Buried behind the gaudy headlines of the ongoing Department of Justice college admissions fraud case, obscured by the limelight of actresses Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman and the elite colleges like Yale, Georgetown and USC, there lies a very serious concern for America’s most elite pan-sports program. Mark Riddell, the alleged standardized testing middle man at the center of the admissions manipulation scheme, is also the director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy.
Yes, this is the same Mark Riddell who was fingered as the man who attempted to take an ACT test in place of a student by faking his handwriting, completing the college entrance exam in his own hotel room ahead of time. This is the same Mark Riddell who has now been charged with secretly taking SAT and ACT tests for clients of alleged con man William Rick Singer, the mastermind and ring leader behind the admissions manipulation scheme.
Now, the fact that Riddell was providing these clearly illegal (if true) services for private clients as part of Singer’s larger scheme does not in itself mean he was doing the same thing for IMG Academy’s elite student athletes who also needed to achieve minimum test scores to qualify for college programs. But it also is a connection, albeit a very unwelcome one, between IMG and the scandal du jour.
“There needs to be a broad-based re-inspection of every test score they achieved, every course they took and who taught those courses,” Gerald Gurney, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Oklahoma and longtime advocate for reform in college sports, told Yahoo Sports.
“It’s another piece of evidence that college sports is corrupt at its very core. How often do we need to see these scandals arise? That’s the question that I ask. When is America going to wise up and put an end to this nonsense?”
At the same time, IMG didn’t do anything to assuage those doubts in the aftermath of the indictments against Riddell. As noted by Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg, Riddell’s bio on IMG Academy’s website has been deleted (though it can still be recovered as part of a Google cache). That bio noted that Riddell helped student athletes gain admission to Stanford, Duke, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago, among others, while also creating the test preparation program curriculum at IMG Academy.
It would be understandable for IMG to place Riddell on leave in the aftermath of the charges against him, but if that alone was the case, someone from the school should have testified to that when contacted by Eisenberg. Instead, the reporter was funneled to IMG head of communications Johnny Esfeller, who, “did not return a voicemail or email seeking comment.”
Esfeller did connect with us here at USA TODAY, and offered the following official statement from IMG while also providing more color on the situation; in essence, the first time the school had any ideal Riddell was involved in consulting outside IMG was when they were alerted to the cheating scandal along with everyone else.
After learning yesterday of the allegations against Mark Riddell as part of a larger criminal investigation, we suspended Mr. Riddell indefinitely. With the current information at hand, we have no reason to believe this alleged misconduct extends beyond Mr. Riddell, nor do we believe that these actions have any direct relation to Academy students, parents, or staff.
Regardless, and even if IMG bears absolutely no responsibility for Riddell’s actions, the investigation and Riddell’s direct involvement is bad for IMG, and that makes it bad for elite prep sports across the country. When the most uniformly dominant program anywhere in America is connected to the most uniformly heinous scandal in recent recruiting memory, that’s not a good sign for the school or the larger sports culture.