Georgetown University is Washington’s Harvard, and Gordon Ernst had been one of its princes until he plummeted to earth Tuesday, arrested in the college bribery scandal.
It’s the rich and famous garnering the headlines, those who crossed the line from “donations” to outright bribes to guarantee their darlings admission to the top schools, like Felicity Huffman and the white-shoe lawyer at the top of Willkie Farr. But for every multimillionaire in the world of high finance, law, and Hollywood, there had to be someone of comparable status within academia to pull off admission for someone who couldn’t tell a metaphor from a simile on their SATs, or hit a tennis ball that didn’t hit them first, ahead of students who could do both.
Ernst was as unlikely to be that person as the proverbial neighbor who kept to himself and tended his lawn before going on a killing spree. In his tennis whites and with a patrician bearing, the sports legend at Brown University came to Georgetown to build its women’s team (taking it from last place to its first-ever national ranking) and the men’s (coaching it to its first Big East semi-finals win in 2017, its best finish in 25 years).
His reach extended beyond the court. Married into an old Massachusetts family, with two daughters in private school, he lived among those he coached. At the Chevy Chase Club, so hard to get into there is no application for doing so, he wasn’t the resident pro—he was a member, playing and dining among the city’s elite. After the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, one of the first things Michelle Obama did was to invite Ernst to come teach Sasha and Malia how to master topspin. He was quoted calling the first lady’s backhand “big,” and by that he meant “good,” and by that he meant he was close enough to know.
What made Ernst an inviting target was his position in the athletic department. Among the ways a schemer can rig the admissions system, athletic departments at top schools are the easiest to penetrate. A study out of the University of Virginia, conducted by former university presidents, found that an athlete was about 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a non-athlete with the same academic record. No other group —not legacies, not parents endowing buildings or chairs—has that advantage.
Eventually, Georgetown noticed that Ernst was recruiting students who, as one official nicely described it, “didn’t have the tennis abilities to be playing on the team.” He was placed on administrative leave in December 2017 pending an internal investigation into a dozen students he’d recruited with no obvious talent. In February 2018, due to “admission irregularities,” he was “separated.” That didn’t mean he was fired. He held on until resigning in June 2018.
During that time, Ernst went looking for another job at a half dozen prep schools and tennis programs in Washington, where his family continues to live, telling one prospective employer that he was leaving Georgetown because it was non-entrepreneurial and didn’t give tennis the attention it deserved. He found nothing, not because Georgetown alerted anyone to his conduct, but because something’s fishy when a winning coach is willing to give up a college team for a high-school one.
I asked an official at Georgetown if the school couldn’t have stopped the massive scheme two years ago if only they’d revealed what they’d found. An official explained that they were “unaware of any criminal activity by Gordon Ernst that would have warranted notifying the Justice Department or other employers.”
But it was there to see, if it weren’t for white-collar bias that keeps many from registering what’s in plain sight. It’s the same warped view that led Judge T.S. Ellis to call the rotten life Paul Manafort lived “blameless” because he worked from a corner office in a bespoke suit as he enabled murderous dictators like Jonas Savimbi and Vladimir Putin. It’s a board comprised of well-dressed and credentialed former White House officials, bolstered by a well-paid army of lobbyists at Boeing that took American regulators days longer than other countries to ground the 737 Max aircraft.
Ernst wore Nike shirts, not pinstripes, but the collars were white. It’s hard to picture such an all-American guy not hanging up the phone when the mastermind behind the scheme, William Singer, called explaining how easy it would be to photoshop the body of an athlete onto the head of a non-athlete. No one second-guessed Ernst until he’d “recruited” $2.7 million worth of non-players.
Getting into a top college is not a meritocracy, if ever it was. Not that much different from Singer are so-called legitimate consultants who charge a fortune and stop just short of taking the test for their clients.
When merely unfair, the current system is a ruthless game of alumni fundraising gatherings as rivalrous as a banquet on Game of Thrones, the masters of the universe versus other masters of the universe in a cage match over too few spaces at the top of the pyramid. When criminal, it’s millions of dollars laundered through a fake foundation to recruit the unathletic on the grounds they “could be helpful in future support for building the program,” in other words, more donations. Georgetown has a new policy that requires that coaches provide written documentation that students are in fact team players in its non-metaphoric meaning. That’s a start.
Jared Kushner, a mediocre student, got into Harvard after a $2.5 million tax-deductible donation from his father. Admissions aren’t a victimless crime. Like the kid who went to Vietnam in Donald Trump’s place, for every student whose parents cheated his way in, there’s one who should have gotten in but instead had to find a different path.
Ernst had to return home to find a job at the University of Rhode Island, a state where he’d been the golden son of legendary coach Richard Ernst, inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage in 2017 as a “capstone to a lifetime of unimaginable activity, sportsmanship, and dedication to others… a true champion in the game of life.”
What heartbreak it must be for Ernst’s father to know what his son did, and imagine how stricken are the children who learned of the criminal lengths their parents went to in their names, not to save them from failing at the game of life, but from failing them.