of depth and accuracy and in his own book, Rigged Justice. Nor do I write as arbiter or judge. I have no reason not to accept his report that he believed the several student resumes presented to him by a con man were accurate and that contributions he passed along to a welcoming Stanford athletic department were appropriate. (“I thought I was doing my job.”)

His under-funded team got new boats and equipment—there’s the problem—and those were the envy of other teams in the region, but he placed no unqualified students in the halls of his former employer and is bitter at finding himself lumped in with the pay-to-play sleaze that makes for splashy headlines. He knows better now about those donations and is guilt-ridden for what he brought upon himself, his family and friends, Stanford Sailing and the student sailors who had been, for 11 years, the lodestar of his life. We spoke for an hour and change in his second-floor office at Water Solutions—a company that develops potable water systems—a stone’s throw from the snug harbor of Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco.

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He never imagined finding himself here in this office space, even in the long ago when he took a degree in geology, and this was not your ordinary sports interview, and I don’t think this can be like other columns I’ve written in the 46 years I’ve been doing this. No. There were times in reading Rigged Justice that I felt my entire body constricting, breath shallowing, walls closing in. How to say this? What Vandemoer did was obviously not smart—he should have been skeptical of the motives of that “generous” recruiter-turned-donor, Rick Singer; he should have paid close attention instead of saying “yeah, yeah, yeah” while walking with his phone—so I’m going to call stupid on that. But Vandemoer is not a stupid man. Now picture some stupid thing you did completely upending your life.

It matters to Vandemoer that Singer seemed to have his own access to the secured building that housed the athletics department and must have had friends on the inside (his report). The two of us had a free-ranging conversation, always circling back to the center: “I lost it all in one day, my job, my career, my reputation.” He wasn’t so much speaking from the heart as speaking from the gut: “I started writing the book for my kids, my family, my friends because they deserve to hear the story from me, not through the filter of CNN. Eventually, though, I was writing it for me, to process the pain. I’d get up every morning at 5 a.m. and walk the beach with headphones on, crying my way through the next scene, asking how could I have let this happen. The hardest part was calling things back into memory, but it was the only way forward.”

I asked, what do people get wrong?

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“The government said that I was getting students in, but no coach gets students admitted to Stanford,” Vandemoer says. “The admissions department does that. Coaches put forth students they want to support, and the government keyed on my 80-percent acceptance rate—they said that was suspicious—but those students had already passed admissions. They were qualified before I put them forward. Out of that comes the misperception that Stanford sailors might have lower academic standards than the student body, but that could not be farther from the truth. I get it that there were students at other schools who would not have been accepted on merit, but that was never the case at Stanford. This is key. I decided to plea because my attorneys said that in the government’s case I would be thrown in and tried along with all these coaches from other schools with different systems and lower standards. Somehow the legal process would have to find me different, and good luck with that.

“What’s left out of the story is the student athlete,” Vandemoer says. “They took damage, and it was wholly unfair that other students at Stanford treated the sailors badly, as if they weren’t ‘real’ students. They went through hell.”

Imagine—30,000 Google hits on your bad name … a prize recruit saying she’s been advised to remove Stanford Sailing from her resume … listening to an ambitious prosecutor serve the judge a version of events quoted from the con man who sucked you in, now angling for a break … reading that version of events repeated in the press and hearing it on TV … the relief of hearing the judge shut down the prosecutor’s overreach … finding yourself convicted anyway … going to a regatta with an ankle bracelet brazenly showing under your shorts … knowing the teens around you are Instagramming photos … wearing a white tan line when the bracelet finally comes off … knowing that, as the first-charged, you are a tasty target for the press and a figure in every recap, even as the truly slimy actors are dragged onto the stage … slowly absorbing—deep down—how a coach at a private university that accepts federal funds can become a federal employee subject to racketeering laws written to take down mobsters … being asked by Stanford Trustees—after the fact—if coaches should receive training around accepting donations … being unable to stop obsessing over your former sailing team’s results, and then . . . spilling all of this to a journo looking for a pithy bottom line.

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There is no right way to end this. Pick a four-letter word. That’s all I’ve got.

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