Athletics reviewing checks and balances after ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal


At the April Faculty Assembly meeting, Pitt’s faculty athletics representative (FAR) updated members on two main issues the athletics department is monitoring: potential consequences of Pennsylvania’s legalization of sports gambling and the recent college admissions scandal that affected several universities.

Sheila Vélez Martínez, professor of refugee, asylum and immigration law at Pitt Law, started off by explaining the role of a FAR, which is an NCAA-sanctioned liaison between academics and athletics. She said she is “the eyes of the chancellor” and is tasked with keeping an eye on student-athletes’ well-being and academic performance.

Vélez Martínez said she, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke, were attending an ACC council of presidents meeting on March 12 when the national college admissions scam, nicknamed “Varsity Blues,” was first revealed.

Varsity Blues involved a complex web of several college sports coaches, test administrators and wealthy parents who paid big money and allegedly committed fraud or bribery to get their children into elite colleges. Some parents allegedly paid coaches to “recruit” unqualified applicants as elite athletes, thereby securing their admission.

Vélez Martínez assured the assembly that Pitt was in no way involved in this scandal, and that there are several “checks and balances” throughout the admissions process for student-athletes. These involve the athletics department’s Office of Compliance and the Registrar’s Office working together.

Student-athletes fall into three categories, Vélez Martínez said: Highly recruited, high-profile athletes, whose status as an athlete would not be in question; walk-ons, who would enter the University under the regular admission process; and students recruited to non-revenue sports. Particular attention is paid to this last group to make sure no one makes a false claim that they are being recruited to Pitt.

After students are admitted, Vélez Martínez said, they aren’t monitored as heavily. However, she can see whenever students drop a team, and can learn of their reasons why. This can be a potential red flag, she said, as a student dropping a team immediately would raise some concerns.

Legalized sports gambling

Vélez Martínez then switched gears and discussed how Pennsylvania’s support of legalized sports gambling could harm students.

This follows a Supreme Court decision in May 2018 that overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, according to the New York Times. This decision legalized sports gambling in most states, including Pennsylvania.

She said that Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino recently applied for a license to host sports gambling and that “there’s no reason to think it’s not going to include college sports.”

“For me, the main concern is about the student-athletes’ well-being in general, but also of students in general,” she said. “Gambling is addictive, it’s a problem, and you’re making it even more accessible to students. ... Your student can be in your class and gambling on his computer.”

Senate President Chris Bonneau raised concerns with faculty and family potentially using a student-athlete’s disclosure of an injury for betting purposes.

Vélez Martínez said many institutions have rules related to this specific issue. However, Senate Council Secretary Cindy Tananis said Pitt doesn’t yet have a firm policy on this and other topics related to college sports gambling.

She then read a statement on behalf of  Jay Irrgang, co-chair of Athletics and Recreation, who could not attend the meeting. “The athletic department and the University are closely monitoring the state regulations related to sports wagering and attempting to influence regulations to maintain the integrity of intercollegiate athletics.”

Tananis said this topic will continue to be a “moving target” for the committee and the University.

Other topics discussed:

  • Representatives of the Library Committee said the committee is starting to meet again regularly after being dormant for a while. They shared general updates about the University Library system, including its ongoing renovations and guidelines on what types of information from University departments should be archived through the libraries.
  • The Tenure and Academic Freedom committee presented a resolution for Faculty Assembly to endorse Provost Ann Cudd’s request to alter the tenure time clock for School of Medicine faculty. This recommendation calls for a uniform tenure clock of 10 years for School of Medicine faculty regardless of clinical appointments. The resolution passed unanimously.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.